Source Newsroom: Cornell University
Margaret Washington, professor of history at Cornell University, comments on Abraham Lincoln’s motives for signing the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago on Jan. 1, 1863.
“Abraham Lincoln always insisted that he opposed slavery ethically. However, unlike William H. Seward, his Secretary of State or Charles Sumner, the powerful senator from Massachusetts, Lincoln was not an abolitionist in word, thought or deed. The Emancipation Proclamation, in Lincoln’s own words, was a necessary war measure that he employed as Commander-in-Chief to suppress rebellion.
“First, he expected the Emancipation Proclamation to remove black laborers from the rebellious states. Second, the Government would receive African Americans in any branch of the armed forces, thereby further enhancing the Union War effort. Manpower, not humanity, guided Abraham Lincoln’s pen. As historian W. E. B. Du Bois maintained many years ago, the slaves emancipated themselves in a general strike, leaving Southern plantations and cities whenever opportunities arose. And yet, one must admit that officially, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States.”
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Cornell University Library is publicly displaying its original copy, which holds a bit of little-known history.
A manuscript draft written on the morning of Jan. 1, 1863, was rushed to the State Department to be engrossed. It was then returned for Lincoln’s signature — but he found a mistake at the end of the document. A new copy was made and signed later in the day, but this original version had already been leaked and circulated in newspapers.
The Emancipation Proclamation will be on public display at the Cornell Library in January, but members of the media may request a private showing. The library also holds original copies of the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment.
“All of these Civil War anniversaries and the new Spielberg film focus our attention back to what was happening 150 years ago,” said curator and librarian Lance Heidig. “It’s fascinating to explore all of the connections and associations between Lincoln and Cornell. Lincoln’s greatest works — documents that are now preserved for all time here in our Library — were written as our university was being created. And some of these connections are personal.
“Our co-founders, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, both met and corresponded with Lincoln. They were his contemporaries. White even saw the battlefield at Gettysburg. They were all shaping the country’s history at the same time.”
Contact Syl Kacapyr for information about Cornell's TV and radio studios.