150 Years Later, The Emancipation Proclamation Still Inspires

A copy of the Emancipation Proclamation

January 1st was the 150th anniversary of an event that would change the course of U.S. history – and the lives of millions of Americans.

On that date, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a document that contained these words:  “On the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free …”

The document has come to be known as the Emancipation Proclamation.

And while it actually didn’t free any slaves at all – at least not directly – it led to the full abolition of slavery after the end of the war.

“It was a first, important step in paving the way,” said Reginald Washington of the National Archives in Washington, DC, in an interview with the Associated Press.

In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the Confederate States – the Southern states that had left the United States at the start of the war.

Therefore, at the time the proclamation was issued, President Lincoln actually had no power to enforce it.

But when many slaves heard about the proclamation, they freed themselves.

“Thousands of African-Americans left plantations,” said historian Annette Gordon-Reed, in an interview with PBS.  “The proclamation gave them hope that … all of their hopes were going to be realized.

Some former slaves headed north — to states where they would be treated as free people.

Others joined the Union Army, fighting alongside white troops and working to reunite the country.

“They voted with their feet, so to speak,” Gordon-Reed said, “to say that this was going to be a new day.”

The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to slave-holding states that did not join the Confederacy.

Therefore, it did not free the slaves in Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and parts of Virginia.

Those slaves would not be officially freed until the 13th Amendment was added to the United States Constitution in late 1865.

By then, President Lincoln was dead – killed by assassin John Wilkes Booth.

But Lincoln’s words live on.

And they helped create the nation where we live today.

“With a stroke of Lincoln’s pen, a war to preserve the union had overnight become a war of human liberation,” archivist Washington told the Associated Press.

Had it not been for the Emancipation Proclamation — and the other changes that came about after it — many of us might still be enslaved today.