Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963

March 12, 2018
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December 2012 - September 2013
"The last formal pose of Abraham Lincoln." Alexander Gardner, Washington, D.C. Wikimedia Commons.


One hundred years separate the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington. Yet, these two events are profoundly linked together in a larger story of liberty and the American experience. Both were the result of people demanding equality. Both grew out of decades of bold actions, resistance, organization, and vision. In both we take inspiration from those who marched toward freedom. This virtual exhibition features select items from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Changing America” Exhibition, commemorating these two pivotal events on their 150th and 50th anniversaries.

Exhibition on the Emancipation Proclamation with Lincoln's suit and manuscripts and an old American flag
Changing America Exhibition Hall.

The exhibition, presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture in collaboration with the National Museum of American History, commemorates these two pivotal achievements on their 150th and 50th anniversaries. It explores their historical context, their accomplishments and limitations, and their impact on the generations that followed.

Display of Abraham Lincoln's Office Suit and Manuscripts
Abraham Lincoln's Office Suit and Manuscripts.

Abraham Lincoln wore the black broadcloth coat, vest, and trousers displayed here as his everyday office suit during his presidency. The shirt and tie are reproductions. – National Musuem of American History, gift of Mrs. William Hunt

The manuscripts, both written by Abraham Lincoln, reflect his commitment to the ending of slavery and demonstrate a progression from emancipation to restoration and suffrage. – The Shapell Manuscript Foundation

Lincoln repeatedly assured his critics that he had no intention of rescinding the proclamation.  He repeated his commitment to emancipation in this note to Henry C. Wright of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.  In 1864, he would risk his political fortunes and his reelection by throwing his full support behind the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery.

The Family of Freedom.

Lincoln’s views on how to integrate formerly enslaved people into society evolved throughout his presidency. After Louisiana applied for readmission to the Union, Lincoln wrote to the newly elected governor, Michael Hahn, and raised the subject of extending the vote to some African Americans, especially veterans. “They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.”

Louisiana in defeat was troublesome for Lincoln. Though he wanted to see the state back in the Union, it could not be at the cost, as Louisianans would have it, of perpetuating slavery. Making matters worse, the abolitionist wing of the Republican Party wanted suffrage extended to Louisiana’s newly-freed slaves. Lincoln’s candidate for Governor of Louisiana, Michael Hahn, opposed that very thing; and with a national election in play, Lincoln hardly wanted to hazard a firm stand on the issue. Yet, as this letter makes clear, he had begun to link restoration to emancipation. “To keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom” he proposed, it would be helpful if the franchise were extended to “some of the colored people… the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks.” Hahn, receiving this letter, recognized Lincoln’s intent. He went beyond his own views and pushed through a provision authorizing the legislature to enfranchise non-whites on the basis that Lincoln suggested: military service and intellectual fitness.

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