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"With the President's Permission…" How New York Acquired the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

The New York State Legislature purchased the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation from famed abolitionist Gerrit Smith in 1865, shortly after Abraham Lincoln's funeral train passed through Albany. Smith had won the document in a lottery held at the Albany Relief Bazaar in the winter of 1864. How this priceless artifact came to Albany, and eventually to the New York State Library, is a tale of politics and patriotism, redolent of the city's storied history as the capital of New York State.

Sanitary Fairs and the Albany Relief Bazaar

broadside advertising Albany's Army Relief Bazaar
Poster for the Albany Army Relief Bazaar.

From the earliest days of the Civil War, northern civilians sought ways to contribute to the war effort.  1861 saw the establishment of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC)1, ostensibly a philanthropic humanitarian organization with the goal of bringing modern medical relief to soldiers in the battlefield.  Through an adjunct agency, the Women's Central Relief Association, the commission established a national network to distribute the many products of soldiers' aid societies—bandages, clothing, food, etc.  A philanthropic purpose notwithstanding, the commission was led by men of strong political convictions who understood their work as a way to forge a sense of national patriotism and support for the war effort.


View of Army Relief Bazaar, from the broadside advertising the Albany Bazaar.
View of the bazaar, enlarged from the poster.

Between 1863 and the end of the war one of the chief public means of generating financial support for the work of the USSC was the holding of "sanitary fairs" in the cities and towns throughout the northern states.  Largely coordinated by committees of upper-class society women in the various host cities, the fairs included elements as diverse as sales or auctions of donated goods, balls, receptions, parades, expositions (especially featuring military- and/or patriotic-themed displays), lotteries, and food concessions. Admission prices would range from 25 cents for a single day to five dollars for a "season" pass. Fairs would last from a few days to several weeks. Overall the total raised through sanitary fairs reached almost $4.5 million.

The first sanitary fair was held at Lowell, Massachusetts in February 1863.  However, it was the October 1863 fair held in Chicago—dubbed "The Northwestern Soldiers' Fair"—that popularized the concept, and became the model for other cities, including Albany.  One important—and frequently copied—feature of the Chicago fair was the organizers' reliance on pre-existing networks of women in charitable societies.  Albany was no exception to this pattern in the planning of its grand 1864 extravaganza, the "Army Relief Bazaar."

The Albany Army Relief Association (ARA) met for the first time on November 2, 1861.  "Mrs. Governor Morgan" (Eliza Matilda Morgan) presided over the meeting and "Mrs. William Barnes" (Emily Weed Barnes) was named the new organization's recording secretary.2  The minutes of the executive committee indicate that from 1861 to 1863 the association, true to its stated aims, worked to solicit donations of funds and supplies through direct appeals to local residents, businesses and organizations.  The proceeds were sent to the USSC for distribution.

In late 1863, the executive committee of the ARA began considering the possibility of holding a fair or bazaar to generate greater community interest, and amplify its already successful fundraising efforts. From that point through the early spring of 1864, the Army Relief Bazaar became the association's chief activity.  The planning and arrangements for the fair were taken over by a special committee headed by the leading political and businessmen of Albany and the surrounding communities.


Part of the front page of The Canteen newspaper, dated February 22, 1864.
The front page of the first issue of The Canteen newsletter.

The bazaar opened to the public on February 22, 1864, and closed on March 30.  It was held in specially constructed buildings in Academy Park.  The central halls of the fair were lined with an odd assortment of national and regional booths depicting the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Schenectady, Spain and Japan, Troy, the Aborigines, Gypsies, Italy, Russia, and Saratoga Springs, as well as the Netherlands, Switzerland and "the Orient." There was a Floral Hall, a substantial "curiosity shop," a grand dining hall, a military trophy room, a perfumery (naturally co-located with the French booth), an orchestra or speakers' stand, a fair post office (which issued its own specially-printed stamps),3 and an autograph booth. The fair issued its own satirical newspaper, The Canteen.  In its first issue, dated February 22, 1864, The Canteen, in a burst of hyperbole, declared that the fair had magically risen like the palace of Aladdin, and when the interior arrangements are perfected it will rival the oriental halls in its crowning splendors.  The festoons and overhanging arches of evergreens, the rich display of colors, the fair ladies adorned with the varied costumes, the battle-scarred banners as they have come from war's embrace. And the whole brilliantly illuminated with a blaze of gas issuing in countless jets will form a scene of rare and dazzling beauty.4

The income derived from sales at these attractions—as well as from general admissions was substantial.5  Throughout the Bazaar, lotteries were held to raise additional funds.  Drawings were held at all of the booths.  For instance, in the first week, the Shaker Booth raffled a Shaker doll; the Indian booth, an inlaid portfolio (won by poet and one-time State Librarian, Alfred B. Street);6 the Swiss booth, a music box and a cuckoo clock.  Without question, however, the most important prize to be raffled at the bazaar would be the hand-written preliminary draft of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

The President's Gift

On January 4, 1864, Assistant Secretary of State, Frederick William Seward 7 wrote the following letter to Emily Weed Barnes (PDF, 1.2 MB):

My dear Mrs. Barnes,

I have the pleasure of sending you, with the President's permission, the original draft of his September proclamation. The body of his own handwriting, the penciled additions in the hand of the Secretary of State, and the formal beginning and ending in the hand of the Chief Clerk.8

This gift by the President was a major donation to the Albany Bazaar, and an irreplaceable historical artifact.  It had been written almost entirely in Lincoln's own hand in September 1862 and was, as Seward noted, the original draft of the proclamation that would lead to the freeing of all slaves still held in the United States.  Autographed letters and documents, especially those signed by celebrated political and military leaders were especially sought after as collectibles to be sold or raffled at sanitary fairs. In particular, fair organizers were eager to get presidential papers, which presumably would command the highest prices.  For instance, the city of New York, for its "Metropolitan Fair," solicited a hand-written copy of the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln obligingly wrote out—as he had done for other fairs, including Baltimore, for which two were written out.9

The final draft proclamation (dated January 1, 1863) had likewise been donated to a sanitary fair—the Northwestern Soldiers' Fair held in Chicago in October 1863.  In sending that document, Lincoln noted, "The formal words at the top, and the conclusion, except the signature, you perceive are not in my hand-writing. They were written at the State Department by whom I know not."10 Lincoln was well aware of these documents' historic value, but sacrificed them willingly for what he perceived as the greater good: "I had some desire to retain the paper; but if it shall contribute to the relief or comfort of the soldiers, that will be better."11

A Special Committee to Oversee the Disposition of the Preliminary Draft

A special committee was formed at Albany to oversee the disposition of the preliminary draft.  At its head sat William A. Barnes, a well-known Republican Party official in Albany—and the husband of Emily Weed Barnes. William Barnes' behind-the-scenes role in New York State Republican politics is little known today.  In 1854, he was present at the Saratoga Springs meeting that established the party, and in 1904 was among the dignitaries who appeared and spoke at the 50th anniversary of that convention, also held in Saratoga Springs.12 Although never an office holder—he worked in the relatively unprepossessing State position of Superintendent of Insurance—his maneuvering in ultimately acquiring the Emancipation Proclamation for the New York State Library reveals something of the extent of his political and social connections.

Barnes' political prowess was no doubt enhanced by his marriage to Emily Weed, the daughter of crusading newspaper editor and political boss Thurlow Weed (1797-1882). In both state and national politics, Weed—who had also served in the New York State Assembly—had been a major force behind a long line of presidents and public office holders, including New York governors William A. Morgan, and William A. Seward (Weed's former State Assembly colleague), and President Abraham Lincoln.  Thurlow Weed's house was "like another home for his two married daughters, Maria and Emily, his sons-in-law, Mr. Alden and Mr. Barnes.  One of the rooms was recognized as Mr. and Mrs. F. W. Seward's without whose presence the family circle never seemed quite complete."13

For his committee, Barnes chose a number of prominent regional and national politicians, businessmen, and public figures: John K. Porter a justice of the New York Court of Appeals (who in 1881 would prosecute Charles Guiteau for the assassination of President Garfield); Edward C. Delevan, a wealthy businessman and famous temperance advocate; Gerrit Smith, a leading social reformer, abolitionist and politician; Thomas W. Olcott, a bank president and well-known politician in Albany; James A. Bell, a New York State Senator; and William Cullen Bryant, the American poet, newspaper editor, and political activist. That men of this stature would lend their names to the lottery for the Emancipation Proclamation was in itself enough to demonstrate the importance that was attached to the event. A letter from BryantPDF to William Barnes indicates that, in at least some cases, little more than their names would be added to the effort: "I have just received your letter with a copy of the paper you wish me to sign. I have no objection to being put on the Committee provided it gives me no trouble…" 14 However, one committee member, Gerrit Smith,15 would play a pivotal role in the outcome of the lottery.

A Prize of Great Magnitude

A prize of this magnitude demanded pride of place in the fair schedule, and it was decided that the drawing for it would be the grand finale on the closing day.  A limited number of tickets, not to exceed five thousand, were to be sold at $1.00 each.  In a fitting ceremonial flourish, the winning ticket would be drawn, using "the same wheel used by the Provost Marshall of the 14th Congressional District of the State of New York in making the draft of Soldiers for the said district."

From the first days of the fair, the President's gift was an object of considerable attention.  A local wag wrote anonymously in The Canteen:

The President sent in a Draft—;
What else could be expected,
From one who's dealt in nothing else
Ever since he was elected?

The sale—for $3,000—of the final Emancipation Proclamation at Chicago's Northwestern Soldier's Fair, the previous October, had no doubt increased the public interest in the outcome of the Albany lottery.  For his part, Barnes promoted the view that the preliminary draft was the more important—and thus more valuable—document: 

I think the 22nd Sept. [i.e. the preliminary draft] is really more valuable than the 1st of Jany. [i.e. the final proclamation.] …The Judgment was really pronounced in Sept. Jany. was only enforcing Execution. The Sept. Proclamation first embodied the President's plan on foolscap…the Sept. document was really the effective Proclamation of Freedom.17

Ticket for the raffle of the 'Original Draft of the President's First Emancipation Proclamation.'
Lottery ticket for the Proclamation.

The final day of the fair was March 9, 1864.  (Originally scheduled to close on March 5, the fair's run had been extended for an extra week by popular demand.)  The closing day drew an enormous crowd: "The crowd was absolutely stifling.  Every inch of standing and resting space was occupied."18 As the fair opened that day, there were still unsold tickets for the Emancipation Proclamation:  "Yesterday morning, nearly a thousand tickets were unsold; but the committee 'took off their coats' and…by 9 PM all but 8 had been disposed of."19  All of this activity no doubt increased the interest of the large crowds in the final drawing as reported by the next day's Albany Evening Journal:

There was a good deal of excitement as the drawing was commenced, and when the venerable Gerrit Smith was announced as the holder of the successful ticket, a loud and hearty cheer went up.

It might be expected that, since he was a member of the committee charged with administering the lottery, Smith's good fortune would be questioned (especially since he had reportedly enhanced his odds by buying a thousand tickets.) However, according to Barnes, this was not the case, and the public jubilation, probably as a result of Smith's general popularity, was genuine: "There was a great shout of approval when the draft which gave you the Proclamation [was announced]. Everyone was satisfied and seemed better pleased than to claim it themselves."20

The very next day (March 10), Barnes wrote to inform Smith. "You have the Proclamation. The disposition of it although by chance is eminently just. Mrs. B. and I send congratulations."21 Even at that early date, Barnes clearly wanted the proclamation ultimately to remain in Albany and suggested so to Smith: "It should go by your will to the State Library, allow me to suggest." On March 12, Smith replied, characteristically stating:

I have never been proud of owning houses and lands, but I confess that I am somewhat elated by being the owner of this glorious Proclamation of Freedom, in the very form in which it came from our President's strong and honest hand.22

Acknowledging that he had already been beset by people with suggestions for how he should best dispose of the document, Smith continued:

I feel bound to adhere to my purpose when I purchased the tickets.  That purpose was to let it go to the individual or association, who would pay the largest price for it to the Sanitary Commission…You will please retain the Proclamation in your office until the purchaser shall call for it.

Barnes replied on March 17, that he would do just as Smith wished, but at the same time indicating that he was already lobbying behind the scenes to acquire the document for New York State:  "I saw Mr. Stevens of Buffalo, the chairman of the Com. On Ways & Means & have given him a draft of a SS for the Supply Bill approving funding of $1,000 for the Proclamation for the State Library."23

Barnes evidently persisted in his efforts despite an apparent unwillingness on the part of the legislature to act, and Smith's intention to raise as much as he could, even if it meant entertaining foreign offers. "I do not see how any offer of more than a $1,000 can easily be advanced for it unless Great Britain or California may make such an offer.  You have it in your discretion and will of course wait until you are satisfied that the highest offer has been received."24 Meanwhile Frederick, P. Stevens, the Buffalo assemblyman who, as chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee, was central to Barnes' scheme, was defeated in an 1864 election.

In the interim, the Proclamation was, by Smith's decree under the control of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, although it is unclear whether it ever actually left Barnes' Albany office. Evidently Smith had at least considered giving it to the New York Metropolitan Fair—although Barnes had his doubts, expressed in his March 10 letter to Smith: "I hope you will not think it expedient or best to send it to the Fair in N.Y I have had a correspondence with them, and I don't want them to have it from the spirit exhibited by them. I think we had better save the document from a bad or improper disposition which corruption or chance might give to it if again exposed for further sale."25

The question was ultimately settled by the New York State Legislature in 1865, when, after Lincoln's funeral train visited Albany, they voted to pay the Sanitary Commission $1,000 for the document, as part of a general appropriation bill (Laws 1865, chapter 598, 88th session, p. 1239).  The clause authorizing the purchase, read:

For Henry W. Bellows, president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, for the use of said commission, the sum of one thousand dollars, as a consideration for the original draught of the President's first Emancipation Proclamation, dated September twenty-second, Anno Domini, eighteen hundred and sixty-two, to be placed in the State Library.

In the same bill, the legislature also voted a substantial sum to drape the capitol in mourning for the recently assassinated Lincoln.  It was a fitting memorial.  Lincoln's body lay in state in the Capitol for twelve hours, during which thousands of local citizens paid their respects.  Clearly the national tragedy inspired the legislators to finally vote on the purchase of Lincoln's Proclamation, thus fulfilling the wishes of Barnes, and making the Emancipation Proclamation once and for all a treasure of the New York State Library. 

Text by Paul Mercer, New York State Library, 2010.


1 This overview of the USSC and the sanitary fair phenomenon is based on Melinda Lawson, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), and on Alvin Robert Kantor and Marjorie Sered Kantor, Sanitary Fairs: A Philatelic and Historical Study of Civil War Benevolence. (Glencoe, Illinois: SF Publishing, 1992).

2 Albany Army Relief Association. Journal, 1861-1869. New York State Library Manuscripts and Special Collections, BD13614.  As the journal notes, the meetings were held in the mayor's office. Although he was not formally part of the organization, the Mayor's influence—not to say his direct involvement in the early meetings—was an indication of the extent to which this women-directed organization was controlled by the male-dominated political establishment of the time.

3 For a discussion of the philatelic aspect of sanitary fairs, see Alvin Robert Kantor and Marjorie Sered Kantor, Sanitary Fairs: A Philatelic and Historical Study of Civil War Benevolence. (Glencoe, Illinois: SF Publishing, 1992).

4 The Canteen (Albany, NY), No. 1, February 22, 1864, p. 1-2

5 In its first two days, the Bazaar raised $6,239 (more than $85,000 in current value). By the time it closed, it was reckoned that more than $100,000 was taken in.

6 Drawings were reported regularly in the pages of The Canteen.

7 Frederick was the son of Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward, a former Governor of New York.

8 Frederick William Seward.  Letters, 1864-1906.  New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, 14977.

9 Kantor & Kantor, Sanitary Fairs: A Philatelic and Historical Study of Civil War Benevolence. (Glencoe, Illinois: SF Publishing, 1992), p. 107.  The proliferation of these copies—all genuinely written out by Lincoln—has led to some confusion as to which (if any) could be called the "original" manuscript of the address.

10 Abraham Lincoln ALS, Washington, 26 October 1863. Reproduced in Kantor, Sanitary Fairs, p. 172.

11 Ibid.  The final draft, auctioned at Chicago, fetched a price of $3000.00.  It was later donated to the Chicago Historical Society, but eventually it was lost in the 1871 Chicago fire.

12 William A. Barnes. A.D. 1854-A.D.1904: Semi-centennial of the Republican Party. Proceedings at the Celebration at Saratoga Springs, September 14-1904. (Albany: J. B. Lyon Co, Printers, 1904).

13 David C. Mearns, "The strong and honest hand." NYLA Bulletin, March 1963, pp. 33-39.

14 Bryant, William Cullen to William A Barnes, January 1864. In Letters, 1864.  New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, V22980.

15 Born in 1797 in New York, Gerrit Smith was a wealthy land owner, temperance advocate and social reformer, remembered primarily for his efforts on behalf of African Americans. In the 1830s he became an ardent supporter of the abolitionist movement, joining the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1835. Gerrit Smith also advocated land reform and in 1846 decided to give away a large amount of land in a multi-county area of New York. Because free blacks who did not own land were denied the right to vote, Smith decided they would be the beneficiaries of his gift. Although Smith's experiment in land reform largely proved a failure, it was through this project, that he first became acquainted with John Brown. Gerrit Smith became one of a group of New Englanders, who helped finance John Brown's activities. After the raid on Harpers Ferry, Smith denied prior knowledge of the true nature of Brown's activities, a claim he maintained until his death in 1874.

16 The Canteen, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 22, 1864), p. 2. This humorous comment hints at the political controversies attending not only the Emancipation Proclamation but also the military draft, then in effect.  That the two were somehow connected, at least in the public imagination, is also suggested by the intentionally symbolic use of the same wheel for both the Emancipation Proclamation lottery and the military draft lottery.

17 William Barnes, Letter to Gerrit Smith, 22 March 1864. Gerrit Smith Papers, 1775-1924, Arents Library, Syracuse University. (Microfilm held by New York State Library, MB/FM 974.7 S648)

18 Albany Evening Journal, (March 10, 1864) p. 2.

19 Ibid.

20 William Barnes, Letter to Gerrit Smith, 17 March 1864. Gerrit Smith Papers, 1775-1924, Arents Library, Syracuse University. (Microfilm held by New York State Library, MB/FM 974.7 S648)

21 Barnes, Letter to Gerrit Smith, 10 March 1864. Gerrit Smith Papers, 1775-1924, Arents Library, Syracuse University. (Microfilm held by New York State Library, MB/FM 974.7 S648)

22 Gerrit Smith to William Barnes, 12 March, 1864. Quoted in "Remarks to the Exchange Club of Albany…April 24, 1963." New York State Library. Papers Relating to the Emancipation Proclamation. New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections, SC16651, Box 1, Folder 5.

23 Letter to Smith, 17 March 1864, Gerrit Smith Papers.  Actually Barnes first mentions discussions with Stevens in a short note, written on March 12, which had evidently crossed in the mail with Smith's reply.

24 Letter to Smith, 22 March 1864, Gerrit Smith Papers. Barnes' March 12 note had also alluded to an offer from Great Britain, (with Mr. Delevan acting as intermediary).

25 Letter to Smith, 10 March 1864, Gerrit Smith Papers.  The New York fair followed the Albany Bazaar by a month. Whatever Barnes' doubts about the New York Fair may have been, there was no further correspondence on this topic.

Last Updated: September 20, 2021