Public to get rare look at the document that set U.S. slaves free

December 31, 1992|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

Washington -- The paper has yellowed and the ink has faded, but the Emancipation Proclamation still conveys the power of its promise to free millions of slaves.

Signed with a shaking hand by President Abraham Lincoln on New Year's Day 130 years ago, the groundbreaking document declared that "all persons held as slaves" in states that had risen up in rebellion "are, and henceforward shall be, free."

To mark the anniversary, the fragile five-page proclamation will be taken from a dark vault and put on display today for a five-day exhibition at the National Archives in Washington. This is the first time in more than 10 years that the light-sensitive papers have been seen here, and it could be another 10 years before they come out of the vault again.

Today's opening also is the first time the entire text has been displayed. In the past, only the first and last sections were shown, but now all five pages have been mounted in a glass

case. They are still legible, thanks to the elegant script of the clerk who prepared it for Lincoln.

Viewers can make out the president's signature along with that of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who witnessed the signing. "Sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity," Lincoln wrote, "I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God."

For the most part, the proclamation is a dryly worded legal document that displays little of the soaring rhetoric in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. But the proclamation's import was immense, changing the course of American history.

"The proclamation announced that if the Union won the war, slavery would be destroyed," said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University. Before then, he said, it was still possible that slavery would emerge from the war intact. "But after Jan. 1, there was no going back. It was the death sentence for slavery. This is one of the central documents of American history."

During the 19th century, the proclamation was displayed "but it suffered damage and we wouldn't want that to continue," said Milton Gustafson, chief of the National Archives' civil reference branch. "This five-day exhibit is a nice compromise between preserving it and exhibiting it."

Unlike the Bill of Rights and other 18th century documents, the Emancipation Proclamation is written on paper rather than parchment. Exposure to light causes the pages to turn brown and flake, Mr. Gustafson said.

Declared in 1863 amid the fury and uncertainty of the Civil War, the proclamation had little immediate impact. Slaves in border states like Maryland would remain in bondage for another two years. Those in areas controlled by Confederate armies were not going to be freed because of an edict from the Union capital of Washington.

But the decision lent a moral justification to a war that had thus far been waged to preserve the Union, and helped force the nation to live up to the idea that all men are created equal, a promise made 87 years before in a another great document displayed nearby -- the Declaration of Independence.

Moreover, it would prove to be the death knell of a national nightmare that kept roughly one-seventh of America's population chains. As word of the proclamation spread, many slaves began to liberate themselves, running off and joining the Union armies. By war's end, nearly 200,000 had served.

For many Americans, the yellowed pages carry a measure of personal meaning as well. "The Emancipation Proclamation is both a testament to the greatness of American democracy and the frustration inherent in a system which struggles to this day to make freedom a meaningful reality," said Wade Henderson, national legislative director for the NAACP in Washington.

"It's a painful reminder that the Constitution, the foundation of American democracy, didn't consider African-Americans citizens and it took a civil war and three amendments to guarantee their freedom," said Mr. Henderson, who plans to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. today.

"We have to build on the changes that started with our ancestors 130 years ago," he said. "There is still much that needs to be done."

4$ The words that freed the slaves.

LOOK AT HISTORY

What: The Emancipation Proclamation's 130th Anniversary Exhibition.

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. today through Monday, includinNew Year's Day.

Where: National Archives, Constitution Avenue, between 7th anstreets, Washington.

Admission: Free.

& Call (202) 501-5000.

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