Mr. President, It is my Desire to be free.

Letter from Annie Davis to Abraham Lincoln
Letter from Annie Davis to Abraham Lincoln, 8/25/1864. From the Records of the Adjutant General’s Office. National Archives Identifier 4662543.

Mr. President, It is my Desire to be free.

Thus wrote (another – not me!) Annie Davis to Abraham Lincoln, 20 months after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Writing from Belair, Maryland, she continued, “Will you please let me know if we are free.”

But she was not. The Emancipation Proclamation affected only those states that were in rebellion as of January 1, 1863. The slaveholding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri were not affected by the Proclamation. Annie would become free in November 1864, when the re-written Maryland state constitution ended slavery. The rest of the enslaved people would gain freedom within 1865.

This terrific document in the holdings of the National Archives provides much opportunity for teaching and learning.  Just reading Annie’s letter is enough to feel her longing for freedom. And by using it in the classroom, we can help our students better understand the emotions, historic details, and impact of the fight for freedom.

The 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the movement towards the 13th Amendment are foremost in our minds these days. But emancipation came neither suddenly nor easily.  The question of slavery and freedom is older than our country. It is part of the fabric of this nation; it was prominent in the debate about Independence and the Constitution. It is still with us.

Evidence of the fight for freedom lives in the National Archives. These stories, often embedded in legal language, are both heart-breaking and heart-warming. We find court cases of owners trying to get back their “property,” warrants for the arrest of fugitives, bills of sale, and citizens using the law to create new law. These records offer unlimited opportunities for teaching and learning and inspiration.

To access documents, I direct students and teachers to to simply search on “slavery.” A huge array of diverse documents and good activities will be at your fingertips.

In a recent workshop, teachers at the National Archives at Boston examined records of fugitive slaves and developed several essential questions upon which to build instruction:

  • When is it appropriate to defy the law?
  • Would I ever have the courage to risk everything for something I believed in?
  • Why is the Compromise of 1850 a compromise?

For visiting middle- and high-school students, I provided these records of fugitive slaves. Working together in groups, the students addressed a series of document-based questions (scaffolding).  Then, they created a thesis statement in response to the essential questions. Independently, they used the thesis statement supported by evidence from the documents to construct a paragraph or essay. The teachers used this as the culminating activity and the assessment.

Students like to discuss the question, Would I have helped the fugitives?  We all like to think that in difficult times, we would have the courage to do the right thing. But the right thing is easier to define with hindsight and a knowledge of history. In the moment, what would you do?

The stories of the fight for freedom and the knowledge of how far we have come help us understand where we are now and how far we have yet to go on our stony path to freedom and unalienable rights.

On June 24-25, 2013, the National Archives at Boston will offer a free workshop for teachers: “Fighting for Freedom at Home and On the Front: Boston’s Struggle for Freedom 1806-1865.” For more information, contact us at

And you or your students can read more in “The Meaning and Making of Emancipation,” a free eBook that presents the Emancipation Proclamation in its social and political context with documents in the National Archives’ holdings that illustrate the efforts of the many Americans, enslaved and free, white and black, by whom slavery was abolished in the United States.

More resources:

2 thoughts on “Mr. President, It is my Desire to be free.

  1. The slaveholding border states of Tennessee and West Virginia were also not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation.

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