The draft version of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, written in the president’s own hand, is winding up a statewide tour and will be on display at the state museum in Albany today.
Now, with the nation’s first black president just re-elected and a new movie about Lincoln getting good reviews, would be a good time for Capital Region residents to go see this important document, generally considered the nation’s third most important after the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
The proclamation was issued on Sept. 22, 1862, at the height of the Civil War. It was, first and foremost, a military tactic, an attempt to get those Southern states that had seceded from the Union to return by threatening to deprive them of their property — i.e. slaves — if they didn’t.
Although it failed in that respect, it gave the war a moral purpose. With those immortal words “shall be then, thenceforth, and forever free,” Lincoln was resolving not just a political and economic conflict between two sections of the country, but a fundamental conflict since the nation’s founding: the one between the ideal of freedom and human dignity and its ugly opposite, slavery. By doing the right thing, Lincoln was also accomplishing his other aims: winning the war and preserving the Union.
The Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t officially issued until Jan. 1, 1863, and then it applied only to those slave states that had seceded. Slavery didn’t officially end for all states until ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination and the war’s conclusion.
But the path to saving the country and its soul was laid out in that document on display in Albany today, one case where the spirit of the law exceeded the letter.