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NIST Builds a Secure Home for the ‘Second Declaration of Independence’

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.”

picture of the Emancipation Proclamation
The typeset copy of the Emancipation Proclamation on display in a NIST-designed and manufactured encasement at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The document is signed by Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward.
Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

painting of historical figures sitting around a table
Painting depicting the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet at the White House on July 22, 1863. Pictured from left to right: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, Lincoln, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith, Secretary of State William Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and Attorney General Edward Bates.
Credit: Library of Congress

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 black people 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.

scientist installing Emancipation Proclamation
Mechanical engineer Jacob Ricker preparing the NIST encasements housing the Emancipation Proclamation (left) and the 13th Amendment (right) before final installation in their new home at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Credit: C. Suplee/NIST

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.

Learn more about the encasements and their installation.

Did You Know...?

  • Abraham Lincoln considered the Emancipation Proclamation to be his crowning achievement as president. “If my name ever goes down in history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it,” he said.
  • Of the 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862, only 26 still exist. A handwritten and signed (both by Lincoln) draft of the document was sold for $3,000 in October 1863 (approximately $57,000 in 2018) at the Great Northwestern Fair in Chicago to raise money for a soldier relief fund. It was lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
  • Enslaved people in Texas did not learn about the Emancipation Proclamation until June 19, 1865, two and a half years after it was enacted on New Year’s Day 1863. Historians suspect Texas slaveholders knew of the proclamation and chose not to free their slaves until they were forced by Union soldiers to do so. Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating that event, was recognized nationwide as a federal holiday starting in 2021.

– Michael E. Newman

Created April 11, 2018, Updated June 18, 2024