"By the President of the United States of America. A Proclamation. Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States ... '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'; ... I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States, in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, 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. ... And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God. ... Done at the City of Washington this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh."
Printed broadside document (21 3/4 x 17 3/8 in.; 552 x 442 mm), single column, 52 lines and headline, signed by President Lincoln ("Abraham Lincoln"), countersigned by the Secretary of State ("William H. Seward") and by the President's Private Secretary ("Jno. G. Nicolay"), who certifies that this printing of the Emancipation Proclamation is "A true copy, with autograph signatures of the President and the Secretary of State." [Philadelphia: Printed by Frederick Leypoldt for George Henry Boker and Charles Godfrey Leland to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission, June 1864]
Robert F. Kennedy's copy of the "Authorized Edition" of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of forty-eight copies printed to benefit the Great Central Fair for the Sanitary Commission in 1864.
Lincoln said of the Emancipation Proclamation, "If my name goes down in history, it will be for this act." This copy of the document inextricably links the Lincoln administration's movement toward the abolition of slavery with the Kennedy administration's efforts a century later to pass and enforce Civil Rights legislation.
The Emancipation Proclamation is as complex as the man who wrote it—and the subject, if possible, of an even wider range of interpretations. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at the New York Civil War Centennial Commission's Emancipation Proclamation Observance, yoked the Emancipation Proclamation with the Declaration of Independence, claiming that had the United States "done nothing more in its whole history than to create just [these] two documents, its contribution to civilization would be imperishable. ... The Declaration of Independence proclaimed to a world, organized politically and spiritually around the concept of the inequality of man, that the dignity of human personality was inherent in man as a living being. The Emancipation Proclamation was the offspring of the Declaration of Independence. It was a constructive use of the force of law to uproot a social order which sought to separate liberty from a segment of humanity." But to Richard Hofstadter, the highly influential Marxist historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, the Emancipation Proclamation was simply a "propaganda" ploy intended to protect "the free white worker" and having "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading."
Hofstadter's cynical study has inspired three generations of academic and popular revisionists, and yet somehow it is King's view of the Emancipation Proclamation that continues to hold sway. As Allen Guelzo states in his recent monograph on the document, "if the Emancipation Proclamation was not ... the most eloquent of Lincoln's writings, it was unquestionably the most epochal." Guelzo's simple pronouncement embodies the intricate ambiguity of Emancipation Proclamation: even those who believe it to be the greatest act of the greatest American president feel the need to apologize for it.
The Emancipation Proclamation may not have fully satisfied any of Lincoln's constituencies—but it satisfied Lincoln's (admittedly fluid) commitment to constitutionality. And it was enough. It made into the law of the land the moral truth expressed in the Declaration of Independence: "all men are created equal." It linked emancipation to the war effort, demonstrating, for the first time, President Lincoln's acknowledgement that the Civil War was being waged not only to preserve the Union, but also to abolish slavery. And, although it freed only the slaves in the states and territories "in rebellion against the United States," it led directly to the total abolition of slavery in the country.
Frederick Douglass, speaking at New York's Cooper Institute just a month after the document was issued, called the Emancipation Proclamation "the greatest event of our nation's history." Speaking from the same stage where three years earlier Abraham Lincoln had introduced himself to Eastern voters, Douglass thundered, "I hail it as the doom of Slavery in all the States. We are all liberated by this proclamation. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated."
Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation
Although Frederick Douglass—a not infrequent critic of President Lincoln—and many of his contemporaries welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation as a signal achievement in American history, today the act seems just as well known, as Allen Guelzo commented, "for what it did not do" as for what it did accomplish. Two principal failings have been ascribed to the Proclamation. First, that it is not as eloquent as Lincoln's other most famous writings, principally the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address. Second, that it freed slaves only in territories of active rebellion against the United States—the very territories, presumably, where the federal government had the least ability to enforce its provisions. Both of these points have been employed to justify the belief that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation grudgingly and without personal zeal. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Lincoln is, of course, susceptible to the charge that he was not an abolitionist. After all, within the first few minutes of his First Inaugural Address, 4 March 1861, he stated, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Lincoln may even be susceptible to the charge that he was not free from the racial prejudices of his time. But Lincoln is not susceptible to the charge that he was not wholly and passionately opposed to slavery.
In 1855, Lincoln confided to his good friend Joshua Speed that he was still tormented by the memory of having seen fourteen years earlier a group of shackled slaves aboard a steamship traveling from Louisville to St. Louis. And while Lincoln had undoubtedly subscribed to an anti-slavery view for decades, he only began to have the opportunity to openly express it when he ran for the United States Senate against Stephen Douglas in 1858. As candidate Lincoln said at a Chicago rally in July of that year, "I have always hated slavery, I think, as much as any Abolitionist. I have been an Old Line Whig. I have always hated it, but I have always been quiet about it until this new era of the Nebraska Bill began."
A triumvirate of brilliant indictments of slavery from the period of the late 1850s survived among the pre-presidential papers that Lincoln entrusted to Mary Todd Lincoln's cousin and close friend, Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, when he departed Springfield for Washington as president-elect. These all likely date to a two-year period, June 1857 through June 1859, when Lincoln, who had served a single term in the House of Representatives a decade earlier, reentered politics and made himself a viable candidate for national office. These fragments include Lincoln's earliest formulation of his "House Divided" doctrine, which demonstrated his willingness to confront an issue that most politicians chose to avoid ("I believe this government can not endure permanently, half slave, and half free"), as well as his famous syllogism on slavery ("If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may of right, enslave B. why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally that he may enslave A?").
Both of these pronouncements are principally concerned with what Don Fehrenbacher calls "the divisive influence of slavery." In the third manuscript, Lincoln condemns not simply the threat posed by slavery to the solvency of the American union, but the fundamental and overriding evil of slavery in any circumstance. The injustice of slavery is abundantly plain, Lincoln writes. "So plain, that the most dumb and stupid slave that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged. So plain that no one, high or low, ever does mistake it, except in a plainly selfish way; for although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself." Lincoln recast this conceit at least twice, most strikingly when addressing the 140th Indiana Regiment during the final weeks of the Civil War: "I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear any one, arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."
But despite his personal abhorrence of slavery, Lincoln believed himself constrained by the Constitution from issuing an executive order of full and immediate emancipation. He expressed his policy most clearly in his reply to Horace Greeley's letter-editorial, "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," published in the New York Tribune. Greeley accused the President of being "strangely and disastrously remiss" in delaying emancipation; of being "unduly influenced by the counsels ... of certain fossil politicians hailing from Border Slave States"; and of seeming to pursue a "preposterous and futile" strategy by attempting "to put down the Rebellion and at the same time uphold its inciting cause."
Greeley printed Lincoln's response in the 25 August 1862 issue of the Tribune: "As to the policy I 'seem to be pursuing' as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt. I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be 'the Union as it was.' If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views."
Lincoln ended his letter to Greeley with a noteworthy coda, "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free." The President chose not to share with Greeley and the Tribune readers a more momentous statement: that he had, in fact, already drafted a proclamation of emancipation and was simply awaiting an auspicious time to promulgate it.
Lincoln read the first draft of what came to be known as the preliminary emancipation proclamation to his cabinet on 22 July 1862. Given the criticism directed at Lincoln for moving too slowly on the issue of emancipation, it is worth noting that this first reading took place just sixteen months after he had pledged not to "interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists." He continued to revise the document throughout the summer and, following the Union victory at Antietam, he issued the preliminary proclamation—which managed to balance daring with prudence—on 22 September. This first proclamation essentially gave the Rebel States one hundred days to return to the Union, after which period any slaves within their borders would be "then, thenceforward, and forever free." Any rebellious states that returned to the Union in the interim would be able to adopt immediate or gradual—and compensated—abolition of slavery within their borders.
In their diaries both Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded that Lincoln claimed to have followed Divine direction in issuing the order. Welles wrote that the President "remarked that he had made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle, he would consider it an indication of Divine will, and that it was his duty to move forward in the cause of emancipation. ... God had decided this question in favor of the slaves."
Although immediate reaction to the preliminary proclamation was favorable, criticism soon followed. Some Federal Army officers resigned their commissions rather than command troops in what was likely to become a war of abolition. At the same time, the anti-slavery faction in the North attacked Lincoln for allowing slavery to remain in effect in Unionist Border States and former Confederate territories now under Union control.
The preliminary proclamation did help solidify European support of the Federal cause, but otherwise the one hundred days were discouraging for Lincoln: the Federal Army suffered a humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg on 13 December, and a crisis in his Cabinet nearly resulted in the resignations of secretaries Seward and Chase. Still, Lincoln continued resolute and on Christmas Eve he confided to the Senate's most ardent abolitionist, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, that the Emancipation Proclamation would be issued. The following week, Lincoln listened to suggestions and amendments from his Cabinet and then retired to draft the final version of the historic document.
If Lincoln's prose is legalistic, it is because he wanted to be sure that the Emancipation Proclamation could withstand potential court challenges to its constitutionality. If he still withheld emancipation from the Border States, from Union-controlled parishes in Louisiana, and from the forty-eight Virginia counties that were in the process of reconstituting themselves as West Virginia, it is because of his allegiance to due process. He would make this clear yet again in an April 1864 letter to A. G. Hodges of Frankfort, Kentucky: "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath."
Even while acknowledging the restraints placed on him by the Constitution, Lincoln did more than anyone before or since to bring freedom to America's slaves, and he rightly earned the title of the Great Emancipator. When on 1 January 1863 he left the annual White House New Year's Day reception to sign into law the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln observed, "I never in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper."
With his signature he declared nearly four million slaves to be free—the first time that the federal government had set slaves free; in practical terms, as many as 50,000 men, women, and children were immediately freed. The Emancipation Proclamation provided, also for the first time, that former slaves "will be received into the armed service of the United States," and by the conclusion of the Civil War, more than 180,000 free blacks—most of whom were emancipated slaves—had worn the blue uniform of the Federal Army. The Emancipation Proclamation also eliminated the references in the preliminary proclamation to compensated emancipation and colonization of former slaves, thus indicating, albeit subtly, that the newly freed persons would make their future lives within the United States. Decades of political and moral compromise in the name of "Union" were ended: the war to restore the Union became a war of liberation, and the way was made clear for the Thirteenth Amendment, which Lincoln would proudly see sent to the states but would not live to see ratified.
If the language of the Emancipation Proclamation was not eloquent, its intention and result were. And any lack of eloquence was compensated for by the conclusion of Lincoln's annual message to Congress, delivered on 1 December 1862, exactly a month before he signed the Proclamation. In this State of the Union speech, Lincoln could write of his desire—and the country's need—for emancipation without the worry of legal challenges: "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. ... The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth."
Due to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the last best hope of earth was nobly saved.
The United States Sanitary Commission and the Authorized Printing of the Emancipation Proclamation
The United States Sanitary Commission was established in June 1861 to assist sick and wounded Union soldiers and their dependent families. The Commission was supported almost entirely by private contributions and provided aid in myriad ways, including hospital assistance, field ambulance and hospital service, field and camp rations, blankets and tents, and financial assistance for medical care for veterans and for the families of soldiers killed in action. The work of the Sanitary Commission was absolutely vital for the Federal Army, especially their maintenance of hygienic hospital and camp conditions: a soldier in the Civil War was in fact twice as likely to die of disease as of a wound.
The most successful source of funding for the Sanitary Commission was a series of "Fairs" held in major cities: Boston, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, Baltimore, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. These Fairs displayed a huge range of donated goods, both antique and newly manufactured, that were sold to benefit the Commission. Lincoln was a keen supporter of the Sanitary Commission. Just three months after its founding, he sent a strong endorsement of the Commission to General Winfield Scott: "The Sanitary Commission is doing a work of great humanity, and of direct practical value to the nation, in this time of its trial. It is entitled to the gratitude and confidence of the people, and I trust it will be generously supported. There is no agency through which voluntary offerings of patriotism can be more effectively made."
The President also often donated autographs to the Fairs. Indeed, he gave the autograph draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the Northwestern Fair for the Sanitary Commission, held at Chicago in the autumn of 1863. Lincoln made the donation somewhat reluctantly, writing the Ladies Committee in charge of the Fair that "he had some desire to retain the paper; but if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers that will be better." (The draft was purchased at the Fair by Thomas W. Bryan, who presented it to the Chicago Soldiers' Home. It was subsequently lost in the Great Chicago Fire.)
One of the largest and most successful Sanitary Commission Fairs was held at Philadelphia from 7 to 29 June 1864. The Great Central Fair (so-called because the central states of New Jersey and Delaware joined with Pennsylvania in sponsoring it) was housed in temporary buildings that spanned Logan Square and offered an astonishing variety of merchandise, including finely bound books, jewelry, clothing, carpets, china and porcelain, shoes and boots, musical instruments, photographs, perfume, prints and pictures, stoves and ranges, a yacht, battlefield relics, all manner of foodstuffs, and autograph letters and documents of the presidents and other persons of note.
All of these goods were gathered together to celebrate what committee member Charles Stillé termed the twin sisters of the Civil War: "patriotism and holy charity." In his Memorial of the Great Central Fair for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Stillé wrote that "No sooner has the smoke cleared away from the battle-field, than—to borrow the language of Mr. Everett, in his Gettysburg oration—angel visitants, in the shape of those whose hearts are stronger than their hands, have hastened to soothe and relieve those who have suffered in their stead. ... The Great Central Fair is then to be considered not merely as a grand collection of all that was curious and valuable in works of industry and art, freely offered in aid of a benevolent enterprise; but also as one, and a most significant one, of the many indications of the truest and most wide-spread patriotic enthusiasm." After expenses (which were confined almost entirely to the cost of erecting and then striking the elaborate temporary exhibition halls), the Great Central Fair raised over $1,010,000 for the Sanitary Commission.
President Lincoln was invited to attend the opening celebration of the Fair, but had to postpone his visit until 16 June. On that day he addressed the organizers and attendees of the Fair, thanking them for proving to the soldier in the field that "he is not forgotten" and praising the donors to the Fair for their "voluntary contributions, given freely, zealously, and earnestly, on top of all the disturbances of business, of all the disorders, the taxation and burdens that the war has imposed upon us, giving proof that the national resources are not at all exhausted, that the national spirit of patriotism is even firmer and stronger than at the commencement of the rebellion."
Although Lincoln attended the Great Central Fair for only one day, his presence pervaded the event in the form of a specially printed and signed authorized edition of the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite some initial lack of enthusiasm to the preliminary proclamation (and retrospective criticism of the final proclamation itself), the North quickly embraced and celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation. In less than two years, more than fifty separate editions—including many decorative broadsides—were issued to meet public demand for the text.
Two ardent Unionists from Philadelphia, George Henry Boker (1832–1890) and Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903), conceived the idea of printing a limited edition of the Proclamation for sale at the Great Central Fair. Earlier in 1864, a fundraising broadside of the Proclamation was printed in San Francisco, and three surviving copies of this printing have Lincoln's signature. However, the San Francisco broadside severely cut the text, retaining only about half of Lincoln's words. The Leland-Boker broadside is the only printing of the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation to be signed by President Lincoln; it is additionally signed by Secretary of State Seward and John G. Nicolay, the President's personal secretary.
Boker and Leland were both men of letters and strong supporters of Lincoln's emancipation policy. Boker was a founding member of Philadelphia's Union League, and in his capacity as president of that organization he conferred on Lincoln an honorary membership. Boker was not a strict partisan, however, and among other occasional poems of the Civil War he satirized Mary Todd Lincoln's White House excesses in "The Queen Must Dance." He later served in ministerial posts to Turkey and Russia.
Leland edited Continental Monthly during the war years and wrote many pro-Union editorials and pamphlets. He is credited with (or blamed for) helping to moderate Northern policy from abolition to emancipation. Leland's most enduring creation was the dialect-humor character of Hans Breitmann. His Ye Book of Copperheads was owned by Lincoln, and that copy was given to the author after the President's assassination. Leland took up the sword as well as the pen in the Union cause and actually saw action during the Gettysburg campaign as an enlisted man. From shortly after the end of the war until his death, Leland lived in Europe as an expatriate.
Frederick Leypoldt printed two distinct issues of the Emancipation Proclamation for Leland and Boker. The first had spaces indicated for the signatures of Lincoln and Seward (but not Nicolay), but for some reason this printing was suppressed and never submitted to the President and Secretary of States for signing. A slightly different typesetting was approved and forty-eight copies pulled. In addition to adding a designation for Nicolay's signature, the published edition also changed the design of the headlines; corrected "City of Orleans" from the trial, or rejected, issue to "City of New Orleans"; and corrected the beginning of the penultimate paragraph from "In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my name" to "In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand."
The Leland and Boker broadside edition was publicized in the 17 June 1864 issue of Our Daily Fare, the promotional newspaper of the Great Central Fair. "The original Proclamation of Emancipation, signed by President Lincoln, sold at the Chicago Fair for three thousand dollars. A few duplicates, with the 'veritable and authenticated' signatures of Abraham Lincoln, Secretary Seward, and Mr. Nicolay, are for sale at the Daily Fare table; price only ten dollars. Every branch of the Union League, and indeed every patriot, should be proud to own one of these. They were obtained for the Fair, by Messrs. George H. Boker and Charles Godfrey Leland, who guarantee the authenticity of the signatures."
A few copies of the Authorized Edition of the Emancipation Proclamation were unsold during the three weeks of the Fair. (They may have been slightly overshadowed by the presence at the Fair of Lincoln's autograph draft of his 25 July 1862 Proclamation of the Act to Suppress Insurrection, which was donated by Lincoln through the offices of James Welling, editor of the National Intelligencer, and purchased for the Free Library of Philadelphia.) A few of the unsold copies were presented to libraries and five others were sold for the benefit of the Sanitary Commission at the National Sailors Fair, held at Boston in November 1864.
Only twenty-five other copies of this precious relic are now recorded, nineteen of which are in institutions. None have a provenance as evocative as the present copy.
Census of Surviving Copies of the Leland-Boker Authorized Edition of the Emancipation Proclamation
· Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois
· Boston Athenaeum, Boston, Massachusetts
· British Museum, London
· Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn, New York
· Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma
· Gilder Lehrman Collection on deposit at The New-York Historical Society, New York, New York
· Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2)
· Huntington Library, Pasadena, California
· Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
· Library of Congress, Washington, DC
· Lincoln Financial Collection, Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, Indiana
· Meisei University, Tokyo, Japan
· National Constitution Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
· Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
· Union League Club of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
· University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
· University of Delaware, Wilmington, Delaware
· University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In addition to the Kennedy copy, six other copies are currently held in private collections.
Robert F. Kennedy and the Centennial Celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation
The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation sparked a series of celebrations of the document across the country in 1962 and 1963 and also inspired a scholarly reassessment of the Proclamation. In the first book devoted to the composition and promulgation of the act, historian John Hope Franklin argued that the Emancipation Proclamation "has maintained its place as one of America's truly important documents" despite having "neither the felicity of the Declaration of Independence nor the simple grandeur of the Gettysburg Address." But, Franklin continued, "in a very real sense, it was a step toward the extension of the ideal of equality about which Jefferson had written," and eventually "the greatness of the document dawned upon the nation and the world. Gradually, it took its place with the great documents of human freedom."
Even dissenting scholars seemed willing to recognize the importance of the Proclamation. In his editorial for the Winter 1963 issue of The Journal of Negro Education, Charles H. Thomson charged that most of the participants in the centennial celebrations did "not know that contents of the Proclamation or the conditions under which it was issued. ... Contrary to current popular opinion the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all of the slaves, nor was it intended to do so, as so many people think. ...The Proclamation was deliberately limited in scope and was issued more as a step in the prosecution of the War than as a matter of humanitarian concern." Yet Thomson concluded his commentary with this acknowledgment: "That it did not go as far as some people thought it should have gone, or was motivated more by military necessity than humanitarian concern, does not mean that it had little or no significance. It suggested that the conflict which began as a 'white man's war' to save the Union, with the Negro as an irrelevant bystander, was on its way to being changed to a struggle to free upward of four million slaves, with the indispensable aid of 186,000 black soldiers."
Academic journals were not the only ones to recognize the centennial of the Proclamation, however. Ebony devoted its entire September 1963 issue to the document, featuring a portrait of Frederick Douglass on the cover. The publisher's letter sets the tone for the issue, as John H. Johnson declares the centennial not a time for celebration but for "rededication to the unfinished business of eradicating segregation and discrimination" because the "freedom proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln is not yet a reality." Following the publisher's statement are letters striking similar themes from President Kennedy and former presidents Eisenhower and Truman. Herbert Hoover was too ill to compose a letter for the commemorative issue, and a relevant passage from his book The Challenge to Liberty is printed instead.
On 28 December 1962 President John F. Kennedy issued a proclamation recognizing the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, but also recognizing that "the goal of equal rights for all our citizens is still unreached, and the securing of these rights is one of the great unfinished tasks of our democracy." Kennedy's proclamation went on to declare "that the Emancipation Proclamation expresses our Nation's policy, rounded on justice and morality, and that it is therefore fitting and proper to commemorate the centennial of the historic Emancipation Proclamation throughout the year 1963.
"I call upon the Governors of the States, mayors of cities, and other public officials, as well as private persons, organizations, and groups, to observe the centennial by appropriate ceremonies.
"I request the United States Commission on Civil Rights to plan and participate in appropriate commemorative activities recognizing the centennial of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation; and I also request the Commission on Civil Rights and other Federal agencies to cooperate fully with State and local governments during 1963 in commemorating these events.
"I call upon all citizens of the United States and all officials of the United States and of every State and local government to dedicate themselves to the completion of the task of assuring that every American, regardless of his race, religion, color, or national origin, enjoys all the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States."
On Lincoln's birthday, 12 February 1963, President Kennedy also hosted a White House reception commemorating the centennial of Emancipation Proclamation, to which were invited not only Civil Rights leaders, but also thousands of ordinary citizens from around the United States. In light of all this activity, it seems harshly unfair that Allen Guelzo—particularly given his deep appreciation of Lincoln's "prudence"—later commented that the "centennial itself was a disappointing affair, capped by President John F. Kennedy's refusal to give the principal address at ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial on September 22, 1963, for fear of suffering deeper losses of Southern Democrats in his reelection bid the next year."
In fact, responsibility for much of the Kennedy administration's official observation of the centennial fell to the President's brother and Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. This was highly appropriate since Robert Kennedy, as the head of the Department of Justice, was ultimately in charge of enforcing the nation's law—including recently passed Civil Rights legislation. In these efforts, Kennedy was following very much in the footsteps of Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates, who in November 1862 had ruled that free blacks born in the United States were American citizens.
Robert Kennedy delivered two major addresses on the Emancipation Proclamation, one principally historical and the other political. The historical address was given, appropriately, at the National Archives, 4 January 1963, at the opening of an exhibition surveying the Emancipation Proclamation. Speaking in sight of the engrossed, signed, and sealed official copy of the Proclamation, Kennedy observed that "In the long course of the American commitment to freedom and dignity of the individual, no single deed has done more than Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to redeem the pledge upon which this Republic was founded—the pledge that all men are created equal, are endowed equally with unalienable rights and are entitled equally to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
While celebrating the Proclamation, Kennedy reminded his listeners that the exhibition also provided "a moment to reflect on how far we have come in these hundred years toward the goal of equality and to appraise the problems and difficulties that still stand between us and that goal. ... The ideal of freedom has traveled a long and hard road through human history. Yet the record shows that the ideal persists and has an explosive power greater than that locked up within the atom. It shows that this ideal is the strongest motive of human action—that it fortifies the human will in the face of adversity and force and terror—and that the passion for equal rights for all is the ultimate weapon in the struggle for independence and human dignity." The Emancipation Proclamation, the Attorney General concludes, "gave both shelter and force" to the commitment to human rights.
Some ten weeks later, Robert Kennedy delivered another speech at Freedom Hall, Louisville, for Kentucky's centennial observance of the Emancipation Proclamation. This address links the efforts of his Justice Department—and of his brother's entire administration—more directly to Lincoln's legislation. "Lincoln," he said, "described the Emancipation Proclamation as the central act of his administration and 'the great event of the nineteenth century.' Today, we can maintain that America's present accelerating effort toward the fulfillment of Lincoln's central act is the great event of our century. We have come to the time in our history to show the world—and ourselves—what our ideals mean in practice: that Americans are generous, not merely affluent; that we are concerned with character, not with color; that, in Lincoln's words about his Proclamation, we seek progress 'not in anger, but in expectation of a greater good.'"
Kennedy speaks next of the necessity of enforcing voting rights: "We must make sure that the Negro citizens of all states can fully and freely exercise their franchise. This may take strenuous litigation and great energy on the part of many people. But it is worthwhile as we have found out in the past two years. Under existing law the Department of Justice has filed 35 suits—25 of them in this administration—to end discrimination against Negroes who seek to vote. ... The difficulty is that each one of these cases requires extremely detailed preparation and many months to litigate. ... But the results are worth the effort. Where the voting suits have been completed, Negroes have been registered in increasing numbers."
Despite facing difficulties, Kennedy expresses his belief, which had been shared by Lincoln, in the inherent fairness of Americans. "My own experience in the Department of Justice over the past two years has convinced me beyond question that the vast majority of the people in all the states—in the North, South, East and West—want to obey the law, and that the American people as a whole demand progress in this field and will not accept the status quo." But even as this speech focused more closely on contemporary Civil Rights legislation, the Attorney General returned to the touchstone of the Emancipation Proclamation, which, he states, "had and has great meaning for America. It has brought the American Negro within calling distance at least of all the privileges and protections of our Constitution and Bill of Rights."
Just over a year after speaking about the Emancipation in Kentucky, Robert Kennedy purchased a copy of the Authorized Edition of the Proclamation for his own collection of historical American manuscripts. The copy appeared in an auction of "Important Manuscripts" at the Parke-Bernet Galleries, 31 March 1964. Kennedy was at this time serving as Attorney General in the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson, who had succeeded to office after President Kennedy's assassination; Robert Kennedy was at the same time beginning to weigh a run for the United States Senate from New York.
Kennedy had been collecting American manuscripts for more than decade. During a September 1957 appearance on Edward R. Murrow's television show, Person to Person, Kennedy showed the interviewer letters by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as an early legal brief by Lincoln, that the then-chief counsel of the Senate's Select Committee on Labor and Management called "one of my prize possessions." Kennedy may have been influenced in collecting by his mother, who obtained for him (and her other children as well) books inscribed by notable political figures like Winston Churchill, Herbert Hoover, and Charles de Gaulle.
The Parke-Bernet catalogue description might have inspired Kennedy's participation: "In the climate of present-day America, it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the first substantive move by the Federal government in the direction of insuring equality of citizenship. ... The text of this act, initiat[ed] a Federal policy which may have often wavered but is even more forcefully proclaimed today. ..." Kennedy purchased the document, for $9,500, through a bidding agent, Gerald J. Shea, but he took the unusual step of allowing himself to be identified as the buyer a few days after the sale, indicating, perhaps, that the purchase was a political statement as well as a private acquisition.
For the rest of Robert Kennedy's brief life—and, indeed, until his widow, Ethel Kennedy, sold the family home, Hickory Hill, earlier this year—the Emancipation Proclamation held pride of place among his manuscripts, hanging between his own appointment as Attorney General and a privately printed broadside edition of his brother's Inaugural Address.
As we draw near to the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, it is difficult to comprehend that during its centennial celebration, John Hope Franklin could preface his pioneering study of the document by writing, "As a war measure its significance is, perhaps, fairly well known. As a moral force during and after the war, its importance is, to some students of the period, elusive. As a great American document of freedom it has been greatly neglected."
Thanks to Franklin's monograph and the efforts of many others (including Robert F. Kennedy), the Emancipation Proclamation is no longer neglected. Today the Emancipation Proclamation is rightly recognized as a towering moral statement on human freedom.
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