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by Christopher Teal

This January marks the 150th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation.  That milestone came in the midst of the American Civil War, freeing slaves in Confederate-held lands. Though it required a completion of the war itself and the eventual passage of the 13th amendment to finally put an end to slavery throughout the rest of the United States, the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation would have lasting repercussions not only in domestic affairs, but just as importantly in American foreign policy.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the declaration in September 1862, but it would not take effect until the beginning of the new year, January 1, 1863. It was a humanistic document in that it began a process of legal freedom for millions of slaves. It was also a political document, as it called for the freedom of “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,” [emphasis added]. In simpler terms, for those eleven states fighting the federal government over the issue of slavery, there was no longer any protection by the American government to recognize their right to own slaves.

In fact, President Lincoln specifically gave the rebellious communities 100 days notice before the Proclamation took effect and laid out several exceptions. Lincoln stated that Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia lost their right to hold slaves. He added “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.”

What the proclamation did not do, however, was liberate all slaves within U.S. territory as a whole. Though most of the remaining northern states were “free states,” there were several that remained inside the Union that were not. Lincoln’s decision even specifically noted that several counties within Louisiana and Virginia which were already under federal government control during the war and were to be exempt from this declaration. Though these exceptions might seem strange 150 years later, in fact it was a pragmatic decision. They were merely a reflection and recognition of the political reality – as a desire to maintain the loyalty of border states such as Missouri and Maryland, which did maintain slave populations. It also had implications overseas.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, brought the final document to the President for his approval and in addition to Lincoln’s signature, the proclamation bears the signature of Secretary Seward. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was politically a wartime and domestic document, it was truly an international text, with the expectation that other nations be bound by these commitments and to serve as a means to promote Union war efforts diplomatically. According to the National Archives, the entire document “was bound with other proclamations in a large volume preserved for many years by the Department of State,” where it was maintained and labeled in volume number 95 of Proclamations. Additionally, as soon as Lincoln had signed the Proclamation, Seward immediately released the document to the consular and diplomatic corps around the world.

The foreign policy implications of the Proclamation were immediately clear for European colonial powers still vying for control in the new world. Spain, France, and England potentially had a great deal at stake with the territories of their former colonies in turmoil, and would enjoy playing one side off the other in the American dispute.

One diplomatic circular that Seward forwarded in 1862 particularly addressed the needs of the American envoy in London, Charles Francis Adams, to use the Proclamation as leverage with the Royal Court.  In the dispatch, Seward noted that “the President has issued a proclamation in which he gives notice that slavery will be no longer recognized in any State which shall be found in armed rebellion on the first of January next.” Noting the fine line that Seward and Lincoln were walking, the Secretary of State added the “good and wise men of all nations will confess that this is just and proper…[and] they will at the same time acknowledge the moderation and magnanimity with which the government proceeds in a transaction of such great solemnity and importance.”

Adams had earlier reported back to Seward that Confederate emissaries in Europe were pushing for recognition of the rebellious states. Adams also noted that the rebels were advocating to the government in London that they would even be willing to accept a prohibition on the import of slaves and “freedom of all blacks born hereafter.”  It was an astonishing thing for them to cede, but as Adams noted “the pressure of the popular feeling” throughout the UK “was so great” that it required such a move by Confederates if they hoped to gain recognition from the British government.  Once news of the Emancipation Proclamation hit London, however, Adams would later report that it had the effect “to draw the line with greater distinctness between those persons really friendly to the United States and the remainder of the community, and to test the extent of the genuine anti-slavery feeling left in the country.”

Lincoln was keenly aware of this balance of power and in his first State of the Union report to Congress in December 1861, several months before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  In that address, the president noted that any nation “which endures factious domestic divisions is exposed to disrespect abroad, and one party, if not both is sure sooner or later to invoke foreign intervention.”

Lincoln also advocated the official recognition of Haiti in that same address. Though Haiti had gained its independence from France in 1804, it had not yet been officially recognized by the United States. Southern resistance to a former slave colony becoming a “nation” kept rightful recognition at bay. That resistance evaporated with the succession of the southern states, and Lincoln moved to recognize Haiti in the summer of 1862, just a few months before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He no doubt felt it important to shore up the independence movements within the new hemisphere, almost as much as he needed to stitch together the American union once again.

As a result of these moves Lincoln helped rally those abolitionist supporters across Europe and in the UK, which had outlawed slavery in its colonies years earlier, and made it more difficult politically for the British to continue backing southern efforts.

Abolitionists from the U.S. also played a great role internationally, both in the years leading up to the civil war and during the war itself. Frederick Douglass was perhaps among the best known former slaves and abolitionists in the world. His speaking tours outside the U.S. had helped generate a great deal of financial as well as political support for the anti-slavery cause in America.

There were other leading voices, both white and black, as part of this abolitionists movement as well, including Ebenezer Bassett, a friend of Douglass and the principal of the leading all black school in Philadelphia.

Bassett would later go on to become the first African American diplomat when he was appointed in 1869 to head the American Legation in Haiti by President U.S. Grant.  Bassett had been an active voice in the abolitionist movement since the 1850s. His work alongside Douglass, Alexander Crummell, and Henry Highland Garnet not only advocated the end of slavery.  He also worked to recruit black soldiers into the Union army, further lending credibility both domestically and internationally about the broad support for ending slavery and the efforts that African Americans would make toward making that a reality.

The Emancipation Proclamation paved the way for a more aggressive policy toward European powers, as a reflection of the earlier Monroe Doctrine and a flexing of muscle by the U.S. as a growing international power.  The Proclamation also made tremendous political changes inside the United States; change that eventually lead to a greater role by black politicians as well as even black diplomats. Seeing this historic document in the larger context, it is clear that the genius of the Emancipation Proclamation was not simply about freeing slaves, as tremendously important as that was.  It was also an instrument of American foreign policy, one that sought to gain support among the European powers by helping rally popular sentiment in favor of the American government and served as a warning to American opponents.

These were not hollow gestures, as in the aftermath of the war African American leadership would come more into the forefront on foreign policy matters and American influence grew throughout the region and eventually across the globe.  Ebenezer Bassett would become the first black diplomat, but he was not the last.  Frederick Douglass himself would follow suit in Port-au-Prince, as would a number of appointments of African-Americans to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Liberia during the 19th century.

It would take over another century to see a black leader rise to other positions of power in American diplomacy throughout the 20th century, and eventually to the position of Secretary of State, as Colin Powell would assume in 2001.  But it is clear that the Emancipation Proclamation set the stage for these long overdue changes and had lasting implications for American foreign policy.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


Christopher Teal is currently serving as Public Affairs Officer (PAO) at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Previously, he served Mexico, Washington, Peru and in the Dominican Republic. His biography of Bassett, entitled Hero of Hispaniola was published Praeger Books in 2008.


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