Today’s blog post comes from National Archives social media intern Anna Fitzpatrick.
On the first day of the new year in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, declaring freedom for slaves in parts of the Confederacy that had not yet come under Union control. Historian John Hope Franklin described the day:
[It] was a bright, crisp day in the nation’s capital. The previous day had been a strenuous one for President Lincoln, but New Year’s Day was to be even more strenuous. So he rose early. There was much to do, not the least of which was to put the finishing touches on the Emancipation Proclamation. At 10:45 the document was brought to the White House by Secretary of State William Seward. The President signed it, but he noticed an error in the superscription. It read, “In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my name and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.” The President had never used that form in proclamations, always preferring to say “In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand. . . .” He asked Seward to make the correction, and the formal signing would be made on the corrected copy.
The traditional New Year’s Day reception at the White House began that morning at eleven o’clock. Members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps were among the first to arrive. Officers of the army and navy arrived in a body at half past eleven. The public was admitted at noon, and then Seward and his son Frederick, the assistant secretary of state, returned with the corrected draft. The rigid laws of etiquette held the President to his duty for 3 hours, as his secretaries Nicholay and Hay observed. “Had necessity required it, he could of course have left such mere social occupation at any moment,” they pointed out, “but the President saw no occasion for precipitancy. On the other hand, he probably deemed it wise that the completion of this momentous executive act should be attended by every circumstance of deliberation.”
After the guests departed, the President went upstairs to his study for the signing in the presence of a few friends. No cabinet meeting was called, and no attempt was made to have a ceremony. Later, Lincoln told F. B. Carpenter, the artist, that as he took up the pen to sign the paper, his hand shook so violently that he could not write. “I could not for a moment control my arm. I paused, and a superstitious feeling came over me which made me hesitate. . . . In a moment I remembered that I had been shaking hands for hours with several hundred people, and hence a very simple explanation of the trembling and shaking of my arm.” With a hearty laugh at his own thoughts, the President proceeded to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Just before he affixed his name to the document, he said, “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”
This passage comes from ”The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice,” by John Hope Franklin, featured in the Summer 1993 issue of Prologue magazine.
To read more about the Emancipation Proclamation, download “The Meaning and Making of Emancipation,” a free eBook created by the National Archives. You can read it on your iPad, iPhone, Nook, or other electronic device.
The National Archives will also commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation with a special display of the original document at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, from Sunday, December 30, to Tuesday, January 1.