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Lincoln Reads the Emancipation Proclamation to His Cabinet
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An engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie commemorates the moment Lincoln first presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet.

[ABRAHAM LINCOLN]. Print. The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet. Engraved by Alexander Hay Ritchie, after 1864 painting of Francis Bicknell Carpenter. New York: Alexander H. Ritchie, 1866. 36 x 24 in.

Inventory #25617.02       Price: $1,950

Francis Bicknell Carpenter (1830-1900), a New York artist, was so impressed with Lincoln’s bold act that he recruited Illinois Congressman and abolitionist Owen Lovejoy to arrange a White House sitting. Carpenter met Lincoln on February 6, 1864, and was allowed to set up a studio in the State Dining Room. Carpenter set his painting in Lincoln’s office, which also served as the Cabinet Room. Lincoln reportedly told Carpenter where each person was seated on the day he read them the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The artist was delighted that their placement was “entirely consistent with my purpose.” To the left of Lincoln were Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, the most radical members of his cabinet. A portrait of former Secretary of War Simon Cameron is also on the left of the painting. To the right of Lincoln, around the table are Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith, Secretary of State William H. Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and Attorney General Edward Bates, the more conservative members of Lincoln’s advisers. Lincoln sat at the head of the table between the two groups “but the uniting point of both,” according to Carpenter.

After a temporary exhibit in the White House and Capitol in 1864, the fifteen-foot wide painting toured the country. Carpenter offered the painting to Congress, which refused to make an appropriation for it. In 1877, Elizabeth Thompson of New York purchased the painting for $25,000 and offered it to the nation. Congress formally accepted the gift on the sixty-ninth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. It hangs in the U.S. Senate. In 1866 book, Carpenter also published a book, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln.

This lithographic print by Scottish-born Alexander H. Ritchie (1822-1895) captured and popularized Carpenter’s painting before Carpenter made a series of alterations to the original, most significantly in revising Lincoln’s head and moving the quill pen from near Seward to in Lincoln’s hand.

The National Portrait Gallery has a ledger page signed by Lincoln, Stanton, Chase, Seward, Wells and other members of Lincoln’s administration ordering proof copies of Ritchie’s print.

Historical Background

On July 22, Lincoln read a draft of his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to his entire cabinet. In contrast to the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation addressed only property in slaves and liberated all slaves in areas in rebellion, not only those of rebellious masters. At Seward’s urging, Lincoln agreed to withhold announcing it until the Union forces had achieved a victory, so that it did not appear (especially to European observers) to be the desperate act of a losing war effort.

Two months later, when Union troops stopped Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Maryland at Antietam Creek, Lincoln finally had his opportunity. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, giving the South 100 days to end the rebellion or face losing their slaves. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, Lincoln’s order was condemned as a usurpation of property rights and an effort to start racial warfare.

When the South failed to acquiesce, Lincoln, as promised, issued the final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. With this Executive Order, he took a decisive stand on the most contentious issue in American history, redefined the Union’s goals and strategy, and sounded the death knell for slavery. The full text of his proclamation reveals the major issues of the Civil War: slave labor as a Confederate resource; slavery as a central war issue; the status of African Americans who escaped to Union lines; courting border states; Constitutional and popular constraints on emancipation; hopes of reunion; questions of Northern acceptance of black soldiers; and America’s place in a world moving toward abolition. The President took the action, “sincerely believed to be an act of justice,” knowing that it might cost Republicans in the fall 1862 elections.

The final Proclamation showed Lincoln’s own progression on the issue of slavery, and eliminated earlier references to colonizing freed blacks and compensating slave owners for voluntary emancipation. It also added provisions for black military enlistment. Pausing before he signed the final Proclamation, Lincoln reportedly said: “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.”


Toned and slightly cropped.

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