Lincoln wrote in part: “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward, shall be free.”
He went on to say the military would recognize the freedom of slaves, that freed slaves should avoid violence and that freed slaves could enlist in the U.S. armed forces. It did not immediately free a single slave, though, because Lincoln didn’t have the power to enforce the declaration in the Confederacy. Still, many slaves had already been freeing themselves, and the document gave them protection, said Reginald Washington, an archivist of African-American history at the National Archives.
“It was a first, important step in paving the way for the abolishment of slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment,” he said.
It also brought “a fundamental change in the character of the war,” Washington said. “With the stroke of Lincoln’s pen, a war to preserve the union had overnight become a war of human liberation.”
The proclamation became a symbol of hope for nearly 4 million slaves and a confirmation that the war should be fought to secure their freedom, said Washington, who is retiring from the Archives after nearly 40 years. Some historians and scholars have come to view to proclamation as one of the most important documents in U.S. history.
The final proclamation has been rarely shown because it was badly damaged decades ago by long exposure to light. After it was signed at the White House, it was kept at the State Department for many years with other presidential proclamations. In 1936, it was transferred to the National Archives.
Records show it was displayed between 1947 and 1949 in a “Freedom Train” exhibit that traveled the country. Then it was shown briefly in January 1963 to mark the 100th anniversary of its signing.