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Lincoln’s Rough Draft Comes to Library of Congress

It’s been a big week for the Emancipation Proclamation. On Monday and Tuesday, lines stretched around the National Archives for a rare viewing of the original handwritten document on the 150th anniversary of its issuance.

Across the National Mall, the Library of Congress is getting into the act Thursday, adding Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten first draft to its exhibit “The Civil War in America” through Feb. 18.

(Courtesy National Archives)

The viewings are an extension, of sorts, of a tradition dating to Dec. 31, 1862, when abolitionists and slaves gathered on what was called Freedom’s Eve to hold a vigil before the proclamation was issued at midnight. The tradition has endured with annual Watch Night observances around the country.

The epochal document freed thousands of slaves in all states still in active rebellion and paved the way for passage of the 13th Amendment, which permanently abolished slavery.

But unlike the Gettysburg Address or Lincoln’s second inaugural address, viewers will discover the proclamation is devoid of soaring rhetoric, instead using precise and legalistic language to ease the nation into the idea that freeing slaves might be the way of saving the Union.

Lincoln justified the document as a war powers measure introduced by the commander in chief that would weaken the enemy by taking away its labor force, according to Michelle Krowl, a Civil War specialist in the Library of Congress’ manuscript division. That was an important distinction because many Northerners viewed the war as primarily a struggle for union, not freedom. What’s more, it went around what Lincoln could do as a president, by freeing slaves in areas he didn’t directly control.

“It’s not his usual eloquence. It covers what he felt he could legally do,” Krowl said. By introducing an emancipatory aim to the war effort, Lincoln provided a moral basis for the Union cause and made it more difficult for European nations to recognize the Confederacy, she said.

The two-page draft is the one Lincoln read to his Cabinet on July 22, 1862. The reception was mixed, and Lincoln was persuaded to hold off formally presenting the proclamation until the Union army scored a significant victory.

That came with the Battle of Antietam, which led Lincoln to issue a preliminary proclamation on Sept. 22 that outlined the intent of the final version, which took effect 100 days later.

Although the writing might be a little stiff, the document on display at the library is easily readable, with only one strikeout.

“You don’t see the full force of [such artifacts] until you see it in person,” Krowl said.

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