Emancipation Proclamation freed, if only briefly
John William Templeton, an African American historian from California, has been researching abolitionism and Abraham Lincoln and has come to know almost everything there is to know about the Emancipation Proclamation.
One thing he did not know, however, was how Lincoln’s landmark executive order really looked, because he’d never seen the rarely displayed original.
So Templeton trudged to the National Archives early Sunday morning, planted himself outside the bronze doors and became the first person to walk through the metal-detecting magnetometers, up the marble stairs, past the Public Vaults and the Magna Carta and America’s founding charters.
There, on the far side of the Rotunda Gallery, two of the five original pages of the Emancipation Proclamation sat under a plexiglass case, in front of two armed guards.
Archives conservators have briefly — and only partially — emancipated the delicate document for three days, putting it on public display from Sunday through Tuesday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary.
“I love to see primary sources,” Templeton said. “And for me, the Emancipation Proclamation is the most important document in African American history. This is it.”
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, declaring “all persons held as slaves” in Confederate territories to be “forever free.” The proclamation didn’t end slavery, but it did set in motion a sequence of events that led to the ratification of 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.
It is, the Archives said, “one of the great documents of human freedom.”
“On this 150th anniversary, we recall those who struggled with slavery in this country, the hope that sustained them and the inspiration the Emancipation Proclamation has given to those who seek justice,” U.S. Archivist David Ferriero recently told the Associated Press.
On Sunday, as the Emancipation Proclamation went on display, several hundred people were lined up outside the Archives, trying to avoid becoming human statuary in the raw winter wind.
“Is there something in the Bill of Rights about the right to freeze to death?” one man said.
Somebody asked somebody else if he’d read “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (not yet), and there was much talk of the movie that’s based on the book, “Lincoln,” which is set in the period between the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
Mike Schwartz, visiting from the Seattle area, had watched the film several nights earlier and was primed to see the Emancipation Proclamation. Good thing, since he wound up waiting nearly two hours with his parents, who were visiting from Arizona.
He’d already stopped at a Civil War site in Petersburg, Va., and visited the Lincoln Memorial. “I feel like I’m on the Lincoln tour,” he said.
As he read the document — “every word of it” — he tried to imagine what it was like when it was being written. “But it’s too much pressure to say, ‘Okay, now I have to feel the intensity of the moment,’ ” he said.
Still, he was moved, especially when he read that Lincoln had called for the freed slaves to be paid “reasonable wages.” As a social worker, Schwartz said, “that really resonated with me.”
Lincoln, he decided after reading the proclamation, was now his favorite American president, or at least 1B, alongside Thomas Jefferson. Amazing document, he declared.
And it could be had in many replicated forms in the Archives gift shop. Emancipation Proclamation posters and coffee mugs were $9.95, T-shirts were $22.95 and neckties bearing part of the proclamation were $45.95 — history as an accessory.
Former U.S. archivist Allen Weinstein once said that the most historically important item held by the National Archives would be “an unresolvable tossup” between the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta and the Emancipation Proclamation.
But while original copies of the first four documents are on permanent display at the Archives, the Emancipation Proclamation lives in an environmentally controlled storage vault, out of public sight for all but a few days each year. Its stand-in: A facsimile on permanent display at the back of the Public Vaults, near the Rotunda.
The original five-page proclamation was handwritten on poor-quality paper — not the sort of durable animal-hide parchment used for the country’s founding documents; in the years before it was turned over to the National Archives, in 1936, the Emancipation Proclamation was damaged by exposure to light and indelicate human handling.
The paper is now discolored and decaying, which is why it’s infrequently displayed, and only a few pages at a time.
Now, pages two and five are on display, with the Archives using high-quality facsimiles for pages one, three and four. On Sunday, many visitors lingered over the fifth page, which bears the presidential seal and Lincoln’s signature.
“I think it’s an underappreciated asset in American history,” said Templeton, the historian from California. “There should be more of a clamor for it to be displayed and seen.”
The document will be available for public viewing again on Monday morning, beginning at 10. The Archives will remain open through 1 a.m., with a ceremonial bell-ringing scheduled for midnight — a nod to the Watch Night tradition that began on Dec. 31, 1862, as congregants at black churches awaited word of Lincoln’s executive order.
On Tuesday morning, the scholar, singer and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon will read the Emancipation Proclamation at 9 in front of the first 100 visitors to have lined up outside the Archives. Historical reenactors portraying Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and others will appear throughout the day. And, of course, the document will be displayed until 5 p.m.
Then, when the Archives closes for the day, the Emancipation Proclamation will be history, again.