Five Minutes To Freedom

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The crowded, torchlit, tension-filled scene above hangs today in the White House room in which Abraham Lincoln affixed his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation—using a gold nib and writing carefully so that no one, seeing a hesitant line, could ever say he had been anything but firm of purpose. “If my name ever goes into history,” he said, “it will be for this act.”

The signing took place during the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1862. The Proclamation was to go into effect at midnight. Its terms were less than sweeping: only those slaves living in Rebel territory were to be freed.

But it was a start. “I am a slow walker,” Lincoln once said, “but I never walk back.” And as darkness fell that evening, clusters of eager blacks gathered together all across the country to see freedom in.

This painting, by an obscure New England genre painter named William Tolman Carlton, commemorates one of those midnight watches. Slaves have come together in a church somewhere behind the Union lines. Their elderly pastor leans on his pulpit—hammered together from packing crates that still bear the stenciled name of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In his hand is a precious gold timepiece ticking away his bondage. It is five minutes to midnight.

This little-known painting, which captured one of the great moments in American history, also served as a curious link between two of the era’s greatest men: William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln. The grim Yankee abolitionist and the laconic prairie President had little in common; they were united only in their opposition to slavery.

For more than thirty years, Garrison had demanded its immediate and unconditional end. For him, slavery was above all a sin; Americans had to repent; no compromise with it was possible. In 1831, in the very first issue of his newspaper, The Liberator , he promised to be “as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation.” He never did.

American politics were wicked, a product of hateful compromise with the slave power, he said, and he had urged his supporters to “stand aloof” from the 1860 presidential contest. But with Lincoln’s election and the coming of the war, Garrison altered his position: armed struggle, he now believed, would quickly accomplish what three decades of moral suasion had failed to achieve. He told his friends to withhold criticism of Lincoln and to work behind the scenes to persuade him to use his war power to emancipate the slaves.

The two men finally met at the Republican convention in 1864, and Garrison came away convinced that Lincoln was committed “to uproot slavery and give fair play to the emancipated.” Later that summer, Garrison found a way to express his pleasure: he arranged to have the original Carlton painting shipped to the White House.

When, the following year, he had still received no acknowledgment of the gift, he wrote to the President:

(Private.)

Boston, Jan. 21, 1865

To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States: Sir—

About the first of July, last year, what was deemed by critics and connisseurs, artistically speaking, an admirable painting, was sent by Adams’s Express to your address at Washington; accompanied by a letter from me in behalf of the donors, whose contributions to the object in view amounted to upwards of five hundred dollars. This meritorious picture, executed by a most conscientious and excellent artist, was entitled “Watch Night—or, Waiting for the Hour.” … Many photographic copies were made of it, and it was by my advice that it was presented to you as the most fitting person in the world to receive it.

For some cause or other, no acknowledgment has been made, or at least received, of the receipt of the picture, or of my letter, which contained the names of the donors. As my friend Mr. [Charles] Sumner assured me, on his return from Washington last summer, that he had seen the picture again and again at the White House, all anxiety has been relieved as to its safe arrival, and we are happy to know it is in your possession. But as the money raised to purchase it was collected by ladies who desire that the donors may be officially apprised of its legitimate application, I write in their behalf to say that it would relieve them of much embarrassment if you would be so obliging, either under your own signature or by the hand of one of your secretaries, as to send me a line, stating that the painting aforesaid was duly received by you.