Wednesday, October 6th, 2010
The original handwritten copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order freeing all slaves in the rebel states issued by President Lincoln in 1863, is in the National Archives, but some printed copies signed by Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward were made the next year for public sale.
Forty-eight of these copies were printed in 1864 and sold for 10 dollars each to raise money for the Sanitary Commission, a forerunner of the Red Cross. Over the 150 or so years since then, half of them have disappeared. Out of the 24 remaining, 14 are in museums and other public institutions, and 10 in private collections.
One of them was purchased by Robert F. Kennedy in the summer of 1964, a hundred years after Lincoln and Seward autographed it for charity, for $9,500. He hung it on a wall in his 1840s mansion in McLean, Virginia. Robert Kennedy had been a vigorous enforcer of civil rights as Attorney General under his brother and Lyndon Johnson. Not only did he send U.S. Marshals to Oxford, Mississippi, to enforce the admittance of the first Black student, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi and worked with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to craft the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, but he actively worked to desegregate the executive branch of government, which had been all-white since virulent racist Woodrow Wilson had resegregated the White House while preaching about keeping the world safe for democracy.
In a speech at the White House centennial ceremony, Kennedy spoke of furthering Lincoln’s work: “We have had a great deal of talk in the past 100 years about equality. Deed, not talk, is what is needed now. … We must do more because nations which are free, people who would be free, look to us for leadership, not merely in strength of arms, but in strength of convictions.” [...]
Princeton journalism professor Evan Thomas, a historian, said he wasn’t surprised that RFK would want to own such an important document.
“He enforced and pursued civil rights in a way that no one else in the attorney general’s office ever had,” he said. “He went down South and saw the injustice there, and he was determined to do something about it. … He captured some of the spirit of Lincoln.”
The McLean house was sold last year, and now Ethel Kennedy, RFK’s widow, is putting the Emancipation Proclamation copy up for auction at Sotheby’s New York on December 10th for an estimated sale price of $1.5 million. Sotheby’s will exhibit the document in Boston, Philadelphia and New York before the sale.