October 24, 1864: Moses of the Colored Man Speech

On the evening October 24, 1864, addressing a torchlight crowd of blacks in Nashville, Andrew Johnson, military governor of the state of Tennessee and the nominee for Vice President on the National Union ticket headed by Lincoln, freed the slaves of Tennessee.  No doubt it was done for the campaign, but it also was a remarkable event, especially due to the fact that although Johnson had fought throughout his political career in Tennessee prior to the war against the political influence of the large plantation owners, he had never breathed a word against slavery.  However, although still not in favor of Negro equality, the war had radicalized him into an opponent of slavery.  Here is his speech:

Colored men of Nashville: You have all heard of the President’s Proclamation, by which he announces to the world that the slaves in a large portion of the seceded States were thenceforth and forever free. For certain reasons, which seemed wise to the President, the benefits of that Proclamation did not extend to you or to your native State. Many of you consequently were left in bondage. The task-master’s scourge was not yet broken, and the fetters still galled your limbs. Gradually this iniquity has been passing away, but the hour has come when the last vestiges of it must be removed. Consequently, I, too, without reference to the President or any other person, have a proclamation to make; and, standing here upon the steps of the Capitol, with the past history of the State to witness, the present condition to guide, and its future to encourage me, I, Andrew Johnson, do hereby proclaim freedom to every man in Tennessee!

I invoke the colored people to be orderly and law-abiding, but at the same time let them assert their rights, and if traitors and ruffians attack them, while in the discharge of their duties, let them defend themselves as all men have a right to do.

I am no agrarian. I respect the rights of property acquired by honest labor. But I say, nevertheless, that if the great farm of Mark Cockrill, who gave $25,000 to Jeff. Davis’s Confederacy, were divided into small farms and sold to fifteen or twenty honest farmers, society would be improved, Nashville mechanics and tradesmen would be enriched, the State would have more good citizens, and our city would have a much better market than it now has.

I am no agrarian, but if the princely plantation of Wm. G. Harding, who boasted that he had disbursed over $5,000,000 for the rebel Confederacy, were parcelled out among fifty loyal, industrious farmers, it would be a blessing to our noble Commonwealth. I speak to-night as a citizen of Tennessee. I am here on my own soil, and mean to remain here and fight this great battle of freedom through to the end. Loyal men, from this day forward, are to be the controllers of Tennessee’s grand and sublime destiny, and Rebels must be dumb. We will not listen to their consels. Nashville is no longer the place for them to hold their meetings. Let them gather their treasonable conclaves elsewhere; among their friends in the Confederacy. They shall not hold their conspiracies in Nashville.

The representatives of the corrupt (and if you will permit me almost to swear a little) this damnable aristocracy, taunt us with our desire to see justice done, and charge us with favoring negro equality. Of all living men they should be the last to mouth that phrase; and even when uttered in their hearing, it should cause their cheeks to tinge and burn with shame. Negro equality, indeed! Why pass, any day, along the sidewalks of High street where these aristocrats more particularly dwell – these aristrocrats, whose sons are now in the bands of guerillas and cut-throats who prowl and rob and murder around our city – pass by their dwellings, I say, and you will see as many mulatto as negro children, the former bearing an unmistakable resemblance to their aristrocrat neighbors!

Colored men of Tennessee! This too shall cease! Your wives and daughters shall no longer be dragged into a concubinage, compared to which polygamy is a virtue, to satisfy the brutal lusts of slaveholders and overseers! Henceforth the sanctity of God’s holy law of marriage shall be respected in your persons, and the great State of Tennessee shall no more give her sanction to your degredation and your shame!

And if the law protects you in the possession of your wives and children, if the law shields those whom you hold dear from the unlawful graps of lust, will you endeavor to be true to yourselves, and shun, as it were death itself, the path of lewdness, crime and vice?

Looking at this vast crowd of colored people, and reflecting through what a storm of persecution and obloquy they are compelled to pass, I am almost induced to wish that, as in the days of old, a Moses might arise who should lead them safely to their promised land of freedom and happiness.

‘You are our Moses,’ shouted several voices.

‘God, no doubt has prepared somewhere an instrument for the great work He designs to perform in behalf of this outraged people, and in due time your leader will come forth; your Moses will be revealed to you.
We want no Moses but you! shouted some in the crowd.
 Well, then, humble and unworthy as I am, if no other better shall be found, I will indeed be your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage, to a fairer future of liberty and peace. I speak now as one who feels the world his country, and all who love equal rights his friends. I speak, too, as a citizen of Tennessee. I am here on my own soil, and here I mean to stay and fight this great battle of truth and justice to a triumphant end. Rebellion and slavery shall, by God’s good help, no longer pollute our State. Loyal men, whether white or black, shall alone control her destinies: and when this strife in which we are all engaged is past, I trust, I know, we shall have a better state of things, and shall all rejoice that honest labor reaps the fruit of its own industry, and that every man has a fair chance in the race of life.




Published in: on October 24, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on October 24, 1864: Moses of the Colored Man Speech  
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