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The Emancipation of Slaves
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Politics
The Emancipation of Slaves
What is emancipation? Slavery was the act of one person owning another. When an owner set free his own slave, the act was known as manumission. Emancipation referred to the act of freeing slaves by a third party, a legal entity other than the owner. Emancipation and abolition are not interchangeable words. Abolition refers to the act of making slavery illegal. For example, many northern states abolished slavery but did not emancipate existing slaves.
Prior to 1760, most anti-slavery sentiment in the United States was disorganized. The Quakers became the first large group to openly object to slavery. In 1777 the state of Vermont banned slavery within the state, but allowed for gradual emancipation of slaves.
Although the word slave does not appear in the U. S. Constitution, the concept was a source of hot debate and many compromises. It is referred to in Article I, Article IV and Article V, defining representation and taxes, a rudimentary Fugitive Slave Law, and disallowing amendments to change the Constitution's pro-slavery wording before 1808. While many northern representatives were already against slavery, they accepted the document as written because the United States was rapidly moving toward anarchy under the Articles of Confederation.
Among slavery's staunchest supporters at the Constitutional Convention were John Rutledge of South Carolina and George Mason of Virginia. They fought to have the "Three Fifths" Rule embodied in the Constitution. This rule regards the apportionment of taxes and representation in the House of Representatives.
In the industrialized North, anti-slavery laws were being proposed and slowly were gaining acceptance in the state houses. When the constitutional ban on the importation of slaves began on January 1, 1808, most of the northern states outlawed new slaves but existing slaves could be held. In fact, by the start of the Civil War, slaves still existed in every state of the Union.
Early emancipation movements favored the concept of either gradual emancipation or compensated emancipation. Gradual emancipation was a wide-ranging term, but most commonly applied as current slaves would continue in servitude, but children born after a certain date would be free. Compensated emancipation had the government, in essence, buying slaves from slaveholders. The concept of immediate emancipation was set forth by William Lloyd Garrison in the Liberator. This called for the immediate freeing of the slaves with no compensation.
By the Election of 1856 the abolitionist Republican Party came close to taking the presidency, in spite of the fact that their candidate, John C. Fremont, did not appear on the ballots in southern states. James Buchanan was elected as a minority president. The Republican Party's abolitionist stance included the emancipation of existing slaves, unlike the earlier abolition stance of the northern states.
After the South seceded, Congress tried to lure them back into the United States with a proposed 13th amendment allowing states to have "domestic institutions" that could not be overruled by law. Had it been ratified, this could have seriously set back the cause of emancipation of slaves.
By July, 1862, emancipation was on every Republican mind. Lincoln had been working for weeks on a document he called the Emancipation Proclamation while Congress was hammering out the Second Confiscation Act. On July 12 Lincoln wrote a letter to the Congressmen of the border states, telling them of a plan to gradually emancipate the slaves. The Congress was nearing adjournment and Lincoln did not want these men to find out about his Emancipation Proclamation in the newspapers.
On the next day, Lincoln read his Emancipation Proclamation to two loyal abolitionists, William Seward and Gideon Welles. Seward began outlining what he saw as problems with the proposal. On July 17, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, which emancipated the slaves of anyone working in support of the Southern government, including the military. On July 22, Lincoln read his Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. This called for universal emancipation in any territory still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, but did not free slaves in territory taken by the United States prior to that date.
Lincoln used his powers as commander-in-chief to justify the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, but most legal scholars agree that the President exceeded his authority under the Constitution. Slavery was legal in the United States until the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which made the practice illegal except as a form of punishment.
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The Emancipation of Slaves was last changed on - January 2, 2008
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