Sample Media Worksheet: Document

The Emancipation Proclamation


What type of document is this?  (Ex. Newspaper, telegram, map, letter, memorandum, congressional record)

This document is an early draft of the proclamation issued by President Lincoln that freed the slaves in the Confederate States.


What do you find interesting or important about this document?

There are two very interesting things regarding this document. The first is that when the history of this period is studied, the Emancipation Proclamation is usually understood as one of the most important documents of the Civil War. It is romanticized, and is viewed as the document that freed the slaves. This is obviously not the case in this draft. If anything, this document is more about conveying that anyone (person, state, or country) that becomes involved with the Confederate States is engaged in rebellion and treason. For other countries such as England and France, this would effectively convey that any ally of the Confederacy would become an enemy of the Union, which would then have consequences politically and economically.

Also important is that the proclamation only affects the Confederate States. This is not an abolition of slavery in the Union. Therefore, in reality this document has very little governmental power. It only affects slaves in the Confederacy, and the Confederacy would not recognize a proclamation written by the Union president. This document's worth is in making a political statement about the abolition of slavery without having to actually abolish the institution in the Union. Those who support abolitionism are pacified, and slaves in the southern states are given hope that if the Union wins, or if they can escape to Union territory, they will in fact be free men and women.

It is also, importantly, a document of military strategy.  The Union Army had debated among its officers what to do with slaves escaping from the South.  Some officers felt it was their duty to uphold the Constitution and the law of the land and returned the slaves to their former masters.  A growing number, however, resented anything step that would allow the South to fight longer and better, which the labor of their slaves certainly did.  Lincoln faced increasing pressure from the military, then, to clarify federal policy for slaves across Union lines.   Not a few officers, soldiers, and politicians were also inspired by the courage of these former slaves in escaping their bondage, and inspired by the Abolitionist ideal of a new nation without human slavery.

Is there a particular phrase or section that you find particularly meaningful or surprising?

One of the interesting aspects of this document is the replacement of the word adoption with abolishment. If the word adoption had been left in it would have changed the meaning of the entire document.

As far as content is concerned, one point that is intriguing is that all those who oppose the Union are engaged in rebellion. Therefore there is no acknowledgement of the Confederacy's legitimacy as a government. If the secession of states is referred to as a rebellion, it gives the illusion that the United States still had authority over the Confederate States. This phrasing shows the importance of rhetoric and language in this matter. By calling the Confederacy a rebellion, and refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the individual state's right to secede from the Union, Lincoln is able to undercut any authority the Confederate states might possess.


What does this document tell you about life in America at the time it was written?

This document reveals the main concerns of the Union government at this time. A reader immediately understands that the issue of slavery was central in the nation at the time.  What also emerges as an important issue is the need to deny sovereignty to the Confederate States. Therefore the two central conflicts of the Civil War, state's rights and slavery are reflected in this one document.

Also important to note is the way that Lincoln abolishes slavery in the Confederate states. It is clear that slavery was a contentious issue throughout the continent. By only freeing the slaves in the "rebel" states Lincoln is able to appease abolitionists and those who would welcome the end of this institution, but it does not threaten the work force of the slave states that remained in the Union, such as Maryland and Kentucky.  Therefore he was able to appease several different factions at once with the release of the document.