It was 150 years ago this month that U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in its final form. It would eventually become the 13th Amenment to the U.S. Constitution but would not be passed by Congress for two years after it was created and ratified by the states one additional year after that.
But once the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, freeing more than 2 million slaves, its popularity was celebrated throughout the Union.
That’s what a display and lecture will celebrate this weekend at Museum of the Albemarle. One of 14 copies of the 13th Amendment will be on display in the museum’s Civil War exhibit, “Under Two Flags.”
Museum collection specialist Leonard Lanier says Congress had copies of the amendment commissioned. They are all hand written and signed by members of Congress, the vice president and for the most part by Lincoln, with the exception of a few, including this copy.
This copy, says Lanier, is one of several that had been signed by one of Lincoln’s two secretaries, John Hay or John Nicolay.
“We’re borrowing this
from a private collector up in Massachusetts,” explained Lanier. “He purchased it about two years ago at an auction.”
Prior to that, the copy had been in the same family since it was issued 148 years ago.
Lanier explains that during that period, before the Red Cross was formed, there was the U.S. Sanitary Commission. This organization fulfilled the same functions as the Red
Cross and like its descendent it relied on fundraisers to support it.
“They would have sanitary fairs in northern cities,” explained Lanier. “They would sell crafts and have entertainment. Admission fees were used to provide for wounded Union soldiers.”
And the copies of the amendment would be auctioned at these fairs in the spring of 1865. Lanier says that of the 14 copies issued, only six have changed hands in the past 48 years and this is one of them.
The remainders of those copies that are not held in private collections are in museums.
The copy of the amendment will go on display beginning today. However, a lecture Sunday by Lincoln expert Gerald J. Prokopowicz Ph.D., from East Carolina University, will focus on the origins of the amendment and why Lincoln was compelled to issue the amendment to Congress.
Slavery, said Prokopowicz, was entrenched in the United States at the beginning of the Civil War. In 1860 emancipation was not entirely popular in the northern states and would not grow in popularity until the end of the war.
Prokopowicz says that while there is debate among scholars about Lincoln’s intent where the amendment is concerned, he believes that the president did in fact believe in the document.
Prokopowicz says Lincoln was committed to it. He says that Lincoln was concerned that freeing the slaves without a constitutional amendment would lead to problems after the war, resulting in the South backsliding into slavery. It’s important to note that the Civil War was fought on the part of the Union with the intent of bringing the country back together. And while a popular narrative, explained Prokopowicz, states that “Lincoln freed the slaves,” it is a large and complex process that was not as black and white as all that.
In fact, the drive to free the slaves would not come until later in the war and would be partly driven by an understanding that in order to defeat the South, the Union would have to cripple its primary economic driver, slavery.
The popularity of the amendment throughout the Union, however, is expressed in the existence of the 14 “souvenir” copies.
Prokopowicz says this history is pivotal and carries with it a great deal of passion and importance.
“This is part of our history that people care passionately about in part because it echoes so many issues that are with us today,” he said. “It is really worth our time to think about and learn about it.”
The lecture will happen Sunday. 2 p.m. in the museum’s Gaither Auditorium. It is free and open to the public.