If you’ve been preoccupied with the “fiscal cliff” saga over the last several days, you may have missed a rather significant milestone. 150 years ago yesterday, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in all rebellious states, enacting what has been described as, behind the Declaration of the United States, perhaps “the single most significant statement of policy issued by a governing authority in the history of the United States.”
In chance to highlight the New-York Historical Society’s copy of the Leland-Boker autograph edition of the Emancipation Proclamation. The broadside is a printed copy of the proclamation text, accompanied by the autograph signatures of Abraham Lincoln, William Seward and an attestation by John G. Nicolay, the president’s private secretary. While it represents what is perhaps Lincoln’s most enduring act as president, the Leland-Boker print also serves as a reminder of one of the most critical civilian contributions to the Union war efforts — the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC). In 1861, Northerners concerned with the woeful state of the military’s sanitary and medical infrastructure organized the USSC. Their tireless efforts raised a whopping $7 million dollars, while providing soldiers with more than double that amount in supplies, much of it thanks to the roles played countless women volunteers. In typical nineteenth century fashion however, males enjoyed central role’s in the commission, and particularly prominent was New York with Rev. Henry W. Bellows, the great diarist George Templeton Strong, and Frederick Law Olmsted (before his incarnation as landscape architect) serving as officers of the commission.
As for where the Leland-Boker broadside comes in, the USSC ran a number of fairs as part of its fundraising, the first taking place in late 1863 and others at various times throughout the remainder of the war. It was at such a fair in Philadelphia, in June 1864, that Philadelphia literati duo of George H. Boker and Charles Godfrey Leland produced this broadside in an edition of 50 signed prints, to be sold for the benefit of the USSC. Despite being highly-valued by collectors today, it seems they did not sell particularly well at the fair, though copies ended up in a number of institutions, including the British Library. As for the N-YHS copy, it’s not entirely clear whether the N-YHS copy was acquired at the fair, or at later date but regardless, it continues to serve as a testament to both Lincoln’s monumental act, as well the enormous contribution of ordinary citizens, particularly the thousands of women who carried out much of the USSC’s work.
If you’re interested in this piece of history, another copy of this printing is owned by the Gilder Lehrman Collection and is presently on exhibit at the New-York Historical Society.