Cynics will say the Emancipation Proclamation was always more symbol than substance. They'll say President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery where he didn't have the authority, and kept people enslaved that he could have freed. On that score, they'll be right.
Then as now, though, it was the idea of the thing. When Lincoln said the slaves "are and henceforward shall be free," it was an important milestone on the journey that is the American experience.
For a few days, Lincoln's bold 1863 statement is on display at the Tennessee State Museum. It's worse for the wear of 150 years, one reason the National Archives — the proprietor of this particular road show — only displays the genuine article 72 hours. Per year.
Only half of it can be seen at one time. Like an impassioned student penning a junior-high essay, Lincoln wrote it in longhand on the front and back, its words fading into the parchment.
But it's not the words themselves that are important — not really. As with much of what's on display at the museum for the next seven months, as part of the Archives' broader Discovering the Civil War exhibit, the language in the proclamation is fairly institutional. Paragraphs laboriously detail where the proclamation does and does not apply and spell out the coldly practical matter of how the order is to be enforced. As rhetoric, it has neither the poetry of Lincoln's speeches nor the wracking self-doubt of his personal correspondence. You don't hear Daniel Day-Lewis' voice reciting it. It is, above all things, a legal document.
But it is precisely as a document, not wordcraft, that the proclamation is profound — as a turning point in American history and the conscience of a nation, embodied in a single scrap of paper.
Discovering the Civil War is composed of many such scraps — few with the proclamation's impact, but each adding to a paper trail of history. In a sense, with this record-heavy exhibit, the National Archives recognizes its own limitations as a repository of the institutional memory of the United States. The exhibit doesn't ignore or try to camouflage this status; it embraces that standing.
Senior curator Bruce Bustard and his team worked for five years developing the exhibit. In its careful construction is the lesson that our patent applications and property transfers can say as much about the human experience as the love letters and diary entries that populate many Civil War exhibits.
Take, for example, the common museum trope showing the relationships between the generals wearing blue and grey. Many were old friends and classmates as tangentially interconnected in the 1860s as modern, tech-savvy Americans are today. To drive home that analogy, the archivists mocked up interactive, faux-Facebook pages for the military leaders. Visitors can find connections between, say, Confederate Gen. James Longstreet and U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock via West Point records ("Attended school with ... "), marriage records and more.
Much of the exhibit seems given to grabbing the attention of teenagers and kids, who might be bored or overwhelmed by reams of paperwork with no accompanying pictures. (To be fair, the exhibit is not all words: It also contains ghostly images taken from original glass negatives by the pioneering Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.) "Young people aren't used to reading cursive anymore," Bustard admits, so the important bits are highlighted, translated out of the stilted prose of early correspondence and linked to other documents that fit them into the historical narrative.
While the Southern states passing ordinances of secession was the Big Moment, Discovering The Civil War doesn't wrap itself in bombastic speeches. It shows the very clerical manifestations of a nation torn asunder: e.g., a piece of federal court stationery with the first word in "United States District Court" X-ed out. In its place, handwritten, is the word "Confederate."
If anything, the portraits that emerge from these seemingly staid slips of paper are all the more jarring for the stories that slip through the legalese. There are precious few first-person accounts — that's not what the National Archives houses. But in an effort to bring the horrors of mid-19th century battle to life, the curators turn to what they do have: patent applications for artificial limbs, and War Department records for the men who asked to be fitted with them. And to bring a parallel to modern life, they prove there's nothing new under the sun — not with page after page of accusations of fraud and war profiteering, as opportunists learned how to game the government's well-intentioned program.
The weeklong visit of the Emancipation Proclamation will rightly grab most of the headlines. But the broader exhibit — at the museum until September — tells an important tale too. We're a republic of simultaneous mistakes and progress, our journey proceeding in fits and starts, two steps forward and one step back. Along the way, the marks we leave are documents, whether they're of things we know are important, or things that seemed mundane at the time but fascinate now.
We're a people of paperwork — and in it, you'll find the story of a nation.