By itself, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave. That fact, well known by generations of historians, does not demean the proclamation. The proclamation was surely the most powerful instrument of slavery's destruction, for, more than any other measure, it defined the Civil War as a war for black freedom. Most Americans today would name the proclamation as the most important result of the war. Had the original document not been destroyed by fire in 1871, it would no doubt reside alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as one of our national treasures. Even those who contend that slaves did more than white commanders and politicians to abolish slavery tend to see the proclamation as the brightest achievement of slaves' efforts on behalf of their own freedom.
But the fact remains: the Emancipation Proclamation did not free a single slave. And that fact hung over the country during the last years of the Civil War. Many Americans during this period would have considered today's veneration of the proclamation misplaced. They knew that the proclamation freed slaves in only some areas-those regions not under Union control-leaving open the possibility that it might never apply to the whole country. They knew that even this limited proclamation might not survive the war: It might be ruled unconstitutional by the courts, outlawed by Congress, retracted by Lincoln or his successor, or simply ignored if the Confederacy won the war. Americans understood that the proclamation was but an early step in putting black freedom on secure legal footing. Abolition was assured only by Union military victory and by the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the country. Congress passed the amendment more than two years after the proclamation, and the states ratified it in December 1865, eight months after Union victory in the Civil War.
Historians have written much about the fate of African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation, but they have not been so attentive to the process by which emancipation was written into law. In part, the inattention is a natural consequence of the compartmentalization of history. Because emancipation proved to be but one stage in the process by which enslaved African Americans became legal citizens, historians have been prone to move directly from the Emancipation Proclamation to the issue of legalized racial equality. In other words, historians have skipped