A page from the history books Archive: The delicate script of the Emanci- pation Proclamation was strong enough to turn a nation around.

January 21, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Abraham Lincoln found his hand shaking when he sat down in his study to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, the landmark document in the liberation of American slaves.

He had spent most of his day on Jan. 1, 1863, greeting guests at the traditional New Year's Day reception at the White House, shaking hands with his Cabinet, the diplomatic corps, Army and Navy officers and finally the public.

"If my name ever goes down in history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it," Lincoln said, according to the historian Gerald J. Prokopowicz. "If my hand trembles when I sign the Proclamation, all who examine it hereafter will say 'He hesitated.' "

The document Lincoln signed that day is now too frail and fragile to be displayed for more than a few days each year. The flowing elegance of the 19th-century penmanship has faded to an antique brown. But his signature remains clear on the old paper, neat and modest, the hand firm and strong. He did not tremble.

"I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing the right thing than in signing this paper," he said, recounts John Hope Franklin, the historian of the Proclamation, in his account written for the National Archives.

The Emancipation Proclamation is on view this week at the Archives, to mark the anniversary of the document and as a prelude to February's Black History Month. For this one week a year the Proclamation shares the great rotunda with those other great charters of freedom, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta.

Freedom came later

The Proclamation, in fact, did not immediately free a single slave. The rebellious states of the Confederacy at which it was directed, and where 3 million blacks were enslaved, simply ignored it. And it did not apply to another million slaves in the loyal states of the North, or in border states like Maryland, which Lincoln wanted to keep from joining the Confederacy.

In Maryland, slaves were not officially emancipated until a new state constitution was passed in January 1864. Newspapers that carried reports of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 still carried advertisements for the recovery of runaway "Negroes."

"I don't care how people want to view it, slavery was a cancer on American society," says Walter B. Hill Jr., a senior archivist and specialist in African-American history.

"Enslavement of millions of people was the greatest contradiction in American history," he says. "That was the guilt that people lived with until 1865."

Nationally, slavery was constitutionally abolished only with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. When he signed it, Lincoln said: "This amendment is a King's cure for all the evils. It winds up the whole thing."

Standing before the case holding the five handwritten pages of the Proclamation, Hill says: "What you have here really is a transformation of the war.

"The [Civil War] initially is a war to save the union," he says. "There is a philosophical and ideological change that takes place significantly by '63. This is a war after '63 to destroy slavery. The war is really changed from saving the union to destroying slavery and freeing slaves."

Lincoln himself underwent a transformation. Always anti-slavery and pledged to prevent its spread, he nevertheless approached emancipation cautiously, overruling Union generals who freed slaves in territories they occupied.

He had doubts about his constitutional authority to prohibit slavery where it already existed. He, in fact, based the Proclamation on his war powers as commander-in-chief of the the armed forces. And he waited until after the Union "victory" at Antietam in September 1862 to announce he would make the Proclamation.

He thought about emancipation all through the summer and fall of 1862 and clearly understood the magnitude of what he was going to do and its implication for the nation. He signed the document, he said, as a simple "act of justice."

"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," the Proclamation says.

Slaves were activists

Slaves had always perceived the war as a war of freedom, Hill says. So that even early in the war when Union troops came south, hundreds and eventually thousands of slaves left plantations and went behind Union lines.

"That's why some scholars look at slaves as being very activist in their own freedom," he says. "They pushed Union commanders, they pushed members of Congress to do something about it."

Ira Berlin, the acclaimed University of Maryland historian and Hill's doctoral mentor, takes the position that slaves were on the "cutting edge of the whole liberation thrust and the destruction of slavery."

The immediate effect of the Proclamation was to inspire black men to enlist in the Union Army. A crucial paragraph declared "suitable persons" would be "received into the armed service of the United States."

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