Legacy of the “Great Emancipator”

Abraham Lincoln did not enter the White House expecting to preside over the destruction of slavery in America. He began his presidency seeking compromises with the seceding slave states in an attempt to preserve the Union and to avert military conflict.

Yet the unprecedented crisis of the Civil War, and a process of education and observation, led Lincoln to change his mind and his politics about freeing America’s enslaved people. On January 1, 1863 he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order that freed slaves in the Confederate territories. Two years later he pushed the 38th Congress to pass a joint resolution to abolish slavery in the United States—the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution—which he signed and sent to the states to be ratified on February 1, 1865. Lincoln would call the amendment “a king’s cure for all the evils.”

In early April, two days after Jefferson Davis fled from Richmond, Virginia, former capital of the Confederacy, Lincoln visited Richmond and was greeted by throngs of jubilant ex-slaves. Less than a week later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, ending the war.

We now know that Lincoln’s efforts would not cure “all the evils” of slavery, but he made a critical step to advance work that is still ongoing to this day.

When the 38th Congress reconvened in December 1864, its first order of business was to reconsider the House vote of the previous June that had failed to approve the 13th Amendment. When the historic vote to end slavery came on January 31, 1865, the House chambers were packed with spectators ranging from members of Lincoln’s cabinet and the Supreme Court to black residents of Washington. The amendment passed by a vote of 119 to 56, with 8 abstentions. According to a contemporary report, as the vote’s results were announced “a moment of silence succeeded, and then, from floor and galleries, burst a simultaneous shout of joy and triumph, spontaneous, irrepressible and uncontrollable, swelling and prolonged in one vast volume of reverberating thunder….”

This print presents a larger and more accessible version of an original tiny carte de visite of separate miniature portraits. Both paid tribute to the 157 members of Congress who supported the passage of the 13th Amendment. Their photographs were collected here along with Lincoln and his outgoing Vice President Hannibal Hamlin.

The “key” to the Bradstreet print provided 159 names identifying all of the statesmen depicted in the photomontage. Senators were arranged in two outer circles and Representatives in close order around the center. Ironically, the historic 13th Amendment of the Constitution is misidentified in the heading as “Article XIV.”

Jefferson Davis wrote to the Congress of the Confederate States that the United States had refused to enter negotiations to end the war without an “unconditional submission to their rule, coupled with the acceptance of their recent legislation”—the 13th Amendment.

On the evening of March 6, 1865, Lincoln’s second inaugural ball was held in the Patent Office building, which is now home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Engraved invitations that listed the Inaugural Ball committee managers, were sent to dignitaries on behalf of President Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson, and 4000 people attended the event.

A correspondent for the New York Tribune reported on the events witnessed that day:

President Lincoln's visit, coming so soon after the occupation, was a matter of intense interest to the entire population. Crowds – thousands – rushed out for a glimpse of his tall figure, as he walked into the city, attended by a few friends and an escort of a score or two of soldiers. The enthusiasm was, however, confined to the negroes, the foreigners, and exceptional Virginia-born citizens. But the joy of the negro knew no bounds. It found expression in whoops, in contortions, in tears, and incessantly in prayerful ejaculations of thanks. The President proceeded to Gen. Weitzel's headquarters, the late residence of Jeff Davis…. Many officers and citizens of Richmond came to pay their respects, after which he rode about the city.

Two weeks before he was assassinated, Lincoln visited Richmond, the newly surrendered capital of the Confederacy. This print captures the immediate and dramatic impact of emancipation. In the background is the old Virginia Capitol Building, designed by Thomas Jefferson, whose promise that all men are created equal, had been given a new meaning by Lincoln.

The U.S. Constitution, including the new 13th Amendment, was printed in this manual along with Secretary of State William Seward’s Certificate of the Anti-Slavery Amendment and President Johnson’s Executive Orders, which included authorization for the trial of Lincoln’s alleged assassins and the arrest of Jefferson Davis.

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