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The Debunker: Did the Emancipation Proclamation End Slavery?

by Ken Jennings

Even though the Civil War hasn’t receded all that far into the past—the Associated Press reported last month that two children-of-Civil-War-vets are still alive and well and receiving government veterans’ benefits!—we may not remember very much about it. This month, Ken “Burns” Jennings will reveal that a lot of what you think you know about the Civil War is a bunch of Bull Run.

Civil War Myth #3: The Emancipation Proclamation Freed the Slaves.

Say what you will about the recent work of Steven Spielberg, at least it’s helped to shoot down a lot of historical myths about Abraham Lincoln. For example, most Americans dimly remembering their tenth-grade history class probably assume that slavery in the Republic was ended by the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. But as the movie Lincoln makes clear, abolition didn’t actually happen for almost three more years, when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December 1865.

Reproduction of the Emancipation Proclamation

In fact, Lincoln’s famous proclamation only ended slavery in Confederate territory—not in the border states (five slave states that had elected not to join the Confederacy) or in southern territory already taken by Union troops. As Tom Burnam memorably notes in his 1975 classic The Dictionary of Misinformation, “Since it applied only to an enemy with which the United States was at war, obviously it could have no legal force, any more than a proclamation by President Roosevelt ordering Hitler to free all Jews could have had such force in 1943.”

Burnam, however, goes on to make the common mistake that the Emancipation Proclamation “did not free any slaves” (emphasis mine). That’s taking revisionist history too far. Since it freed those slaves who had already fled behind Union lines (and otherwise might have been considered “contraband”), the Proclamation immediately freed somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 people, and as the Union army advanced, it went on to free over four million slaves—eventually. But most people are surprised to hear that Lincoln’s executive order affected almost no slaves at all at the time of its proclamation. There’s a reason why the national celebration of emancipation takes place not on January 1, when the proclamation was issued, but on June 19, the anniversary of the 1865 date when occupying federal forces began to enforce it in Texas. That holiday is called “Juneteenth,” and it’s observed today in 41 states.

Quick Quiz: Juneteenth is also the second, never-completed novel by what great African American scholar who wrote Invisible Man?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.