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The Emancipation Proclamation

“All persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thence forward, and forever free…”

“Authorized Edition,” with the complete text of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln as President, William Seward as Secretary of State, and John Nicolay, Private Secretary to the President, January 1, 1863 [printed and signed in 1864].

1144. On September 22, 1862, in a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln warned Southern states that if they did not abandon the war, they would lose their slaves. As he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863, slavery in the United States at last approached its demise.

The Emancipation Proclamation was the most important act of Lincoln’s presidency. Its lines reveal the major themes of the Civil War: slavery as the central issue of the war; the courting of border states; Lincoln’s hopes that the rebellious states could somehow be convinced to come back into the Union; Constitutional and popular constraints that made earlier emancipation impossible; the role of black soldiers; America’s place in the world.

In addition to its moral weight, the Proclamation’s tangible aid to the Union cause was decisive. It deprived the Confederacy of essential labor by giving millions of slaves a reason to escape to Union lines. It encouraged the enlistment of black soldiers. It prevented Europe from supporting the Confederacy. Without the Proclamation, even Union victory itself might not have been the result of the war.
Frederick Douglass, speaking at The Cooper Institute in New York, February 6, 1863, ably discussed the Proclamation and its effects:

“I congratulate you, upon what may be called the greatest event of our nation’s history, if not the greatest event of the century. In the eye of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, there is not now, and there has not been, since the 1st day of January, a single slave lawfully deprived of Liberty in any of the States now recognized as in Rebellion against the National Government. In all these States Slavery is now in law, as in fact, a system of lawless violence, against which the slave may lawfully defend himself… The change in attitude of the Government is vast and startling. For more than sixty years the Federal Government has been little better than a stupendous engine of Slavery and oppression, through which Slavery has ruled us, as with a rod of iron… Assuming that our Government and people will sustain the President and the Proclamation, we can scarcely conceive of a more complete revolution in the position of a nation… I hail it as the doom of Slavery in all the States…. At last the out-spread wings of the American Eagle afford shelter and protection to men of all colors, all countries and climes, and the long oppressed black man may honorably fall or gloriously flourish under the star-spangled banner.

I stand here tonight not only as a colored man and an American, but by the express decision of the Attorney-General of the United States, as a colored citizen, having, in common with all other citizens, a stake in the safety, prosperity, honor, and glory of a common country. 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, and may strike with all their might, even if they do hurt the Rebels, at their most sensitive point. [Applause.] I congratulate you upon this amazing change–the amazing approximation toward the sacred truth of human liberty.”

The Leland-Boker Edition of the Proclamation,
Authorized for the Sanitary Commission

This “Authorized Edition” of the Emancipation Proclamation was printed and signed in June of 1864 as a special souvenir to be sold for the Philadelphia Great Central Sanitary Fair of June 7-29, 1864. The Sanitary Fairs were created to raise money for sick and wounded soldiers, and to improve conditions in military camps. According to historian James McPherson,

“[T]wo soldiers died of disease for every one killed in battle… Disease hit Civil War armies in two waves. The first was an epidemic of childhood maladies, mainly measles and mumps… The second wave consisted of camp and campaign diseases caused by bad water, bad food, exposure and mosquitoes. These included the principal killer diseases of the Civil War: dysentery, typhoid and malaria.”
The Sanitary Fair’s role in ameliorating conditions was of paramount importance, and Lincoln’s support of the Sanitary Commission, though given begrudgingly at first, grew warmly as its work progressed. Even so, a soldier in the Civil War was ten times more likely to die of disease than a soldier of World War I.
The Great Central Sanitary Fair held in Logan Square in Philadelphia had the honor of being the only event of this kind attended by President Lincoln. His address, delivered on 16 June, 1864, caused such an outpouring of emotions among spectators that officials realized it would be dangerous for him to attend another. His impassioned speech explained the importance of the Sanitary Commission’s work:
“War at its best, is terrible, and this war of ours, in its magnitude and in its duration is one of the most terrible. … it has carried mourning to almost every home, until it can almost be said that the `heavens are hung in black.’ Yet the war continues … The Sanitary Commission, with all its benevolent labors … [has] contributed to the comfort and relief of the soldiers…. who takes his life in his hands and goes to fight the battles of his country… [The Commission provides] voluntary contributions, given zealously, and earnestly, on top of all the disturbances of business, of all the disorders, of all the taxation, and of all the burdens that the war has imposed upon us, giving proof that the national resources are not at all exhausted, and that the national spirit of patriotism is even firmer and stronger than at the commencement of the war.” (Basler, VII: pp. 394-396)

The Sanitary Commission also allowed friends and loved ones at home to feel as if they were a part of the war effort. When Northerners attended fairs, donated money or goods, or volunteered their time, they were actively aiding “their” soldier at the front. Autographs of leading Americans were often sold at the Sanitary Fairs. However, only the Great Central Fair commissioned a printing of the Proclamation.
The present dramatic printing was created by two eminent Philadelphia men, dedicated to the Union and profoundly opposed to slavery. Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) studied with Bronson Alcott as a youth and later attended Princeton. From 1857 he was the editor of Graham’s Magazine, and in 1862 took charge of the Continental Monthly, a Boston paper conceived as an organ for the Union cause. In that role he later claimed to have “coined the term emancipation as a substitute for the disreputable term abolition” (DAB). In 1863, he enlisted in a Pennsylvania artillery regiment that fought at Gettysburg. George Henry Boker (1823-1890), his partner in this edition of the Emancipation Proclamation, was the scion of a Philadelphia banking family and also attended Princeton. Boker’s stage plays were successfully performed in the U.S. and abroad. During the Civil War, he published a poem, “Tardy George,” critical of General McClellan, and another entitled “Black Regiment.” A founder of the Union League Club of Philadelphia, Boker was active in raising funds for the Union wounded and aiding families of soldiers and sailors.

Only forty-eight copies of this “Authorized Edition” were printed. How many were signed by Lincoln remains in question. As detailed in a letter from George H. Boker to John G. Nicolay, June 1, 1864, “Sir, Some days ago I sent about twenty copies of the Proclamation of Emancipation to Mr. Lincoln with the request that he would sign the papers and obtain Mr. Seward’s signature also. These things were intended to be sold at the approaching Sanitary Fair…” (Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.) We cannot be sure how many were signed, how many survived the war, or its aftermath. The current census details fewer than twenty five (25) remain extant – the vast majority now housed in institutional collections.

[More extensive historical background essay, along with a census of known copies signed by Lincoln, is available on request.]


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