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A Great American Historical Moment Is Auctioned

Bidder Pays $2.1 Million for a Pivotal U.S. Document

Flickr, USDAgov

By Jay Zimmer

There were 48 original copies of the great Emancipation Proclamation, all signed by President Abraham Lincoln in the closing months of 1862. The Civil War was raging, and at that point in the conflict, things were not going well for the Union forces.

Lincoln’s proclamation stated that as of the first day of 1863, all slaves in states then in rebellion were free, and that all offices of the United States including the federal government and the military were mandated to protect that freedom. It was pivotal in American history. Politically, Lincoln had no authority in the South; those states in rebellion had declared their own government, much as the original 13 colonies had done “fourscore and seven years” before.

Lincoln’s action was meant to sting and unsettle the Confederate government, concentrate their forces on finding and returning slaves who would run away upon hearing of the measure, and become an irritant to the South’s ability to wage war. Eventually it would lead to Army companies composed of African American troops who would fight their former masters in the blue uniform of the United States.

A hundred years later – almost exactly – another president, Lyndon Johnson, invoked the power of his predecessor’s proclamation saying that equality between the races was still an unfulfilled promise, as he sent his proposed the Voting Rights Act to Congress.

The Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s defining moment, much as the firing of the air traffic controllers was for Reagan, the Cuban Missile Crisis for Kennedy, the China trip for Nixon, the Camp David Accord for Carter.

The forty-eight original copies were given by Lincoln to the Sanitary Commission, which later morphed into the Red Cross. The Commission sold the documents privately and used the money to care for Union soldiers during the war.

About half of those original copies survive, including one that was owned by the late Senator Robert Kennedy, which was auctioned by his family several years ago.

This latest copy was purchased for $2.1 million dollars by David Rubenstein, a managing director of the investment firm, The Carlyle Group. The seller’s name was not disclosed. The price paid was the second highest (after the $3.8 million paid for Kennedy’s copy) ever paid for a copy of this document.

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