The Emancipation Moment

Picture of the lithograph showing the "First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln," an 1864 painting by F.B. Carpenter.

There are numerous emancipation moments in American history: many by blacks fleeing enslavement on their own initiative, and others through legal, military, executive and congressional acts. Most individuals know of the work of the “Underground Railroad” that was neither underground nor a railroad, but a network of individuals who helped enslaved people escape to freedom. Often the final destinations were black settlements in Northern states or Canada. The Quakers were active in the Underground Railroad.  West Branch, Iowa, where Hoover was born in 1874, was a “station” in the route to freedom.

When the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, Union generals were faced with how to treat enslaved people: are they property to be returned to slavery or people with rights and freedoms?  General Benjamin Butler cleverly defined them as “contraband” of war, allowing Union forces to retain them in freedom.  Abraham Lincoln took the major step toward freedom by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.  Using his power as Commander and Chief, Lincoln allowed freedom to all enslaved people in areas occupied by Union forces.  The preliminary measure was issued on September 22, 1862, went into effect on January 1, 1863, but did not quickly reach all areas of the Confederacy.  Major General Gordon Granger declared all enslaved individuals in Texas free on June 19, 1865.  President Lincoln pushed Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, and was ratified by the requisite number of states on December 6, 1865.

Francis Bicknell Carpenter, a painter and abolitionist, believed the Emancipation Proclamation was a historic moment in American history.  He obtained permission to reside in the White House for six months to do sketches of Lincoln and his Cabinet members to memorialize the moment on canvass.  The painting of First Reading the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet hangs in the United States Capitol.  Alexander Hay Ritchie, an engraver, made affordable lithograph prints of the painting that widely sold to the public.  Herbert Hoover’s grandfather Eli purchased a copy that was eventually passed down to him.  During Hoover’s presidency the print hung in the Lincoln cabinet room, which had been restored by Lou Henry Hoover as a study for the President. In an address to the American public on February 12, 1931, Hoover had this to say honoring Lincoln’s birthday:

“It is appropriate that I should speak from this room in the White House where Lincoln strived and accomplished his great service to our country.

His invisible presence dominates these halls, ever recalling that infinite patience and that indomitable will which fought and won the fight for those firmer foundations and greater strength to government by the people.  From these windows he looked out upon the great granite shaft [Washington Monument] which was then in construction to mark the country’s eternal tribute to the courage and uncompromising strength of the founder of this Union of States.

Here are the very chairs in which he mediated upon his problems.  Above the mantelpiece hangs his portrait with his Cabinet, and upon this fireplace is written:

‘In this room Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, whereby 4,000,000 slaves were given their freedom and slavery forever prohibited in these United States.’”

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