RALEIGH — The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the document that Abraham Lincoln used to give the Civil War new purpose, rarely leaves a vault at the National Archives in Washington, and then usually for only a few days at a time.
But the seven-page, handwritten document goes on display Wednesday at the N.C. Museum of History, where it will be on view for a month.
Part of the museum’s “Freedom Coming, Freedom for All” exhibit, the document shows how pages written in neat, careful cursive by an anonymous clerk in the state department began a process that culminated in the ratification of the 13th amendment to the Constitution, freeing about 4 million Americans from slavery.
“This is one of the most significant documents in American history,” museum director Ken Howard said.
Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation as a warning to the Confederate states, giving them 100 days to put down their arms and rejoin the Union or the federal government would declare their slaves free.
Lincoln came up with the idea in the summer of 1862, but Secretary of State William Seward urged him to wait until the Union had won a major victory. When the Union army turned back Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland at Sharpsburg in September, Lincoln issued his order.
With the war still on 100 days later, Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
The earlier version differs from the final document in at least two significant ways, said Earl Ijames, curator of African American history at the museum. It calls for establishing one or more colonies for “persons of African descent, with their consent, upon this Continent or elsewhere,” and it promises to compensate slave owners for the loss of their slaves, valued at some $3.5 billion in 1860.
“This was a fight waiting to happen,” Ijames said.
Both ideas were dropped in the final proclamation.
Pages 2 and 3
The document on display is bound with ribbon, like a slender book, so it’s not possible to see more than two pages at a time. Usually, people want to see the cover page or the last page with Lincoln’s signature, said Terry Boone, a conservator with the National Archives.
But the N.C. Museum of History chose to display the document so people can see pages 2 and 3, where Lincoln declared that slaves held in rebel states on the first of January 1863 “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
“I don’t think they’ve ever been on exhibit,” Boone said.
The document comes out only about once or twice a year, Boone said. Its last appearance, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York last September, lasted just four days, she said.
The North Carolina museum got it for 30 days “because we begged and pleaded,” Howard joked. Boone said the relatively long showing in Raleigh will give lots of people a chance to see it.
The “Freedom” exhibit, which will be at the museum through January, was put together with help from organizers of the N.C. Freedom Monument Park, which is scheduled to be completed just east of the Legislative Building by 2017.
Dianne Pledger, executive director of the park, said school, youth and church groups are among those planning to see the exhibit in the coming month.
“It’s buzzing,” Pledger said. “And that’s exactly what we wanted to happen.”
Visitors will find the preliminary proclamation in a glass case, in a darkened room, away from the harmful light and humidity that can cause a 150-year-old document to weather and fade. Boone said the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation is in much better shape than the more famous final one.
“The Emancipation Proclamation, which is only a couple of months younger, is a wreck,” Boone said. “It’s been handled so much.”