October 19, 2012

Editorial: Precious document in Plattsburgh


---- — There’s a rare opportunity to see one of our nation’s most precious documents right here in Plattsburgh.

But today is your only chance.

SUNY Plattsburgh is the only small city in the state to host the New York State Museum’s traveling exhibit “The First Step to Freedom, Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.”

The document, handwritten in 1863 by Lincoln, is being displayed at Myers Fine Arts Building at the college from 9 this morning until 9 tonight.

If you have any interest in history, you won’t want to miss seeing this draft of a document that would forever change the United States. The final Emancipation Proclamation document was destroyed in a fire, so this is the only way to see the words in Lincoln’s own hand.

The exhibit includes photos and other display elements, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Commemoration speech.

The other stops for the exhibit are Buffalo, Rochester, Binghamton and New York City. Plattsburgh is lucky enough to join the tour because New York State Regent James Dawson is an area resident and distinguished service professor at SUNY Plattsburgh.

The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the Confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

The National Archives and Records Administration says that despite its expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was, technically, limited.

“It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory,” the administration’s website says.

However, although the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t end slavery, “it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war.”

The proclamation also allowed black men to serve in the Union Army and Navy, “enabling the liberated to become liberators.” By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union.

The National Archives says the Emancipation Proclamation also confirmed “that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom. It added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically. As a milestone along the road to slavery’s final destruction, the Emancipation Proclamation has assumed a place among the great documents of human freedom.”

What an incredible chance we have today — to actually look at a paper written 149 years ago in the script of a now-revered president, a document that began to rectify our nation’s most grievous sin.

Don’t miss it.