Emancipation Proclamation Was Also Foreign Policy

It kept Europe out of U.S. Civil War

Abraham Lincoln
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Everyone knows that when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 he was freeing enslaved Americans. But did you know the abolition of slavery was also a key element of Lincoln's foreign policy?

When Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, England had been threatening to intervene in the American Civil War for over a year. Lincoln's intent to issue the final document on January 1, 1863, effectively prevented England, which had abolished enslavement in its own territories, from stepping into the U.S. conflict.


The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when the breakaway Southern Confederate States of America fired on the holdout U.S. Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Southern states had begun seceding in December 1860 after Abraham Lincoln won the presidency a month earlier. Lincoln, a Republican, was against enslavement, but he had not called for its abolition. He campaigned on a policy of prohibiting the spread of enslavement to western territories, but Southern enslavers interpreted that as the beginning of the end.

At his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Lincoln reiterated his stance. He had no intention to address enslavement where it presently existed, but he did intend to preserve the Union. If the southern states wanted war, he would give it to them.

First Year of War

The first year of the war did not go well for the United States. The Confederacy won the opening battles of Bull Run in July 1861 and Wilson's Creek the next month. In the spring of 1862, Union troops captured western Tennessee but suffered appalling casualties at the Battle of Shiloh. In the east, a 100,000-man army failed to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, even though it maneuvered to its very gates.

In the summer of 1862, General Robert E. Lee took command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He beat Union troops in the Battle of the Seven Days in June, then at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August. He then plotted an invasion of the North which he hoped would earn the South European recognition.

England and the U.S. Civil War

England traded with both North and South before the war, and both sides expected British support. The South expected dwindling cotton supplies due to the North's blockade of Southern ports would leverage England into recognizing the South and forcing the North to a treaty table. Cotton proved not so strong, however, England had built-up supplies and other markets for cotton.

England nevertheless supplied the South with most of its Enfield muskets and allowed Southern agents to build and outfit Confederate commerce raiders in England and sail them from English ports. Still, that did not constitute English recognition of the South as an independent nation.

Since the War of 1812 ended in 1814, the U.S. and England had experienced what is known as the "Era of Good Feelings." During that time, the two countries had arrived at a series of treaties beneficial to both, and the British Royal Navy tacitly enforced the U.S. Monroe Doctrine.

Diplomatically, though, Great Britain could benefit from a fractured American government. The continental-sized United States posed a potential threat to British global, imperial hegemony. But a North America split into two―or perhaps more― squabbling governments should be no threat to Britain's status.

Socially, many in England felt a kinship to the more aristocratic American southerners. English politicians periodically debated intervening in the American war, but they took no action. For its part, France wanted to recognize the South, but it would do nothing without British agreement.

Lee was playing to those possibilities of European intervention when he proposed invading the North. Lincoln, however, had another plan.

Emancipation Proclamation

In August 1862, Lincoln told his cabinet that he wanted to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The Declaration of Independence was Lincoln's guiding political document, and he believed literally in its statement that "all men are created equal." He had for some time wanted to expand war aims to include abolishing enslavement, and he saw an opportunity to use abolition as a war measure.

Lincoln explained that the document would become effective on January 1, 1863. Any state that had given up the rebellion by that time could keep their enslaved people. He recognized that Southern animosity ran so deep that the Confederate states were unlikely to return to the Union. In effect, he was turning the war for union into a crusade.

He also realized that Great Britain was progressive as far as enslavement was concerned. Thanks to the political campaigns of William Wilberforce decades earlier, England had outlawed enslavement at home and in its colonies.

When the Civil War became about enslavement―not just union―Great Britain could not morally recognize the South or intervene in the war. To do so would be diplomatically hypocritical.

As such, the Emancipation was one part social document, one part war measure, and one part insightful foreign policy maneuver.

Lincoln waited until U.S. troops won a quasi-victory at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, before he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. As he expected, no southern states gave up the rebellion prior to January 1. Of course, the North had to win the war for emancipation to become effective, but until the war's end in April 1865, the U.S. no longer had to worry about English or European intervention.

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Jones, Steve. "Emancipation Proclamation Was Also Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/emancipation-proclamation-was-also-foreign-policy-3310345. Jones, Steve. (2023, April 5). Emancipation Proclamation Was Also Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emancipation-proclamation-was-also-foreign-policy-3310345 Jones, Steve. "Emancipation Proclamation Was Also Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emancipation-proclamation-was-also-foreign-policy-3310345 (accessed June 2, 2023).