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History And Civics Lessons From 13th Amendment At Freedom Center

Bill Rinehart

A rare copy of the 13th Amendment is now on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. 

Director of Museum Experiences Richard Cooper says this particular copy was originally owned by Schuyler Colfax, who was the Speaker of the House when the amendment was drafted.

“He read this in the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865," Cooper says. "It was signed on February 1, 1865, by President Abraham Lincoln.”

The Amendment outlawing slavery was not ratified until December of that year, after Lincoln was assassinated.

Cooper says the document joins the copy of the Emancipation Proclamation also on display.

“These rarely come outside of Washington, D.C.," Cooper says. "The other museums that have them outside of D.C. only put them up for maybe one or two days. So for these to be up for a number of months in Cincinnati is a great opportunity." 

The ink on the 13th Amendment is faded, and the paper is fragile. Cooper says there are special measures in place to preserve the documents while still allowing access. That means temperature and humidity controls, and appropriate lighting levels.

“If you imagine putting a shirt in the sunlight for a thousand days it will fade," Cooper says. "So we make sure we’re checking these levels at all times." 

Freedom Center provost Michael Battle says the document shares space with a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.  He says together they demonstrate the power and limits of the executive and legislative branches of government.  Battle says visitors can apply the lessons today.

Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU
This copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment, are both on loan from the private collection of financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein.

 “A person can walk into this room, raise critical questions about how the American government works, the separation of powers, the limitations of powers. And why an executive order by itself is not necessary to sustain a long term change of law,” Battle says. 

Battle says together, the documents are not only historical, but a civics lesson as well.

“The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order," Battle says. "It validates the power of why Presidents use executive orders to get things done; In cases where there’s an urgency of time and things have to get done. Now the 13th Amendment represents an act of Congress.”

Battle says they want visitors to think about why each document was needed and think about modern government.

Both documents are on loan from financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein.  The display continues until June 30th.