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The history of Watch Night

Sunday, December 30, 2012    

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WASHINGTON, USA (AP) — The tradition of waiting up until midnight on December 31 began 150 years ago — in 1862 — as slaves in the US gathered in churches to await word that President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect.

Lincoln had promised 100 days earlier that he would declare all slaves in states rebelling against the Union in a bloody Civil War to be "forever free". Later, congregations listened as the president's historic words were read aloud.

The proclamation would not end slavery outright and at the time couldn't be enforced by Lincoln in areas under control of the secessionist Confederates. But the president made clear from that day forward that his forces would be fighting to bring the Union back together without the institution of slavery. It led to the 13th and 15th Amendments, which outlawed slavery, and granted blacks American citizenship, respectively.

Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, after the Battle of Antietam, announcing that if rebel states did not cease fighting and rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellious states or parts of states would be declared free from that date forward.

This year, the Watch Night tradition will follow the historic document to its home at the National Archives with a special midnight display planned with readings, songs and bell ringing among the nation's founding documents.

The official document bears Lincoln's signature and the United States seal, setting it apart from copies and drafts. It will make a rare public appearance from today, Sunday, to Tuesday — New Year's Day — for thousands of visitors to mark its anniversary. On New Year's Eve, the display will remain open past midnight.

"We will be calling back to an old tradition," said US Archivist David Ferriero, noting the proclamation's legacy. "When you see thousands of people waiting in line in the dark and cold ... we know that they're not there just for words on paper.

"On this 150th anniversary, we recall those who struggled with slavery in this country, the hope that sustained them and the inspiration the Emancipation Proclamation has given to those who seek justice."

The National Archives allows 100 visitors at a time into its rotunda, where the Emancipation Proclamation will be displayed along with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. On the busiest days, 8,000 people file through for a glimpse of the founding charters.

Performances and re-enactments are scheduled to continue throughout New Year's Day. The US Postal Service will unveil a new Emancipation Proclamation stamp as well.

This special display is just one of many commemorations planned in Washington and in churches nationwide to mark the anniversary of Lincoln's actions to end slavery and the Civil War.

President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, where the 16th president spent much of his time and where he began drafting the proclamation, is displaying a signed copy of the document through February. It also will host its own New Year's Eve celebration.

The Library of Congress will display the first draft handwritten by Lincoln. It will be on display for six weeks beginning January 3 in the library's exhibit, "The Civil War in America", which features many personal letters and diaries from the era.

The Watch Night tradition also continues at many sites Monday night. In Washington, the Metropolitan AME Church, where abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a member, will host a special 150th anniversary service.

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