Notes from the Catalogue: The Emancipation Proclamation

Reading the Emancipation Proclamation, steel engraving by J.W. Watts, Connecticut, 1864.

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” declares the extraordinary document brought forth by our founders on July 4, 1776. But as we all know, that lofty truth did not apply to all men until 85 years of suffering and bloodshed later.

The story of how Abraham Lincoln actually wrote the Emancipation Proclamation is worth noting, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of that document.

Emancipation Proclamation, engraved broadside, Milwaukee, 1864.

The last week of June 1862 witnessed the Seven Days Battles, which ended all hope of an early end to the war by the quick conquest of Richmond. As McClellan executed his strategic retreat from Mechanicsville to Harrison’s Bar, Lincoln’s boundless depression found words when he described himself as being as inconsolable as it was possible for a human to be and yet live.

The tortured President went often to the War Department building to sit in the cipher room of the military telegraph office and, head in hands, await dispatches. In charge of the office was Major Thomas Thompson Eckert, chief of the War Department Telegraph staff. Lincoln told Stanton of his visits to Eckert’s office, “I have been there often before breakfast, and in the evening as well, and frequently late at night, and several times before daylight, to get the latest news from the army.” On one of these occasions during the first week of July [1862], he asked Eckert for some paper, “as he wanted to write something special.” The major gave him at least a quire of special foolscap writing paper.

The Emancipation Proclamation, lithographic broadside after G.R. Russell, Philadelphia.

On this certain day in July, the President seated himself at Eckert’s desk between the two front windows, took the special foolscap writing paper, picked up a Gillot small barreled pen, and commenced writing what has been regarded as the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Eckert gives the details: “He then sat down and began to write . . . He would look out of the window a while and then put his pen to paper, but he did not write much at once. He would study between times and when he had made up his mind he would put down a line or two, and then sit quiet for a few minutes. . .On the first day Lincoln did not cover one sheet of his special writing paper (nor indeed on any subsequent day) . . .”

Proclamation of Emancipation by the President of the United States, lithograph, New York, 1864.

About the same time, Lincoln received a letter from J. Sella Martin, an important leader of the colored community offering the military services of colored men. “They are ready to work, or preach or fight to put down this rebellion,” he said. Lincoln by this time, had made up his mind to emancipate the slaves without compensation to the slaveholders, and on July 22 called a meeting of his cabinet. I said to the Cabinet that I had resolved upon this step, and had not called them together to ask their advice, but to lay the subject-matter of a proclamation before them; suggestions as to which would be in order, after they had heard it read . . . Various suggestions were offered . . . Nothing, however was offered that I had not already anticipated and settled in my own mind, until Secretary Seward spoke. He said in substance, ‘Mr President, I approve of the Proclamation, but I question the expediency of its issue at this juncture.’“

Original manuscript copy of General Milroy’s “Handbill Order” announcing the Emancipation Proclamation to his troops and the people of Winchester, 1863-186.

Seward felt that they should wait for a military victory to make the announcement from a position of strength. And so it was, that Lincoln postponed the Proclamation until September of 1862 with the success at the battle of Antietam. When it was issued, on September 22, 1862, the proclamation was so worded that it constituted a warning to the slave states that if they did not cease their warring on the United States in 100 days, their slaves would then be proclaimed forever free. Thus the Emancipation Proclamation was actually two proclamations. The first, known as the Preliminary Proclamation, and that of January 1, 1863 as the Final Proclamation. The appearance of the proclamation in newspapers across the country sparked celebrations everywhere.

It is though sheerest good luck that we have three of the rare Emancipation Proclamation lithographs in this sale, in addition to a very rare example of one of General David Hunter’s field printed “certificates of freedom,” emancipating the slaves that he had liberated in the Gulf States in early August, 1862 (a bit prematurely it turned out). Such certificates, declaring the bearer to be free, had to be rescinded until Lincoln made the formal announcement nearly three months later on January 1, 1863. There is also, a large group of elaborately printed postcards, issued on the anniversary of the Proclamation in 1909, and an example of the famous 1864 engraving, “Reading the Emancipation Proclamation.”