The National Archives offers unique online access to the original five-page handwritten version of the Emancipation Proclamation along with several helpful tools well-designed for classroom use. However, a transcript of the document can be found below with study questions interjected in bold between each key section. You can also check out the short videotaped lecture on the proclamation posted here and prepared by Matthew Pinsker of Dickinson College for the Gilder Lehrman Institute in August 2012, which covers many of the same points.
By the President of the United States of America:
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
“That 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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.
“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”
Why does Lincoln open the January 1, 1863 proclamation by quoting so extensively from his September 22, 1862 order? Lincoln actually read the first draft of this executive order privately to his Cabinet back on July 22, 1862. Good students should be able to compare and contrast all three versions of the emancipation proclamation, noting especially how and why the document changed during that critical six-month period.
Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:
Before considering the list of places exempt from the proclamation, students should discuss the tone of the sentence above and ask why Lincoln, who was ordinarily so modest and almost folksy, decided to project his decision in such a commanding, almost regal, voice.
Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.
Why are the states and places above exempt from this military order? In particular, students should try to explain what legal or constitutional reasons might have compelled Lincoln to exclude them. It is also important to ask what the president meant by writing that those areas were to be “left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.” Was slavery really untouched in the exempted areas, such as in West Virginia, or in Union-occupied areas of Louisiana and Virginia?
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
The sentence above is the actual emancipation order. Compare this final version of the sentence to the first draft of the order as Lincoln had provided it to his Cabinet on July 22, 1862. What has changed? What word is now missing from the critical sentence? What provisions has Lincoln added?
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages. And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
This section above represents the first time in American history that a president actually communicated in writing to former slaves, and by doing so, President Lincoln was essentially defining freedom for them. What is freedom as Lincoln defined it here? How would you define freedom today? Why might our definitions of this term appear different than they did during the Civil War era?
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
Lincoln did not actually draft this last sentence. Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase suggested it to the president in late December, after consultation with Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, as a useful addition to an otherwise somber military order. What is striking about the tone, word choice, and meaning of this concluding statement?
In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.
By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.