On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a document that put the Confederacy on notice of his intention to free their slaves. They had until January 1, he said, to lay down their arms; after that, any slave within a rebelling state would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Although he didn’t make a point of it, his proclamation — both this preliminary one, and the official one he made at the first of the new year, when the deadline arrived — did not free all slaves; those living in border states, for example, would remain enslaved. Nor did Lincoln have, of course, any way to actually enforce a liberated slave’s freedom; other than promising to no longer aid in the capture of fleeing slaves, his promised emancipation relied entirely on the Union eventually winning the war.
But continuing to fight was exactly what Lincoln hoped to avoid with his announcement. The preliminary document emphasized his wish for the reunification of the United States; as such, he hoped to pay slave owners some kind of restitution for their voluntary adoption of either an immediate or a gradual abolishment of slavery. Any state that had seceded had 100 days to accept Lincoln’s offer — to give up slavery in return for monetary compensation. None had any interest in his proposed compromise, and so, as promised, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1.
The official executive order carried a huge philosophical and moral weight, confirming that the war was and had been one that centered on freedom, and is considered perhaps the most important milestone in the struggle to end American slavery. But the political maneuvering in that preliminary document did not go unnoticed or unremarked. Its other signer was Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, who complained, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”