On Sept. 22, 1862 — 150 years ago today — Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, promising to free the slaves in any state still in rebellion on Jan. 1, 1863. Americans have celebrated Lincoln’s proclamation, and argued about its meaning, ever since. But there’s a surprising legacy that few Americans know anything about, one that historians have overlooked, even though it shows just how thoroughly American ideas of freedom reshaped the globe. Emancipation touched off a crisis for the principle of humanitarian limits in wartime and transformed the international laws of war. In the crucible of emancipation, Lincoln created the rules that now govern soldiers around the world.
Ever since 1775, when the royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to slaves who would turn against their revolutionary masters, American soldiers and statesmen held that freeing an enemy’s slaves was anathema to civilized warfare. George Washington and the Continental Congress complained bitterly when British forces carried away slaves when they left New York in 1783.
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