‘Put the Government in Motion’ – Tennessee Moves for Union

January 21, 1864 (Thursday)

As seen in Arkansas, the political tide was beginning to turn towards Union. Parts of Louisiana also began to hold Union rallies. Not to be forgotten, was Tennessee. When President Lincoln’s reconstruction plan was published in December, the state’s Union governor, Andrew Johnson, was as enthusiastic about it as one might think.

Andrew Johnson knew just what to say.
Andrew Johnson knew just what to say.

Johnson was a Democrat. Many were in Tennessee. These were powerful men who had always held less radical views when it came to the South and when it came to slavery. They were Unionist, to be sure, never favoring secession for more than a fleeting moment, but they made Governor Johnson uneasy. To be fair, Johnson made them uneasy as well.

They feared that he would set out to punish them with confiscation of not only their property, but the right to vote. There was also the question of slavery, which was hardly a question at this point. What was really on the table was the rights that might be rewarded to the freed slaves. Johnson had vowed to Tennessee’s black population to “indeed be your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage to a fairer future of liberty and peace.”

This was, thought even his supporters, a ridiculous notion. But these were his old supporters – the Johnson Democrats from before the war. Lately, however, things had begun to take on a different feel. Lately, talk of abolishing slavery was going hand-in-hand with returning to the Union.

There was nothing like the organized assembly in Arkansas, but on this date in Nashville, Unionists, including Andrew Johnson, met and resolved to hold a constitutional convention to bring Tennessee back into the fold – though only when all parts of the state could be represented. This, they figured, could be accomplished by March, which was when they scheduled elections to ferret out the delegates.

During this assembly, Governor Johnson took the podium to discuss the restoration of the state government. Johnson put forward that the rebellion did not topple the state government, it merely relocated it. He wanted not to petition the Federal government for permission to have again a working state government, but to claim, to demand their rights to secure for their state a republican form of government. Not only was it their right, but it was their duty – both of the state and Federal governments.

These were certainly fine words, but Johnson also had a plan. “Begin at the foundation,” he asserted, “elect the lower officers, and, step by step, put the government in motion.” But just who would be allowed to vote in this new election was another matter, and one that the old Johnson Democrats were fearing.

Here Johnson claimed that anyone “who has engaged in this Rebellion” from the soldier to the politician, “has been, by his own act, expatriated.” He proposed that they be treated as any other immigrant from another country. They should not become a citizen “until he has filed his declaration and taken the oath of allegiance.”

This was, more or less, in line with Lincoln’s idea of former Southern-sympathizers swearing the oath of allegiance. But Johnson was adding a bit of flavor to the matter by recognizing them as foreigners. He also spun the whole ordeal as a defense against the idea that they never be allowed to be United States citizens again. This was a straw man argument – nobody was really suggesting that practically all Southerners be permanent ex-patriots. Clearly, Johnson was fostering an independent, Volunteer State-like mind frame. And by the cheers and applause, it was working.

Not only that, but he was fighting for votes. Johnson tried to assure those who may have previously supported or even fought for the South that they must have the right to participate in the elections. To do this, he also assured them that he was “for a white man’s Government, and in favor of free white qualified voters controlling this country, without regard to Negroes.” This was met with wild and continued cheering.

Later in his speech, he returned to the question of slavery, saying “Now is the time to settle it.” The Confederates, he continued, “commenced the destruction of the Government for the preservation of slavery, and the Government is putting down the Rebellion, and, in the preservation of its own existence, has put slavery down, justly and rightfully, and upon correct principles.” He then claimed a curious thing. If the Rebellion had succeeded, “Negroes or their masters would have controlled the Government.” Of course, he meant that the slave owners, the Southern aristocrats, would have had control, but this phrasing was likely to terrify many.

State House in Nashville, 1864. Let's start 'er up and see if she still runs.
State House in Nashville, 1864. Let’s start ‘er up and see if she still runs.

The institution of slavery in Tennessee, Johnson claimed, was already dead. The former slaves were nearly all free now. He was saying this to soften his stance on immediate emancipation. There was no need to fear it, as it was already upon them.

They were now to go on with their business of setting the government in motion, while “leaving the Negroes out of the question.” In fact, the only remaining question was “in assigning the Negro his new relation.”

He reasoned that since there weren’t more free black people than there were slaves in Tennessee prior to the war, that there was enough space to “contain them in one condition as in another.” Essentially, he figured that it would mostly just work itself out. The black people would, like anyone else, fall back on their own resources, even though they didn’t have the same resources as anyone else. “If he can rise by his own energies, in the name of God let him rise,” he spoke before reminding the gathered Unionists that he did not “argue that the Negro race is equal to the Anglo-Saxon – not at all.” The black race, Johnson put forward, was meant for labor, and he figured that in five years time, they would be quite laborious indeed.

Like President Lincoln’s views of the previous year, Johnson hoped that “the Negro will be transferred to Mexico, or some other country congenial to his nature, where there is not that difference in class or distinction, in reference to blood or color.” He was basically admitting that he and the rest of Tennessee, perhaps the rest of the United States, was too racist to allow the black people to abide.

Johnson’s speech then wandered away to talks of overthrowing Mexico and teaching France a lesson, before finally returning to the topic of elections and a constitutional convention, which he soon left for a tediously long tour of Biblical history, and several assertions that he “did not come here to speak to-night.” When he finally concluded his clearly-planned speech that night, he remarked that he was proud to take part in such a movement for Union. “Things have a beginning, and you have put the ball in motion.”1



  1. Sources: Johnson’s Speech on January 21, 1864, Nashville, as printed in Life of Andrew Johnson: Seventeenth President of the United States by James Sawyer Jones; The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction by James Alex Baggett; With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union by William C. Harris. []
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‘Put the Government in Motion’ – Tennessee Moves for Union by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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