The document that changed everything was, like every other thing, a creature of its time.
Pages 1 and 5 of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed on January 1, 1863. Notice the hole punches on each sheet of paper. (National Archives)
On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln and William Seward affixed their signatures to the Emancipation Proclamation, the document Frederick Douglass called "the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thralldom of the ages." To mark the 150-year anniversary, the document will be on public display at Washington's National Archives until the end of the day tomorrow.
That display is a rare thing. The Proclamation, unlike the Constitution and the Declaration, spends most of the year stored in darkness, encapsulated in layers of alkaline and inert mylar. (In fact, only two of the five pages of the Proclamation are currently on display: 2 and 5.) And that's because the Proclamation is showing its age: Its paper and ink have been damaged over the years by improper handling and overexposure to light. Its markings have faded. The ribbons that once bound it together have been frayed. The document, in all that, is both ironic and fitting: Its words declare, but its pages suggest fragility and contingency.
Much of the frailty comes from the fact that the Proclamation was written on low-quality, machine-made paper -- the mass-produced stuff typical of the Industrial Revolution -- rather than the heartier, animal-skin-based parchment that hosts the founding charters. But some of the frailty has an even more mundane cause: The proclamation that changed everything was written double-sided.
Yep. One of the most significant documents in our history -- a document created with the express purpose of changing the course of that history -- and the history-makers didn't splurge for separate pieces of paper. Instead, the Proclamation's writers put their paper to use with the folio system, taking two pieces of paper very similar to today's stock and folding them in half, creating eight truncated writing surfaces. They then punched holes in the creases of the paper, bounding them with ribbon to create a kind of modified codex. (The ribbon, in a move that merges documentary and artistry, is secured in the booklet's final page by the presidential seal.)
This may seem, all the prettiness notwithstanding, quaint. Even, and especially, when compared to the almost century-older Constitution and Declaration -- both of which give the air, in retrospect, of being tailor-made for display, and therefore tailor-made for history.
But what's pretty amazing about the juxtaposition here -- the document that bears the phrase "forever free," folded and be-ribboned -- is how eloquently it expresses technological frailty as a symptom of human frailty. The Proclamation wasn't written double-sided because people couldn't afford paper back then, or because they thought paper was more enduring than parchment, or because, indeed, they made any strategic decision at all to write the Proclamation the way they did; it was written that way because that's just how things were done at that particular moment in our history. I asked Archives representatives about the double-sided nature of the Proclamation; they replied that "writing on both sides of the document was the convention of the time. It was written on a folded folio so that they could have four writing surfaces." That's it: Folio was the convention, so that's what they did. (The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation -- the document that announced the Emancipation would take effect on January 1, 1863 -- is written in the same format.) Technology isn't just about tools; it's about the assumptions and conventions that inform our use of those tools. And in the America of 1863, matters of national business were conducted with folded paper and punches and ribbons. Not for reasons that were transcendent, but for reasons that were wonderfully, revealingly banal.
In retrospect, certainly, it could have been nice had the Americans of 1863 had a different documentary convention. But the document we have instead -- the document that spends most of its days in the dark -- is just as revealing: Its fragility is a reminder that even the most transcendent decisions are inscribed, because they must be, in their historical moment. Often on very bad paper.
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