The Emancipation Proclamation - American Civil War for Kids Illustration

American Civil War Emancipation Proclamation

For Kids: The Civil War started in 1861. It was fought over states rights. One of the rights the Southern states wanted was the right to own slaves. At the time, laws enacted by the US Congress designated some states "free states" (slaves were free) and some states "slave states" (slaves were not free.)  The Southern states did not believe it was the Federal government's right to dictate to the states, which states could or could not own slaves. That was a State right, and the Federal Government should stay out of it.

Arguments raged in Congress over the question of slavery. Some men wanted to free all slaves, and some wanted slavery to continue. No one was especially happy with the compromise of some free states and some slaves states as dictated by Congress in the hopes of quieting these arguments. They argued and argued and could not settle this question. The Southern states decided to leave the Union and form their own country. It was a big step. They knew it, but they were tired of arguing. There was nothing in the Constitution at that time to stop them. They elected Jefferson Davis the new president of their new country. They named their country the Confederate States of America. They elected their own Congress. They wrote their own constitution. Their Confederate Constitution clearly stated how slaves and slavery would be handled and legislated. As far as the South was concerned, that was the end of it.

Lincoln disagreed. President Lincoln believed that if the Union, the United States, was broken up into pieces, even big pieces, that each piece would be weakened, leaving themselves open to foreign aggression. Shots were fired at Fort Sumter. The War of Northern Aggression, also known as the Civil War, began. It was a terrible war. Both sides were convinced they were right. In the South, they were fighting for their way of life. The Civil War continued for four long, bloody years.

Two years into the war, in 1863, Lincoln had an idea he thought might help end the war. Lincoln wrote his famous Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. His Proclamation did not legally free a single slave. It only freed slaves where the Confederate States of America were in control. History suggests that Lincoln was no fan of slavery. But Lincoln did not write the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves. He wrote it to cause havoc and confusion in the South.

Lincoln was disappointed that he did not get enough support for his idea to pass into law from the US Congress. His staff believed the Proclamation was too confusing. The first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation were full of heretofore and vague and confusing language. In the minds of some of Lincoln's staff, this proclamation was a most important document, a momentous document. This new law should be clearly stated. They were not alone. Lincoln had received letters and petitions from various groups in the North asking him to free the slaves.

Lincoln pointed out in discussions with various Union government and military leaders that there were 50,000 bayonets from the border slave states who were loyal to the Union. The Union forces could not afford to lose these fighting men over the question of slavery. He pointed out that his Proclamation would cause havoc in the South while preserving slavery in the border states. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was not designed to give all African American men the same rights of citizenship as white men, but rather to help the North win the war.

Lincoln believed:

  1. The Confederacy was benefitting from slaves at home who produced goods and took care of the farms and plantations, while the men were off fighting. It was Lincoln's hope that slaves under Confederate control would hear they were freed and rebel. 
  2. Lincoln was quite sure his Proclamation would dash any hope the Confederacy might have of foreign support of monies or supplies. Once slavery was stated as a central issue of the war, England and France would not support the South's desire to continue slavery.
  3. The Emancipation Proclamation allowed African American soldiers to fight for the Union.  

Rather than send his Proclamation to the US Congress for a vote, he used the broad range of powers the Constitution gives presidents in times of national emergency or war. Lincoln placed his Emancipation Proclamation directly into law in 1863. That law stated that slaves were freed in areas not controlled by the Union. Slaves in the border states - Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri - were NOT freed. Slaves in New Orleans, northern Virginia, much of Tennessee, the South Carolina coast, and in other areas of the South under Union control, through battles, were NOT freed. Slaves were only freed in areas over which the Union had no control.

Leaders in the Southern states ignored his Proclamation, as Lincoln knew they would. They felt no obligation to the Union. They were at war. They had set up their own country. Jefferson Davis was their president, not Lincoln. To them, Lincoln was the enemy. Still, when slaves in the South heard about the Proclamation, many believed themselves to be freed. That belief caused panic and confusion in the South, just as Lincoln had hoped.

Two years later, in December 1865, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, was passed by the US Congress, legally abolished slavery in the United States, all of the United States. The war was over. The North had won.

What came next? Reconstruction

Background for Kids: Slavery in America

For Teachers

Free American Civil War Lesson Plans and Classroom Activities, Simulations, Role Play, Maps