By Edward Epstein
Monday, June 19, 2023
Visitors lined up today at the National Archives in Washington for a rare event -- a chance to view the original hand-written Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1 1863 freed "all persons held as slaves" within those states that had seceded from the union in a vain attempt to preserve the system of slave labor.
The Archives now aims to bring Lincoln's words front and center -- it has announced plans to put the historic proclamation, in which Lincoln broadened his aims for the Civil War from preserving the union to ending slavery and preserving the nation, on permanent display alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The double-sided five-page proclamation, written on paper rather than more permanent parchment, is badly faded and very fragile. The Archives takes it out of its climate- and light-controlled vaults for only about 36 hours a year for display on special occasions like today's Juneteenth celebration.
"I am proud that the National Archives will enshrine this seminal document for public display adjacent to our nation’s founding documents. Together, they tell a more comprehensive story of the history of all Americans and document progress in our nation’s continuous growth toward a more perfect Union,” said Colleen Shogan, archivist of the United States. That's Shogan pictured to the left, at the proclamation's temporary display.
She made the announcement on Saturday, as the Archives prepared to show the proclamation for Juneteenth, the newest federal holiday.
Shogan's announcement was short on details. She didn't say when the proclamation would be installed in the Archives' rotunda on Constitution Avenue along the National Mall, how much the project would cost or where the money will come from.
But her announcement did say, "The National Archives will commence an assessment to determine the best display environment considering the condition and importance of the original document. The current plan for display calls for showing one side of the Emancipation Proclamation, a double-sided five-page document, alongside facsimiles of the reverse pages. The original pages on display will be rotated on a regular basis to limit light exposure."
The three founding documents in the rotunda are encased in gold-plated titanium frames shielded by bulletproof glass. Lights are dim in the rotunda. Guards and video cameras stand watch as visitors file past. The documents are lowered into a vault after visitors are gone each day.
During World War II the three documents were taken to a safe location out of the public's eye.
On display today along with the proclamation, is General Order No. 3. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take command in the state. The 250,000 African-American slaves in Texas had no idea that they had been freed in 1863, since Texas was cut off from the rest of the Confederacy.
Granger issued his order, which the slaves called "Juneteenth," a combination of June and the 19th. Long celebrated by the African-American community, Juneteenth became a federal holiday on June 17, 2021 when President Joe Biden signed legislation making the day the newest federal holiday.
General Order No. 3 will return to archival storage after today's display. It will not go on display in the permanent rotunda exhibit.
Admission to the Archives is free and timed tickets are available at https://museum.archives.gov/visit.
Photo from the National Archives.