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Lincoln didn’t free the slaves in Tennessee — an East Tennessean did

Ned Jilton II • Feb 27, 2019 at 5:30 PM

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to Tennessee?

Lincoln had to be careful with the wording of his proclamation because there were four pro-slave states that remained loyal to the Union in addition to the newly formed West Virginia, which was also proslavery.

Early in the proclamation, he wrote “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

Further down in the proclamation, Lincoln noted the states in rebellion.

“Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the fortyeight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth, and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”

Notice that Tennessee is not on the list.

At the time of the proclamation, large sections of Tennessee, including its capital, Nashville, were under Union control, and Greeneville’s Andrew Johnson was the military governor of the state. Because of this, the state was not considered to be in rebellion against the United States and the proclamation did not apply.

Slavery would remain in effect in Tennessee.

It was at this time that Gov. Johnson came to the aid of the slave population in the state.

Although he was a Democrat, he had broken ranks with the members of the pro-slavery Democratic Party and refused to resign his seat in the Senate during secession. Now he would begin to side with the Radical Republicans and their opposition to slavery.

In a speech on Oct. 13, 1864, Johnson said, “Before the rebellion, I was for sustaining the Government with slavery; now I am for sustaining the Government without slavery, without regard to a particular institution. Institutions must be subordinate, and the Government must be supreme.”

But then in the same speech, Johnson took things a bit further when he said, “In my opinion, freedom will not make negroes any worse, and will result in their advancement. I am for an aristocracy of labor, of intelligent, stimulating, virtuous labor; of talent, of intellect, of merit; for the elevation of each and every man, white and black, according to his talent and industry.”

A little more than a week later, Johnson would stand on the steps of the Capitol in Nashville and proclaim what slaves across Tennessee yearned to hear.

“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!”

In just a few months, Johnson would become vice president of the United States and then president following the assassination of Lincoln.

Johnson had freed the slaves in Tennessee but the job wasn’t finished.

Although free, blacks in the state had no rights — not even citizenship. It would be up to Johnson’s successor to finish the job.

And you’ll have to wait for the next column for that one.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected] timesnews.net .

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