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Document Deep Dive: Emancipation Proclamation

When freeing the slaves 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln traded in his famous lyricism for a dry, legal tone. Harold Holzer explains why

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When President Abraham Lincoln read the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet on July 22, 1862, it was to mixed reviews. Undeterred, he gathered that it would be best to announce his plan to free the slaves in seceded states on the heels of a Union victory. So, he waited.

Exactly two months later, after the strategic win at Antietam, Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, giving fair warning that he would sign an official version in 100 days.

The celebrated orator toiled over the exact wording of the final document right up until he signed it, on January 1, 1863. But, if Americans were expecting poetry, they were sorely disappointed. The proclamation was uncharacteristically plain.

Harold Holzer, a Civil War scholar who recently consulted on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, takes an in-depth look at the style and structure of the Emancipation Proclamation in his book, Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory. He ultimately argues that the “leaden language” is a virtue, not a flaw—giving the order the strength to withstand legal challenges.

In a way, says Holzer, Karl Marx, a contemporary of Lincoln’s, described the president’s writing the best: “He always presents the most important act in the most insignificant form possible.”

Here, below, is a close textual analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation, based on a conversation with Holzer and information conveyed in his book, published earlier this year. The historic document, held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., has faded considerably over time (making it somewhat difficult to read). It is rarely exhibited for the public, due to the risk of further light damage. However, the proclamation will be on display from December 30, 2012, to January 1, 2013, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its signing.

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