The historical drama Lincoln, now in theaters, brings the 16th president's fight for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery to the big screen -- and with it a certain amount of celebrity status for Honest Abe. But is it the full story?
To find out, we turned to President Lincoln's Cottage, one of the National Trust's Historic Sites. The modest home in Washington, DC, served as Lincoln’s family residence for a quarter of his presidency during the summers of 1862, 1863, and 1864 -- and he was living there when he developed his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, an important part of the timeline leading to the 13th Amendment.
Now the Proclamation has come home to roost (in a manner of speaking): The Cottage is the first public venue to display a rare, signed copy of the historic document recently purchased by David Rubenstein. It's on display now through the end of February 2013 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation's signing.
To better understand this exhibit's significance -- and the document's impact on the course of history -- we checked in with Erin Carlson Mast, the director at the Cottage, to ask her some timely questions.
Give us some context: What impact did the Emancipation Proclamation have at the time it was written, and how has our understanding of it shifted over time?
The impact of the Emancipation Proclamation was both symbolic and practical. Symbolically, the war to restore the Union was now also a war against slavery. Lincoln had always been opposed to slavery, but had attempted to make the war about suppressing a rebellion and restoring the Union rather than a crusade against the institution of slavery. From a practical standpoint, it freed tens of thousands of enslaved people (a fraction of the people then held in bondage) and, perhaps more importantly, it officially sanctioned the recruitment and arming of black troops into the Union Army.
Collectively, our understanding of the document and its impact is constantly evolving, constantly divided. When we did the research, we were as likely to find a news article that declared the document “full of ... emptiness” as we were to find one that declared Lincoln had been “coerced by the radicals.”
You’ll find that today it’s easy to find people who say the Emancipation Proclamation had no effect. Likewise, it’s easy to find people who think the Emancipation Proclamation legally ended slavery (it did not, we needed the 13th Amendment for that). We do, however, have the benefit now of understanding the timeline and Lincoln’s process (the drafts, preparing public opinion, etc.)
We also see more and more people understanding that despite the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, slavery still exists in this country. In addition to hosting the Emancipation Proclamation, we have a special exhibit on slavery in America today. It’s a powerful juxtaposition.
Why is it so significant for Lincoln’s Cottage to host a rare, signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation?
President Lincoln developed the Emancipation Proclamation while living at the Cottage in the summer of 1862, so having a rare, signed copy is like having the document come “home.” The site is so pivotal to Lincoln’s development of the proclamation that a leading Lincoln scholar declared it the “cradle” of the Emancipation Proclamation.
What does it mean for visitors to see this particular document in this particular place? Or to put it another way, how does the location affect their experience?
Being able to see a document in the context of its development is crucial to understanding its language and purpose. Lincoln met with allies and opponents here, and those conversations often illuminate the struggle Lincoln and the rest of the country were having over the war and its purpose. Living here also put Lincoln in direct contact with the men, women, and children who fled to this city and freedom after the DC Emancipation Act was issued in April 1862.
The experience at the Cottage is very intimate and personal -- you develop a greater appreciation for who Lincoln truly was. That translates to a deeper, more intimate appreciation for what the Emancipation Proclamation is. If you get here early enough, you might have a moment alone with the proclamation. It’s an amazing experience, and not one you’d likely get elsewhere.
How has Lincoln’s Cottage chosen to interpret this exhibit?
By and large, we let the document speak for itself. We have a special Emancipation Tour that provides more interpretation on the document. In addition to several on-site programs, we have blogged many times about the proclamation. It also has its own Twitter feed, @Emancipation150.
What do you hope visitors take away from the exhibit?
We hope the experience inspires them to continue the fight for freedom. That may mean different things to different people. But certainly, while the Emancipation Proclamation is rightly credited to Abraham Lincoln, the process of expanding and protecting freedom is ongoing and demands our participation.