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emancipation proclamation at 150 Men dressed as Union soldiers stand guard over the Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives in Washington D.C. (Photo courtesy National Archives and Record Administration)

The Emancipation Proclamation at 150

Celebrating the document that helped end slavery

By Hannah Prensky | January 16 , 2013

page one of the emancipation proclamation
The first page of the original Emancipation Proclamation document. Read the whole Proclamation online at the National Archives website! (Photo courtesy National Archives and Record Administration)
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On New Year's Eve, hundreds of people crowded in the Rotunda of the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. Private citizens stood alongside members of Congress, and at the stroke of midnight an actress playing Harriet Tubman rang the New Year’s bell and Abraham Lincoln "himself" read the Emancipation Proclamation.

This wasn't just another New Year's party. This was a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, as the nation began the third bloody year of the Civil War. The Proclamation declared "all persons held as slaves" within Rebel states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

The Proclamation also announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy. By the end of the Civil War, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought on the side of the Union.

The document was limited in many ways. It only applied to Confederate states — the states that separated, or seceded, from the Union — but the border states fighting for the Union were still allowed to have slaves. Critics argued that Lincoln freed the slaves only in states over which he had no power.

Even though it did not end slavery in the nation, the Emancipation Proclamation had an immediate impact on how people thought about the war. The document confirmed what many Americans thought the war was about — freedom and the end of slavery, not economic or political differences. It also laid the foundation for the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery nationwide when it was ratified in 1865.

“It’s a very important piece of our history as Americans," Jennifer Johnson, curator of the Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives, told the Kids Press Corps. "And I think it’s as important today as ever because it teaches us about freedom and the importance of equality for all people in the eyes of the law."

The National Archives in Washington is home to the original Emancipation Proclamation. The text covers five pages that were originally tied with narrow red and blue ribbons, which were attached to the signature page by the seal of the United States. It's now worn, faded, and very fragile.

Johnson explained that it's condition is delicate because “it was written on paper. Other documents in our holdings, such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, were written on parchment, a much more durable material, so they have fared much better.”

To preserve the Emancipation Proclamation for future generations, the National Archives have worked with conservationists very closely. “We give it about 40 hours a year of display time,” Johnson said. After that, “it goes back to sleep in the vault until it is time to come out again.”

At the start of the year, the original document on display for three days. “We weren’t sure how much interest we would get on New Year’s Eve, but it was an amazing evening," Johnson said. "Some people had been waiting in line all day to see it."

The Emancipation Proclamation is no longer on display, but the National Archives will hold other special events throughout the year to commemorate the document's anniversary. Check out the National Archives website for more information!

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