On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (what some of us here at the Archives call the “EP”)—in the middle of the U.S. Civil War. In it, he declared all slaves within the states that were currently in rebellion to be free. Although it did not abolish slavery altogether, the document became a symbol of hope and freedom during the war.
After Lincoln signed the Proclamation in his study at the Executive Mansion—now known as the White House—on New Year’s Day, Secretary of State William Seward also signed it. It was then kept at the Department of State for safekeeping as there was no National Archives in 1863. The original five-page document was originally tied with red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by an impression of the seal of the United States.
The document remained at the State Department for many years, bound in a red morocco leather book with other Presidential proclamations. When the National Archives was created in 1934, the EP was housed in the vault at the Old Executive Office Building.
Upon transfer to the National Archives, the Emancipation Proclamation was put on public display during the 75th anniversary beginning on September 22, 1937, seventy-five years after Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The document had already begun to fade, as evidenced by the 1937 Washington Post headline, “Yellowed Lincoln Proclamation that Freed Millions Now on Display at the National Archives Building.”
After that, the document went on periodic display in the Archives Exhibition Hall until its big national debut in 1947, when it was included in the Freedom Train exhibit.
The Freedom Train was literally a seven-car rail train that traveled across the United States from September 1947 until January 1949. Dedicated to the history of American democracy, it contained some of the country’s most “priceless” historical documents, many of which came from the National Archives.
Although considered priceless, for insurance purposes the EP was valued at $60,000—our second most valuable document on the tour (the Bill of Rights was insured for $225,000).
The signature pages and a photostat of the first page were on display in the second car under the theme “Civil Rights for All.”
In 1954 the National Archives lent out the document for three days to correspond with the 91st anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. It was displayed at the sixth annual National Postage Stamp Show in New York City. These early off-site exhibits began the tradition of the EP being one of the most traveled documents in our custody.
For the EP’s 100th anniversary in 1963, the National Archives created an entire exhibit to accompany the Proclamation.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy spoke at the opening, remarking:
Thus it is altogether proper that we gather on this day, one century later, we Americans, the heirs of Lincoln, to observe the placing of this historic document on exhibit here in the nation’s capital for all to see. It is a moment to reflect on how far we have come in these hundred years toward the goal of equality and to appraise the problems and difficulties that still stand between us and that goal.
Through the 1960s and 70s the EP was on periodic display until 1979, when the National Archives decided to remove it from public exhibition and place it in a vault to prevent further fading.
It sat in the vault until December 31, 1992, when the National Archives displayed the first and signature pages for four days to commemorate its 130th anniversary.
Since then, the Emancipation Proclamation is only put it on display a few days a year, usually to coincide with the anniversary of its signing, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, or around Lincoln’s birthday in February. And since the text is on both sides of the paper, it’s usually displayed side-by-side with facsimiles of the pages on the reverse.
For instance, in 1998, the original Emancipation Proclamation was displayed in the Rotunda for one week, January 16–22, 1998, to coincide with the MLK holiday. On the opening day, reenactors of the historic 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the most celebrated regiments of black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, served as honor guard in a ceremonial watch over the document.
The Proclamation left DC again in 2001 to travel around the country in the National Archives traveling exhibition, “American Originals.” This was part of a three-year effort to share some of our collection with the American people while the exhibition areas of the building in Washington, DC, were closed due to renovation. The EP was the highlight of the exhibit, although it was limited to four days at each venue.
After the EP returned to DC, it had a very special visitor in 2006. President George W. Bush came to view it on January 16, 2006, while the document was on display for the MLK. holiday.
After seeing the Emancipation Proclamation, Bush commented:
It seems fitting on Martin Luther King Day that I come and look at the Emancipation Proclamation in its original form. Abraham Lincoln recognized that all men are created equal. Martin Luther King lived on that admonition to call our country to a higher calling, and today we celebrate the life of an American who called Americans to account when we didn’t live up to our ideals.
Kicking off the second part of the “Discovering the Civil War” exhibit in 2011, the National Archives displayed the Proclamation in a special four-day display in November. As part of that exhibit, it traveled to various museums including the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, where 21,015 visitors saw the document in just 36 hours of display.
For its 150th anniversary, the National Archives held a year-long celebration including the special display of the original document from December 30, 2012, through January 1, 2013, with the 54th Massachusetts returning to watch over the document.
We also created a video in which former staff members Reggie Washington and Terry Boone discuss the Emancipation Proclamation’s significance, its history, and measures taken to preserve it.
This year, in celebration of Black History Month, the Emancipation Proclamation will be on special display February 17–19 in the East Rotunda Gallery. Visit our webpage for more information about the Emancipation Proclamation.