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The following bit of Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22nd, 1862 was quoted in the Emancipation Proclamation:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free

This sentence is a bit hard to parse, particularly "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States" might be read by some to indicate that a state which holds slaves is to be considered "in rebellion against the United States".

We know this was not the intended meaning, because the rest of the document explicitly defines "in rebellion against the United States" as excluding the border states and parts of the South under Union control (where slavery was still in effect).

As I read it, it seems like "the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States" qualifies "any State or designated part of a State", limiting it to those States still then "in rebellion" on January 1st, 1863. Such a limitation was necessary, by the way, since the proclamation was issued under the limited authority of Lincoln's War Powers.

Since we know which was the intended and understood reading, this is not a historical question, my question is rather: is the first reading (the non-intended one) semantically admissible? Is the intended reading semantically admissible? Is the sentence even grammatical?

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    The question turns on the meaning of "shall", which has a whole bunch of meanings (two of which are used in this proclamation). So probably both interpretations are grammatical. – Peter Shor Jun 29 '15 at 17:05
  • In statutory interpretation: Use of “shall” and “may” in statutes also mirrors common usage; ordinarily “shall” is mandatory and “may” is permissive.These words must be read in their broader statutory context, however, the issue often being whether the statutory directive itself is mandatory or permissive. Use of both words in the same provision can underscore their different meanings, and often the context will confirm that the ordinary meaning of one or the other was intended. Occasionally, however, context will trump ordinary meaning. – user98990 Jun 29 '15 at 17:26
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    @LittleEva That the slaves freed are those in the states whose people are on 1/1/1863 in rebellion. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 29 '15 at 19:01
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    @LittleEva I sympathize; I did five years in law offices. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 29 '15 at 19:16
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    @LittleEva Time off for good behavior. – StoneyB on hiatus Jun 29 '15 at 19:36
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Since we know which was the intended and understood reading, this is not a historical question, my question is rather: is the first reading (the non-intended one) semantically admissible? Is the intended reading semantically admissible? Is the sentence even grammatical? You are right in saying this is not a historical question, since we know the intended meaning, which is certainly semantically admissible. The first reading is also semantically admissible, and is grammatically correct as well.

Your question appears to hinge on the use of "then". In this formulation, "then" clearly means "at the stated time", whereas you suggest it could indicate the consequence of a conditional. For the latter, "then" should be set off by commas: "...the people whereof shall, then, be in rebellion against the United States,...", but this would render the sentence ungrammatical overall.

See this link also: Comma in compound/complex sentences

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The State is in rebellion to the United States due to their laws allowing slavery. However, the people "whereof" (in the State) may not in fact be in rebellion to the United States. So this clause should not have been added. Rather: "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, which is in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free" To mention that the slavery States were in rebellion, is unnecessary and sounds Partisan. But it was war.

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  • Note that Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia permitted slavery and yet had not seceded from the Union. Indeed, West Virginia gained statehood after its counties refused to join in the rest of Virginia's decision to secede. Lincoln's wording was specifically designed to exclude emancipation from taking effect in the slave states that had remained loyal to the Union. So specifying the new law's application to the slave states that were (or remained) in rebellion (as of January 1, 1863) was central to the proclamation—which, I believe, we would refer to as an "executive order" today. – Sven Yargs Jun 30 '15 at 21:22
  • @Sven Yargs - Lincoln's wording was specifically designed to exclude emancipation from taking effect in the slave states that had remained loyal to the Union. Did Lincoln ever publish a rationalization for that contradiction? If so, I'd like to read it, as that would surely be an exercise of political expediency, at its finest. – user98990 Jul 11 '15 at 5:43
  • @LittleEva: Lincoln had a brilliant political mind, and he directed it toward one object as president: preserving the Union. I have no doubt that when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation he wasn't thinking "and once we win the war, we'll renege on that promise to the loyal slave states." But at the same time he wasn't going to let a paper reassurance stand in the way of eradicating slavery once the Civil War was headed for a decisive victory for the North. There were lots of contradictions in the Civil War, including major gaps between motive and rhetoric and policy on both sides. – Sven Yargs Jul 11 '15 at 6:27
  • @Sven Yargs - so, since it was a purely political equation, I take it Lincoln never bothered to attempt a philosophical explanation, beyond of course the integrity of the Union. Yes, I'm fairly aware of the mixed motives and rhetoric, which were eye-openers for me when I gained that awareness i.e., the competing labor needs of the industrial North and the agrarian South, wage slavery vs. chattel slavery (why own when you can lease?), etc. Fascinating stuff. You've already done all the work, this OP needs a good answer? – user98990 Jul 11 '15 at 6:47
  • @Sven Yargs - oh, the et cetera, State's rights vs. Federalism, let's not forget that one - in fact, I see it in the news, daily. – user98990 Jul 11 '15 at 6:58
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Think about this as a sort of letter that a bank robber would give a teller during a robbery describing what will happen if they don't get their money. You have already noted that it is September of 1862 and yet this is dated as taking effect January. What Lincoln is saying to the Confederacy here is that he will allow any of the states currently in rebellion against DC, or parts of states, to rejoin the Union and keep their slavery. Mind you that slavery was legal and slaves were held in the North during the civil war. Lincoln was outlawing slavery in what was essentially a foreign country and outside of his jurisdiction.

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Replacing the drawn-out opening phrase with the standard modern date equivalent gives us this:

That on January 1, 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free:

As the Wikipedia article on the Emancipation Proclamation points out, President Lincoln had issued the preliminary proclamation declaring his intention to emancipate (as Wikipedia puts it) "all slaves in any state that did not end its rebellion against the Union by January 1, 1863." The actual Emancipation Proclamation was issued the day it took effect (January 1, 1863), which means that the prospective wording of the sentence that the OP asks about ("the people whereof shall then be in rebellion ... shall be then, thenceforward, and forever") might at that point have been reframed in simple present tense:

That as of today, January 1, 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof are in rebellion against the United States, are now, and forever more, free:

This is in fact essentially what Lincoln did in the actual Emancipation Proclamation, first quoting the older language and then saying this:

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

Returning now to the preliminary proclamation, we can also alter the wording "the people whereof" to the simpler (and equivalent) "whose people":

That as of today, January 1, 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State whose people are in rebellion against the United States are now, and forever more, free:

This last alteration should remove any possibility of misreading the intent of the sentence in the way that (according to the OP) it "might be read by some to indicate that a state which holds slaves is to be considered 'in rebellion against the United States.'" But it seems to me that the original wording can't be interpreted to mean that a state permitting slavery is on that basis alone to be considered "in rebellion" under the original wording of the Emancipation Proclamation in any case.

Such an interpretation hinges on reading the word that in the phrase "the people whereof shall then be in rebellion" to mean "therefore." But that reading blows up the logic of the sentence, since logically "therefore" requires a prior assertion or proposition or condition precedent to provide the basis for the conclusion—and "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State" isn't an assertion, proposition, or condition precedent; it's simply a lengthily modified subject built around the noun persons.

Syntactically, the phrase "the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States" modifies "any State or designated part of a State." I don't see any other reasonable way to interpret the words. So if the citizens of Western Pennsylvania had chosen December 31, 1862, to engage in a fresh outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, those counties would logically have fallen under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation, and any person held as a slave there—perhaps by a Maryland plantation owner who happened to be on a visit to friends in Pittsburgh with one or two slaves in attendance—would, as of January 1, 1863, be free under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation—the slave owner's usual rights under Dred Scott v. Sandford notwithstanding.

Further, I don't see any way to transform the plain meaning of "any State or designated part of a State" into "any State or designated part of a State that permits ownership of slaves." So in my opinion, the proposed interpretation of the quoted sentence in the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation is not semantically defensible, and a reading of the sentence that, in effect, replaces the first then with therefore is not grammatical.

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all persons held as slaves shall be free

But not really all slaves. Which slaves? Only slaves in certain places...

all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States

"Slaves held in certain states or held in designated parts of certain states will be free." For example, all of South Carolina was in rebellion so all of its slaves were "freed". Part of Louisiana however was not in rebellion so the slaves in that designated part were not freed.

When Lincoln says (to paraphrase) "...slaves in any place the people whereof shall be in rebellion...", he means "slaves in places where the people might still be in rebellion by next year".

It is grammatical and I think it admits no equivocation.

Lincoln carefully chose these words in order to emphasize that the conflict was not a war between separate nations: he thought that the Confederate states had no legal ability to secede from the the Union and therefore that no states, vote as they might, had ever left the Union. The Constitution disallows it. Rather, Lincoln interpreted the struggle as an effort by the United States to put down an insurrection of people within the states in its southern parts.

He worded the document to reflect this idea, carefully distinguishing people from the state.

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