On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared all slaves in Confederate territory to be free. The proclamation stated that, as of that day, “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State . . . in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Those words changed the Civil War from a fight to save the Union into a battle for human freedom. They meant that the United States was finally facing the fact that it could not tolerate the evil of slavery if it really believed that all people had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. With the Emancipation Proclamation, the U.S. started down the path of becoming a truly great nation, one that could try to live up to the soaring ideals on which it was founded.
Lincoln signed the proclamation in his office on New Year’s Day afternoon. A handful of advisors joined him for the historic occasion. The president dipped a pen in ink but then put it down because his hand was trembling. He’d been shaking hands for hours at a reception, he explained, and his arm felt “almost paralyzed.” He worried that a shaky signature might prompt critics to claim that he hesitated. “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper,” he told those looking on.
Flexing his arm and taking up the pen again, he carefully wrote his name. Lincoln signed most government documents as A. Lincoln. For the Emancipation Proclamation, he wrote his name in full. “That will do,” he said, looking up and smiling.
With the passing of time, the text of the original Emancipation Proclamation has faded, and its paper has yellowed. But the signature of Abraham Lincoln stands forth bold, bright,and clear.