Here and Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Forever Free: 150th Anniversary Of The Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, Jan. 1, 1863, in Washington. (AP Photo)The cover of the "Grand Jubilee Concert" held at the Boston Music Hall in on January 1, 1863.The program for a "Grand Jubilee Concert" was held at the Boston Music Hall on January 1, 1863.This undated photo provided by Seth Kaller, Inc., shows a detail from the rare original copy of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. (AP/Seth Kaller, Inc.)This is the pen that President Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It is part of an exhibit at the Massachusetts Historical Society. (Alex Ashlock/Here & Now)

It was Jubilee Day, Jan. 1, 1863. In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln was expected to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that slaves held in the rebel states that had seceded “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

In Boston, a hotbed of the anti-slavery movement, people were gathered and waiting at Boston Music Hall and Tremont Temple. A “Grand Jubilee Concert” was held at the Music Hall. The front of the program read “The Day! The Proclamation! The Emancipation Of The Slave!”

At the last minute, Ralph Waldo Emerson joined the event, reading his “Boston Hymn.” Emerson’s reading is noted in the program with a handwritten note, stating simply Emerson Poem.

“If universal freedom had been proclaimed early in the war it would have probably split in half the already deeply fractured northern public.”

– Historian Adam Goodheart

President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day putting the finishing touches on the document and greeting visitors at the White House.

Finally, in the early evening, the text of the Emancipation Proclamation was transmitted over the telegraph wires and the news reached the crowd at Tremont Temple. The crowd, which included the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, broke out in celebration, which eventually moved to Twelfth Baptist Church.

“This is a big deal, thousands of people participating,” said Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “For the abolitionists who had been outcasts within the sort of social life of Boston going back to the 1830s and ’40s, here’s vindication.”

The document Lincoln signed on New Year’s Day 1863 was the final version of a preliminary proclamation Lincoln had produced after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. That was the bloodiest day of combat in American history, but it was perceived as a Union victory and that gave Lincoln the cover to take, as Douglass called it “the first step” toward ending slavery.

That didn’t happen until Congress passed, and the states ratified, the Thirteenth Amendment two years later in 1865.

The amendment abolished slavery and the new film “Lincoln” tells that story, which Washington College historian Adam Goodheart says would have never been possible without the Emancipation Proclamation.

“If universal freedom had been proclaimed early in the war it would have probably split in half the already deeply fractured northern public and quite possibly actually ended the struggle to save the Union almost before it had begun,” Goodheart, author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” told Here & Now’s Robin Young.

The Emancipation Proclamation re-galvanized the Union war effort, turning the struggle into one to end slavery as much as to preserve the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation also made it possible for free black men to join the Union cause, and by the end of the war nearly 200,000 served in the Union Army and Navy.

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the subject of the film “Glory,” was the first all-black unit mustered in the North. Those soldiers, led by the white officer Robert Gould Shaw, left Boston to great fanfare in May 1863. Charles and Lewis Douglass, sons of Frederick Douglass, were part of that regiment.

Boston’s Museum of African American History is hosting a series of events in 2013 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, under the banner “Freedom Rising.”

And the Massachusetts Historical Society is opening two new exhibits related to the Emancipation. The historical society has the pen Lincoln used to sign the proclamation. President Lincoln presented the pen to abolitionist George Livermore.

Jan. 1, 1863 would be a significant day if only for the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But the day is notable for something else: It was the day the Homestead Act took effect.

The Homestead Act allowed people to claim ownership of federal land. One of the first to file a claim was a Union Army scout named Daniel Freeman who filed his claim in the Nebraska Territory, because Nebraska wasn’t even a state yet.

Goodheart believes there is a connection between the Homestead Act and the Emancipation Proclamation, because the Homestead Act declared that the western lands of the United States would be open to everyone, including slaves, who had been freed.


  • Adam Goodheart,  Washington College historian.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

May 26 5 Comments

As Lethal Heroin Overdose Numbers Rise, Families Find Solace In Organ Donation

Organ banks around the country have noted an increasing number of organs from donors who have died of overdoses.

May 26 3 Comments

NEADS Assistance Dog Bailey Graduates From Service Dog Training

NEADS provides dogs like Bailey, a yellow Labrador, for deaf and disabled Americans.

May 25 Comment

Celebrating The Class Of 2016: Peace Odiase

Odiase is one of two valedictorians at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

May 25 8 Comments

NEADS Service Dog Meets His Match

Here & Now has been tracking service dog Bailey, who recently met his new owner, since last year.