Free at Last: A History of the Abolition of Slavery in America investigates the question of how slavery in America developed into an institution, and how it came to be condemned as it divided the nation during the Civil War. Visitors can explore an early fragment of Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, letters by abolitionists and slaves, and personal letters from soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Views of these rare documents, previously unavailable to the public nationally, are accompanied by photographs, broadsides, and other images, giving a rare opportunity for adults and youth alike to experience the abolition of slavery and contemplate the challenging legacy of slavery in America. Curated by David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, and James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies at George Washington University, this national touring exhibition is made possible by funding from the Gilder Lehrman Institute, with additional support from the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Trusts. Two versions are available: one requires 40-50 running feet, the other requires 60-70 running feet.
Racism is an enduring legacy of slavery and remains a highly divisive issue for Americans today. Issues surrounding American slavery and anti-slavery are difficult for Americans to discuss. The struggle against slavery was not simply a debate: it involved conflicting visions of America’s future. We hope that reflecting upon the ideas and experiences of people living 150 years ago will encourage informed dialogue that contributes to understanding the past and to resolving contemporary controversies.
The exhibition raises three interrelated questions: How was it possible that men and women of “good will” living two hundred years ago tolerated an institution universally condemned today? Why was slavery, an institution that existed in some form in all societies from earliest recorded history, condemned by the mid-nineteenth century in the United States? How did slavery come to be the fundamental cause of the Civil War? These questions continue to engage Americans because they resist facile answers, but the documents and images offer an immediate and concrete context for the political, moral, and religious aspects of the debate. The exhibition will illuminate shades of opinion and ambiguities within the ranks of the famous and ordinary, free and enslaved, men and women, who came to see slavery as incompatible with the ideals upon which the nation was founded.