The Great Negro Emancipation

December 20, 1862, page 816

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Sensation among "Our Colored Brethren" on ascertaining that the Grand Performance to which they had been invited on New Year's Day, was unavoidably postponed to the year 1900!


Abraham Lincoln had been cautious about emancipation. Before becoming president, he had insisted that there was no federal authority to abolish slavery in states where it already existed. His goal was to stop its spread into the Western territories.

Once the Civil War began, President Lincoln rescinded an emancipation order issued by Union General John C. Frémont in Missouri. The president feared that the border states (slave states still loyal to the Union: Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware) might join the Confederacy. He did make several unsuccessful attempts to convince the border states to free their slaves on a plan of gradual, compensated emancipation.

In August 1862, Horace Greeley, radical editor of the New York Tribune, chastised the president in a widely-read editorial for dragging his feet on emancipation. In an open letter to Greeley, Lincoln responded that if freeing the slaves would help win the war, he would do it, but if not freeing the slaves would help win the war, he would do that.

Lincoln and his cabinet knew that he planned to issue an emancipation order following the next major Union victory. Therefore, after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North was repelled at the battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The document declared that if the Confederacy did not cease its rebellion by the first of the year, then all the slaves in Confederate-held territory would be freed. It excluded slaves in the Union border states and Southern areas controlled by the Union military on that date. The policy was aimed at inducing the Confederacy to surrender rather than lose their slaves, and it was based on what Lincoln considered to be a president’s augmented constitutional authority during a national emergency.

The Confederacy did not take the offer, so the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863. Thereafter, the federal forces had two war aims: to restore the union and to free the slaves. As the Union military forces advanced across the South, thousands of slaves were freed.

This cartoon was published after the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, but before it took effect. It criticizes Lincoln’s emancipation policies by poking fun at his previous advocacy of gradual emancipation and anticipating that he will turn the Emancipation Proclamation into a plan for (very) gradual emancipation. The cartoon manifests the fears of some that the president would not carry out the new policy. The figure viewed from the back, reading the poster, is Horace Greeley ("HG N York").


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