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Forever Free

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Three-hundred-and-twenty-five words made up the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. So simple a start for what would become a pivotal document in our nation’s history – one that would also provide groundwork in passing the 13th amendment abolishing slavery.

Currently on view in the Library’s “The Civil War in America” exhibition through Feb. 18, the draft – in President Abraham Lincoln’s own hand –  was really the first time he put forth a statement saying that slaves should be free, not just of their masters but living as free people in those states in rebellion during the war.

On July 22, 1862, Lincoln presented that draft to his cabinet. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Attorney General Edward Bates advocated the document’s immediate release, but Secretary of State William Henry Seward advised the president to hold issuing the proclamation until a “more auspicious period,” which would come at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, when Union forces stopped the Confederate advance into Maryland. On Sept. 22, Lincoln put forward an official preliminary proclamation.

For the first time, the Library’s first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was brought together with two artifacts associated with the important document for a photo shoot and article in this month’s issue of Smithsonian Magazine. An inkwell used by Lincoln as he formulated the proclamation in the telegraph room of the War Department is in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. And, a pen that Lincoln used to sign the final proclamation resides with the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Inspired by the Smithsonian story, the Library produced a piece on the three objects and their significance in transforming a nation. You can see it here.

The final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was signed Jan. 1, 1863, but it ultimately was a wartime measure that would not ensure freedom after the war. The only way to truly eliminate the institution of slavery was an amendment to the United States Constitution, which Lincoln successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to adopt. The 13th Amendment was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865.

“I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper,” said Lincoln of the proclamation, according to the Smithsonian story. “If my name goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”


  1. I have been looking for blogs and such on human rights and came across this. It’s a huge piece of history that I hadnt connected to human rights, but what a huge step it was. Lincoln seemed to be a very humble man and quite a mover and shaker of his time.Thank you for the article!

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