While public opinion, North and South, had considerable time between late September 1862 and the end of the year to adjust to the idea that Abraham Lincoln meant to free most slaves in the United States by proclamation at the start of 1863, the reaction to Lincoln actually signing the Emancipation Proclamation was surprisingly passionate.
The nature of opinion about Lincoln’s proclamation fell along predictable lines. Richard Striner, well summarizes notable reactions in a piece in January 29 edition of Disunion in the New York Times. Striner writes:
Almost all abolitionists and radical Republicans, even those who had condemned Lincoln’s methods as being too cautious, were thrilled. William Lloyd Garrison, the venerable abolitionist, called the occasion “a great historic event, sublime in its magnitude and beneficent in its far-reaching consequences.” The radical Republican Benjamin Wade proclaimed, “Now, hurrah for Old Abe and the proclamation!”
Black Americans were naturally likewise jubilant. The minister Henry Highland Garnet called Lincoln “the man of our choice and hope” and said that the proclamation was “one of the greatest acts in all history.” Frederick Douglass said much the same thing: the proclamation was “the greatest event in our nation’s history.”
Of course, the proclamation elicited expressions of hatred from those Northerners who hated African-Americans. White supremacists in the United States were outraged. Condemning Lincoln, The Cincinnati Enquirer said that the proclamation represented the “complete overthrow of the Constitution he swore to protect and defend.” All over the North white bigots called the proclamation “wicked,” “atrocious” and “impudent.”
Confederates agreed wholeheartedly with Northern racists. Jefferson Davis called Lincoln’s action “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” But he said the proclamation would fail: it was nothing more than a gesture of “impotent rage” for which Confederates should show “contempt.” Other Confederates reacted with greater defiance: insofar as Lincoln’s final proclamation made provision for enlisting freed slaves in the army, the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard called for the “execution of abolition prisoners. … Let the execution be made with the garrote.”
While individual Confederates might have changed their behavior toward Union POWs as a result of Lincoln finalizing the Emancipation Proclamation, the Confederacy’s official policy toward northern prisoners remained unchanged. While rhetoric such as Beauregard’s might have satisfied the anger of white Southerners over what they saw as Lincoln’s tyrannical action, any mistreatment of enemy POWs put Confederates in Union hands in danger of retaliation. (Their venom though would find an outlet in black Union prisoners who often would be abused or even killed when captured by the rebels, especially when the Confederates realized the Lincoln administration was reluctant to retaliate for atrocities against African-American soldiers in the federal army.)
Lawyers also disagreed about whether President Lincoln’s freeing most of the slaves in the United States as a war measure was constitutional. Abraham Lincoln himself was unsure on this point (as Spielberg’s Lincoln accurately portrays), which was why he soon began pushing for a constitutional amendment to end slavery once and for all. Lincoln did not wish risking the judiciary overruling him after the war, which was a distinct possibility in what was then the most conservative branch of the federal government. Lincoln also had to consider the fate of the slaves exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, especially in the loyal border states. While Missouri and Maryland would move toward freeing the slaves on their own over the rest of the Civil War, Kentucky and Delaware would continue to resist emancipation and slavery would only end there with the final ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.
So while the Emancipation Proclamation put the country on the road to the final end of slavery in the United States, it was far from the end of the road. And, as Jim Downs has written extensively, slaves fleeing into Union lines to gain their freedom created a horrid humanitarian crisis, with thousands dying due to the often poor conditions in hastily established federal freedmen’s camps. (Escaped slaves were a secondary priority at best for Union commanders, especially if they could not be put to work supporting federal military operations.) Downs holds Abraham Lincoln personally responsible for this humanitarian crisis. He goes as far as to assert, “Lincoln can no longer be portrayed as the hero in this story. Despite his efforts to end slavery, his emancipation policies failed to consider the human cost of liberation.” It is going too far to assert Abraham Lincoln was not a hero of emancipation in the United States, but Jim Downs is correct that this catastrophe should tarnish to some extent the Lincoln administration’s image on this point. Still, if Confederates and racist white Northerners were livid over the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, Abraham Lincoln was doing something right and heroic.
Sources: 1) http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/hurrah-for-old-abe/; 2) http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/05/dying-for-freedom/.