Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd in New York in February 1863, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass reflected on the historical and social impact of a five-page document enacted into law a month before. “We are all liberated by this proclamation,” Douglass declared proudly. “Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated, the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting the battles of their country against rebels and traitors are now liberated. I congratulate you upon this amazing change—the amazing approximation toward the sacred truth of human liberty.”
He was, of course, honoring the Emancipation Proclamation that made slavery illegal throughout the Confederate States of America on Jan. 1, 1863, 100 days after it was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
Although the Civil War would rage for two more years, it now became a fight for freedom, as only a Union victory would ensure the end of forced labor for blacks in the South. However, it wasn’t until the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1865 that slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished across the entire nation, releasing from bondage some 4 million African Americans.
When a signed original copy of the “Second Declaration of Independence” was given on long-term loan in 2017 to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., curators asked National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) engineers to craft a special encasement for the cherished document. The high-tech case is similar in design to ones that NIST previously fabricated and installed for five other historical icons (see their stories in this section of the NIST Time Capsule), as well as for a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation exhibited at the New York State Library in Albany, New York.
The NMAAHC encasement features two sections machined from a single block of aluminum to avoid seams and sealed together like the halves of a sandwich with O-rings; two-pane laminated glass; and sensors that monitor 24/7 the internal pressure, temperature, relative humidity, and atmospheric content of 96 percent argon (an inert gas) and 4 percent oxygen. The small amount of oxygen is necessary to prevent degradation of the iron gall ink used on the proclamation.
The NMAAHC copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, part of the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit, is showcased in its state-of-the-art home next to a duplicate NIST-built case displaying a copy of the 13th Amendment. Both documents share the floor with a restored cabin used in the early 1800s to house enslaved families on a plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina.
– Michael E. Newman