On January 1, 1863, as the nation entered its third year of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
It’s true that the Emancipation Proclamation was limited and its effects were gradual. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It exempted many parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Union control. Most importantly, the freedom it promised depended on the Union winning the war.
But the Emancipation Proclamation remains one of the great documents of human freedom. With his signature and the seal of the United States, President Lincoln set our nation on a course to abolish slavery nationwide FOREVER. He also announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the Union to draw additional manpower and encouraging recently freed slaves to join the fight to free others. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.
Within two years of Lincoln’s proclamation, the states had ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, formally outlawing slavery nationwide. In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving African American men the right to vote.
The official Emancipation Proclamation – held in trust for the American people by the National Archives – is fragile. To protect this 150 year old document from further damage due to light exposure, Archives conservators allow it to be shown for a very limited number of days each year so that it will last for future generations to see.
Clearly, the Emancipation Proclamation still has the power to inspire. For me personally, this observance is a way to honor those ancestors—enslaved and free—who waited 150 years ago on New Year’s Eve, knowing that President Lincoln soon would sign this pivotal document. Through the decades those ancestors had agitated for their own freedom though protests, revolts, prayer and perseverance. Now finally the force of the federal government would declare that they and their descendants would be “forever free.”
Marking this anniversary, for me, really is a way to encourage a conversation not just about this particular document, but about all the work that remained to be done to create full equality and liberty. It is a way to spark conversation by using materials related to the 1963 March on Washington, the centennial of Rosa Parks’s birth and all the other holdings here at the National Archives.
It was a joy recently to meet Rose Stuckey Kirk, president of the Verizon Foundation, and to discover that we shared roots in Arkansas, the state where my maternal grandfather’s family began to create a new life for themselves soon after the Civil War. As the private sector partner of the National Archives, we at the Foundation for the National Archives thank the Verizon Foundation for its generous support of this important celebration and for helping us promote the work of the National Archives and the role it plays in preserving the vital records of the U.S. government. The support from the Verizon Foundation enables us to fulfill our mission of educating, enriching, and inspiring our fellow citizens with the documents of American democracy.
In just a few days there will be a rare three-day viewing in the National Archives’ magnificent Rotunda of the original document of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Foundation for the National Archives is honored to be a part of this celebration.
I hope you will join us at the National Archives for a New Year’s Eve “Watch Night” celebration or visit the Archives December 30, 2012 – January 1, 2013 to experience this amazing record of our shared history. Please visit EP150.com for more information on the Emancipation Proclamation and a full schedule of events.
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