(Apologies in advance: not being American, while I've read up somewhat about the military aspects of the Civil War, I am somewhat unclear as to its political dimension.)

Lincoln did not declare the slaves free until 1863, despite his personal beliefs.

Did he wait because he was not sure of the political support in the North for accepting Abolition as a war aim, along with stopping Secession? Or did he wait to preserve the possibility of negotiations with the Confederacy? If it was the second reason, is there any indication of what he was willing to compromise on? If the first, what changed?

Yes, I've seen What is the context of Lincoln saying: "if I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it" but it doesn't tell me why he waited and what got him to commit to abolition.

  • 31
    Lincoln didn't actually have the power to free slaves. Basically, what he did was declare any slaves in the states in rebellion, as with other property, spoils of war (booty), thus declaring ownership of those slaves for the federal government, and then they could be freed. That did nothing for the slaves that were in the states not in rebellion. It took an amendment to the Constitution to actually end slavery, and that didn't happen until after the war.
    – Ron Maupin
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 7:59
  • 3
    The movie Lincoln is worth watching. In it, President Lincoln admits that the Emancipation Proclamation was based on tortured logic that would never stand up to judicial review, and was mostly only good as a symbolic gesture to throw a wrench in the gears of the Confederacy, which is why they needed a Constitutional amendment to actually free the slaves and make it work. Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:10
  • 3
    @RonMaupin: That should be an answer.
    – user2848
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:13
  • 1
    @BenCrowell, it doesn't directly answer the question about the timing, which is why I put it as a comment. I thought it was good auxiliary information, but the question is actually different.
    – Ron Maupin
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 17:28
  • 10
    @MasonWheeler: That's a great movie, but it's not completely historically accurate. The fact that the "President Lincoln" character "admits" something in that movie does not necessarily mean that the real President Lincoln admitted it, or would have admitted it, or believed it.
    – ruakh
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 0:49

5 Answers 5


@Peter Diehr's answer is a good one and I've upvoted it - but I'd like to expand on that, remembering that Lincoln was a very good strategist.

First, The Civil War was about slavery, and the South's (correct) understanding was that the North was growing faster than it was and free states would sooner or later substantially outnumber slave states. (Some of the nominally slave states allowed slavery, but were not economically dependent on it as were the Deep South states. Sentiment for abolition was growing in those states, also. Slavery was doomed under the Union.)

If the South did nothing, they lost in maybe twenty years when the North would have the political power to abolish slavery. They had to secede when they did.

Lincoln, on the other hand, had history on his side. If he could hold the Union together, then slavery was doomed. Until the war was beyond settlement, his best bet to abolish slavery was to try to keep the Union together. So in the early days he insisted his only purpose was to hold the Union together.

Secondly, the Union included several border states which allowed slavery, but where it wasn't the bedrock of the economy. To have a decent chance of winning the war militarily, the North had to hold on to those states. So even the Emancipation Proclamation didn't free the slaves in Union states! Key point: For the Emancipation Proclamation to have effect anywhere it needed to not push the slave states still in the Union into rebellion. So it had to exempt them.

And then thirdly, as Peter says, once Lincoln had a strong Union victory he could start pushing explicitly on ending slavery. Once the North (and foreign countries, especially Great Britain) saw that the Union would end slavery and had to power to do it its moral authority was immeasurably strengthened which sped the end of the war.

  • 3
    "The Civil War was about slavery". You should edit this to note that it was not the only reason. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 22:34
  • 2
    When I asked my question about this many people seemed to agree that the reason for the proclamation was to turn the war from a war of secession to a moral war about slavery, effectively ending the chance of the Confederacy to receive help from say France or Great Britain. I don't know what to make of the fact that many people say Lincoln was waging a moral crusade against slavery. He mentioned in his inaugural address just before the civil war that he had no intention to interfere with the practice or slavery, and admitted he didn't have the power to.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 5:19
  • 14
    @Infiltrator I think it's in his book Terrible Swift Sword that Bruce Catton quotes both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis as having publicly said, in the first year of the war, various things which amounted to: "This war is not being fought over ending (or preserving) slavery." Catton then makes it clear he doesn't quite believe either of them; that was something they were saying for political effect. Without slavery, there wouldn't have been a Civil War at all, and the ramifications of that issue strongly affected everything else that was going on in 1861.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 9:38
  • 4
    @Zebrafish Lincoln wasn't going to end slavery, he was going to weaken it, and set up the next president to weaken it further, and the next... The south saw the march of history away from slavery, and they decided to cut and run rather than see it weaken another iota. Succession was explicitly about slavery. The civil war was about preserving the union: Lincoln would take a union where slavery survived another 5, 10, 20, 30 years over a civil war. But such a union would almost certainly lead to the end of slavery, eventually, or at least both Lincoln and the slave states believed.
    – Yakk
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 15:36
  • Slavery was a great evil, but so is civil war. No decent person would deliberately choose either if a strategy was available that might end one without triggering the other. Even if it requires fibbing.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 22:13

Lincoln waited until there was a great union victory; the early losses, and the poor showing of the Union generals did not give him a very firm place to stand and make promises.

Antietam was the victory he was waiting for, and a preliminary declaration was issued at that time.

See this History channel article on the Emancipation Proclamation for further details and analysis.

  • 3
    True enough (+1) but one could quibble that Antietam wasn't a "great union victory" since it was tactically a draw in which McClellan failed to destroy Lee's army despite having a dominant position. Still, a draw which left you in a strategically better position was at least a partial victory after a long run of failure. Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 14:13
  • 4
    @JohnColeman - In tactical lingo, the "Victor" of an engagement is the force that holds the field at the end. You could quibble with the "great" part I suppose, but Antietam was objectively a Union victory. (To be fair, The Antietam WP page currently has this wrong in exactly the way you suggest).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 15:34
  • 2
    To give more data: if you look at the battles fought in 1862 with the goal of finding a decent union victory preceding Antietam, they are hard to find. The best candidates are Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Pea Ridge. The battles in the east were better covered by the press, and were all fiascos for the Union., except for one: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Elizabeth_City Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 19:11
  • 5
    Also obviously Lincoln knew Antietam wasn't that great a victory, because he got rid of McClellan (who couldn't wipe out Lee in spite of having the intel for all his movements literally handed to him) as soon as he could. it was the best thing at hand, and he didn't know how long he'd have to wait til the next one. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 19:19
  • 4
    The Emancipation Proclamation was to a large extent PR, making it politically impossible for Britain or France to ally with the Confederacy. Given that, Antietam had to be something that could be described as a victory. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 16:00

Because, as Lincoln stated, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery".

Initially, North expected short victorious war and quick reunification. If this would happened, slavery would be intact. After full year of struggle it became clear that the war is not going to be short, and became questionable if it is going to be victorious.

Lincoln issued Emancipation Proclamation when it became obvious that freeing slaves in rebellion states would help save the Union, and without this action the war could be lost.

Consider following:

  1. Before Lincoln's inauguration, Congress passed constitutional amendment that would shield slavery from the constitutional amendment process and from abolition or interference by Congress (Corwin Amendment). This was attempt to end secession peacefully; Lincoln publicly supported this proposed amendment. It was ratified by few states but did not get required three fourths states to make to Constitution.

  2. As a president, Lincoln did not have an authority to end slavery (to change the Constitution). However, as a commander in chief, during the war he could order to deprive the rebels from their property of military use. On September 22, 1862 Lincoln announced that all slaves in territory that was still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, would be free. So it was up to southern states to stop fighting and save their slaves, or continue straggle and risk losing slaves if they loose the war.

  3. For Lincoln, ending slavery was another "struggle", which he tried to win (unsuccessfully) by persuasion. He offered compensation to slave states still in Union to end the slavery within these states; they rejected his offer. Before the end of the war Congress passed 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, and these states lost all slaves without any compensation.

BTW, on February 1865, couple of month before Confederacy collapsed, Lincoln offered Confederacy compensation for lost slaves if they agree to stop fighting and return to the Union. Jefferson Davis rejected this proposal, causing thousands unnecessary casualties, humiliating military defeat, and much more painful longer reunification.

  • exactly. freeing the slaves was a military tactical move, designed to help the north win the war. Commented May 10, 2019 at 19:45

While there were plenty of altruistic abolitionists who hated slavery purely on its in-humanity, much of the political drive ($$$) for the war was driven by the fear of the northern factory owners.

Like almost every war, the United States Civil War was not primarily about ideology, it was about economics. The northern, industrialized states were concerned that after several labor saving devices (i.e. cotton gin, steam engine) that the South's excess labor pool and the increasing industrialization of the south would threaten their near monopoly on manufacture. Imagine just one point, cotton; if the south had the raw materials (cotton) and the ability to use slave labor to manufacture the cotton cloth and even cotton clothing. That would put a big dent in the northern factory owners earning stream.

Lincoln's timing for the emancipation proclamation was purely based on the failure of diplomacy to end the war before major conflict (Antietam). It served largely propaganda purposes.

  • 1
    Something I want to add to this is that it was pretty clear that slavery was less efficient by the time the civil war was happening. Had the civil war just not happened, slave states would have lost their economic power because the system just couldn't keep up with compete forms of labor. Putting the slaves to work in factories probably wouldn't have helped too much because slaves are just less efficient than paid workers; slaves don't want to be at work so they drag their feet.
    – user27660
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 16:40
  • 1
    This is why the south didn't produce perishable products in their plantations. Slaves would have taken too long to harvest it and most of it would have spoiled in the fields.
    – user27660
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 16:40
  • 2
    More people need to look at economics to understand the civil war. It's not a simple moral matter. Freeing the slaves too early honestly would have just crashed the economy and caused a war anyway. That's why southern reconstructions was so important. Too bad Lincoln got killed at the play.
    – user27660
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 16:40
  • For cotton states slave owners raw cotton production was far more profitable than anything else, and it was huge growing demand for raw cotton, domestically and abroad (it constituted vast majority of US export). It is why these cotton states were not producing enough goods for their own needs, and was buying manufacture goods from New England, mules from Kentucky, food from Midwest, slaves from Virginia. And it is why northerners manufacturers were not concerned about South's excess labor pool but mostly about flow of raw cotton supply from South Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 0:10

Why did Lincoln wait to issue the Declaration of Emancipation?

(Apologies in advance: not being American, while I've read up somewhat about the military aspects of the Civil War, I am somewhat unclear as to its political dimension.)

Lincoln did not declare the slaves free until 1863, despite his personal beliefs.

Did he wait because he was not sure of the political support in the North for accepting Abolition as a war aim, along with stopping Secession? Or did he wait to preserve the possibility of negotiations with the Confederacy? If it was the second reason, is there any indication of what he was willing to compromise on? If the first, what changed?

In the United States the most reliable way to end slavery was a constitutional amendment. This takes the most political consensus (2/3rds of the house and Senate and then 3/4th of the states) and is thus the most difficult to implement and reverse.

The Thirteenth amendment was first introduced Dec 1863, and failed to pass in the house on the first vote June 15, 1864 by 13 votes. Lincoln organized a pretty masterful political offensive involving government jobs for outgoing congressmen in a lame duck congress in order to finally pass the amendment through the House which was the most difficult stage of the process. Still it took years and right up until the final vote in congress, passing it was not a forgone conclusion. Lincoln passed the first part of these hurdles during the Civil war( Apr 12, 1861 - Apr 9, 1865) with the ratification of of the 13th Amendment by the senate(April 8, 1864) followed by the house 9 months latter (January 31, 1865). Ratification by 3/4ths of individual states after the war could be relied upon as the Southern secessionist governments would be controlled by the Union during reconstruction. As predicted the states achieved the 3/4th's majority to ratify it after the end of the War, Dec 6, 1865.

Short Answer
The Emancipation proclamation wasn't about freeing the slaves. At it's best it was temporary war time fiat which only affected the slaves in the secessionist states outside of the Unions control. The evening before Lincoln signed the Proclamation Robert E Lee and his entire army were in Northern Territory, The Union Armies having been repulsed by Lee from Virginia earlier that year.

The Emancipation proclamation was a political vehicle, as was the timing. Lincoln was looking to redefine the war. He had previously defined the war as a war to preserve the Union, now Lincoln would telegraph ending slavery as a major war goal. Through this redefinition Lincoln hoped to block Britain and France from getting involved. These countries who were considering recognizing the confederacy (Britain and France) were popularly against slavery. By making the American Civil War about slavery Lincoln targeted these European nations making recognition of the south politically untenable for them domestically.

Detailed Answer:
So Lincoln knew he needed a constitutional Amendment to end slavery in a meaningful way. Why did he sign the Presidential order the Emancipation Proclamation in Jan 1, 1863, knowing the next President could simply repeal Lincolns order? Or after the war the supreme court could nullify his war powers act and rule his proclamation unconstitutional. In the absence of a change to the Constitution, any act taken by President Lincoln would not survive much beyond his presidency.

Lincoln did it to preserve the union. Simple put the American Civil war was fought on many fronts. Economic, Political, Military, and Diplomatic. It was the diplomatic war which needed Lincoln's action on Jan of 1863. Britain and France were threatening to enter the war on behalf of the Confederate States. Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation to reframe the war from one about preserving the Union, into a war to end slavery. That's what the emancipation proclamation did. It announced that ending slavery would be a major goal of the Union in the War. Lincoln knew if the war was framed as one against slavery it would make Britain and France's intervention untenable giving both countries had already abolished slavery Britain(Slavery Abolition Act in 1833) and France (Louis X abolished slavery in 1315, although slavery continued in French Colonies until 1848).

The timing was dictated by politics, and as previous answers said more precisely by a Union victory at Battle of Antietam. Technically Antietam wasn't a victory for the Union it was a stalemate. But after months and months of seeing his armies retreating from the gates of Richmond, seeing Lee retreat from Maryland back into Virginia was represented in the Northern Newspapers as a victory. So Lincoln used that "victory" to roll out his diplomatic offensive against Britain and French intervention.

Emancipation Proclamation
As Lincoln had hoped, the Proclamation turned foreign popular opinion in favor of the Union by gaining the support of anti-slavery countries and countries that had already abolished slavery (especially the developed countries in Europe such as Great Britain or France). This shift ended the Confederacy's hopes of gaining official recognition.[99]

Since the Emancipation Proclamation made the eradication of slavery an explicit Union war goal, it linked support for the South to support for slavery. Public opinion in Britain would not tolerate direct support for slavery. British companies, however, continued to build and operate blockade runners for the South. As Henry Adams noted, "The Emancipation Proclamation has done more for us than all our former victories and all our diplomacy." In Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi hailed Lincoln as "the heir of the aspirations of John Brown". On August 6, 1863, Garibaldi wrote to Lincoln: "Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure".[100]

Mayor Abel Haywood, a representative for workers from Manchester, England, wrote to Lincoln saying, "We joyfully honor you for many decisive steps toward practically exemplifying your belief in the words of your great founders: 'All men are created free and equal.'"[101] The Emancipation Proclamation served to ease tensions with Europe over the North's conduct of the war, and combined with the recent failed Southern offensive at Antietam, to cut off any practical chance for the Confederacy to receive British support in the war.



Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.