Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Emancipation Proclamation: Freedom's First Steps

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The Lesson



Image of slave in chains, pleading for mercy

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."

Abraham Lincoln, The Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1, 1863

While the Civil War began as a war to restore the Union, not to end slavery, by 1862 President Abraham Lincoln came to believe that he could save the Union only by broadening the goals of the war. The Emancipation Proclamation is generally regarded as marking this sharp change in the goals of Lincoln's war policy. Under his authority as the Commander in Chief, President Lincoln proclaimed the emancipation, or freeing, of the enslaved African Americans living in the states of the Confederacy which were in rebellion.

The Proclamation was, in the words of Frederick Douglass, "the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thralldom of the ages." Through examination of the original document, related writings of Lincoln as well as little known first person accounts of African Americans during the war, students can return to this "first step" and explore the obstacles and alternatives we faced in making the journey toward "a more perfect Union."

Guiding Questions

  • Why and how did President Abraham Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation ?
  • What was its impact on the course of the war?


Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, students will be able to

  • Evaluate the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation and its intended effect on the waging of the Civil War
  • Trace the stages that led to Lincoln's formulation of this policy
  • Explore African American opinion on the Proclamation
  • Document the multifaceted significance of the Emancipation Proclamation within the context of the Civil War era


President Abraham Lincoln and the Northern States entered the Civil War to preserve the Union rather than to free the slaves, but within a relatively short time emancipation became a necessary war aim. Yet neither Congress nor the president knew exactly what constitutional powers they had in this area; according to the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roger Brooks Taney, they had none. Lincoln believed that the Constitution gave the Union whatever powers it needed to preserve itself, and that he, as commander-in-chief in a time of war, had the authority to use those powers.

Between March and July of 1862, Lincoln advocated compensated emancipation of slaves living in the "border states", i.e., slave states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri which remained loyal to the Union. He also endorsed colonization of freed slaves to foreign lands. But by July 1862, the Union war efforts in Virginia were going badly and pressure was growing to remove the Union commander, General George B. McClellan. Mr. Lincoln decided that emancipation of slaves in areas in rebellion was militarily necessary to put an end to secession and was constitutionally justified by his powers as commander in chief.

Members of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet gathered at the White House on July 22, 1862, to hear the president read his draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Written by Lincoln alone, without consultation from his cabinet, the proclamation declared that all persons held as slaves in states that were still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever, free."

In September 22 1862, after the Union's victory at Antietam, Lincoln met with his cabinet to refine his July draft and announce what is now known as the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. In this document, he issued an ultimatum to the seceded states: Return to the Union by New Year's Day or freedom will be extended to all slaves within your borders.

The decree also left room for a plan of compensated emancipation. No Confederate states took the offer, and on January 1 Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation. At one stroke, Lincoln declared that over 3 million African American slaves "henceforward shall be free," that the "military and naval authorities" would now "recognize and maintain" that freedom, and that these newly freed slaves would "be received into the armed service of the United States" in order to make war on their former masters. This allowed black soldiers to fight for the Union -- soldiers that were desperately needed. It also tied the issue of slavery directly to the war. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

It is important to remember that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all slaves in the United States. Rather, it declared free only those slaves living in states not under Union control. William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, commented, "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." Lincoln was fully aware of the irony, but he did not want to antagonize the "border states" by setting their slaves free.

Intended both as a war and propaganda measure, the Emancipation Proclamation initially had far more symbolic than real impact, because the federal government had no means to enforce it at the time. But the document clearly and irrevocably notified the South and the world that the war was being fought not just to preserve the Union, but to put an end to the "peculiar institution." Eventually, as Union armies occupied more and more southern territory, the Proclamation turned into reality, as thousands of slaves were set free by the advancing federal troops.

The proclamation set a national course toward the final abolition of slavery in the United States. No one appreciated better than Lincoln that to make good on the Emancipation Proclamation was dependent on a Union victory. No one was more anxious than Lincoln to take the necessary additional steps to bring about actual freedom. Thus, he proposed that the Republican Party include in its 1864 platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment. The passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on December 18, 1865 declared slavery illegal in every part of the newly restored Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation was, in the words of Professor Allen Guelzo, "the single most far-reaching, even revolutionary, act of any American president." Lincoln rated the Proclamation as the greatest of his accomplishments: "It is the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century."

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • The PDF contains an excerpted version of the document used in Activity 2, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Students can access the websites used in this lesson and some of the activities via the Student LaunchPads for Activities 1, 2, and 3. Bookmark the LaunchPad URLs for student use.
  • Read the background information for this lesson and the short introduction to the document from the National Archives Education site, an EDSITEment-reviewed website. There is useful chapter on President Lincoln's Emancipation Policies, a section of The End of Slavery: The Creation of 13th Amendment from the EDSITEment-reviewed HarpWeek.
  • This lesson assumes some knowledge of the political realities and constitutional doctrines which limited President Lincoln's options regarding emancipation during the Civil War. One of the leading scholars on the subject, Allen C. Guelzo, has written an excellent short account of these issues in "The Great Event of the Nineteenth Century": Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation" available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.
  • The story of how the nation greeted the Proclamation is told by John Hope Franklin in The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice at the National Archives site.
  • Finally, for a fascinating account of how the document's reputation has changed over the last century and a half, teachers can listen to a podcast of a seminar by Professor Guelzo available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Teaching American History.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. An Introduction to the Emancipation Proclamation

Note: This activity is available as a Launchad.

Begin by having students do a careful reading of both the brief description of The Emancipation Proclamation and the text itself available at the National Archives and Records Administration. Have students identify the main features of Proclamation by answering these questions of the document:

  • Upon what authority does Lincoln issue this proclamation?
  • Why is emancipation proclaimed as a "fit and necessary war measure"?
  • Why does the proclamation only apply to slaves in certain states? Why is the geographical location significant?
  • What does Lincoln encourage these freed slaves to do and to refrain from doing?
  • Explain how each of these provisions was expected to contribute to the Union war effort.
  • Invite student comment on the relatively limited emancipation Lincoln proclaimed.
  • How does language of this document contrast with that of Lincoln's more famous speeches like the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural Address? Why might the bland, legalistic language of the Proclamation be more appropriate in this situation and its purpose?
Activity 2. The Steps that led to the Emancipation Proclamation

Note: This activity is available as a Launchpad.

Have students organize research teams to investigate the steps that led to the Emancipation Proclamation. In order for students to understand how President Lincoln's war plans changed in the course of the war, have them read the short discussion of President Lincoln's Emancipation Policies. This section includes a timeline, newspaper editorials and cartoons illustrating the issues surrounding emancipation. Call attention to the passages from the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 included in the final document. Have student research teams prepare class reports on this preliminary proclamation and other documents that record Lincoln's deliberations on the issue of emancipation. Students will be able to search for terms such as "emancipation" throughout the Lincoln writings online in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln available via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory.

  • Ask students to examine Lincoln's March 6, 1862 message to Congress from the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln recommending a compensated emancipation plan and his July 1862 appeal to border-state Congressmen to endorse his plan from EDSITEment-reviewed Learner.org.
    • How did Lincoln view the "cause" of emancipation in offering this plan?
    • Why might his plan have been rejected by abolitionists?
    • Why might it have been rejected by the "border states"?
    • What might have been the reaction of African Americans?
  • Ask students to examine Lincoln's September 13, 1862 reply to a committee of Chicago religious leaders from the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln in which, nine days before he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln laid out arguments against it.
    • What does this document reveal about Lincoln's views on the relationship between emancipation and the essential principles of American constitutional democracy?
    • What can we infer from the document about the views held by those to whom he wrote?
  • Ask students to examine the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of Sept 22, 1862 and excerpts from Lincoln's December 1, 1862 Annual Message to Congress (also available as a PDF document) from the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and consider the following questions.
    • In his Annual Message to Congress, Lincoln's proposal for emancipation has three elements. What are they? Which ones are absent from the Emancipation Proclamation?
    • Why does Lincoln's proposal require several constitutional amendments?
    • How did these official pronouncements fit into Lincoln's war plans?
    • What do they reveal about his struggle to attract and maintain political support?
    • From Lincoln's point of view, how significant was the Emancipation Proclamation in his effort to define and exert his leadership in the crisis of the Civil War?
    • How significant has it become in our view of him as a national leader?
    • Have students share their reports in class and comment on the various pressures and personal beliefs that influenced Lincoln as he shaped his final policy on emancipation.
Activity 3. The African American Perspective

Note: This activity is available as a launchpad.

An important perspective on emancipation is that of African Americans on both sides of the battle lines. For insight into the attitudes of this segment of the population, direct students to the documents in Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War which is part of the EDSITEment reviewed Freedmen and Southern Society Project. Ask students to read the letter from the Mother of a Northern Black Soldier to the President, July 31, 1863 and consider the following questions:

  • Who wrote this letter?
  • What do you know about this individual from the letter?
  • Under what circumstances was this letter written?
  • Why was this letter written, i.e., what action(s) does the author request of President Lincoln?
  • Upon what grounds does she make her request?
  • What most concerns her regarding the Proclamation?
  • What do we learn from this letter about emancipation?
  • How would you describe the tone of this letter? Is the tone important? Why or why not?

Next have students read the letter of a Massachusetts Black Corporal to the President, September 28, 1863 written by Corporal James H. Gooding of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry (the troops celebrated in the film Glory), which complains to Lincoln of unequal pay for white and African American soldiers and consider these questions:

  • Who wrote this letter?
  • What do we know about this individual?
  • Under what circumstances was this letter written?
  • Why was this letter written, i.e., what "common grievance" motivates the author to write to Lincoln?
  • What important distinction does he bring to the attention of Lincoln?
  • List some of the facts which he uses to support this distinction.
  • Why does the author not consider himself and his men "fit subjects for the Contraband act"?
  • Why does he address Lincoln as the "chief Magistrate of the Nation"?
  • How would you describe the tone of this letter? Is the tone important? Why or why not?

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources