Reconstruction Gets Under Way in Tennessee

January 21, 1864 – Unionists assembled at Nashville and approved a resolution forming a constitutional convention to restore Tennessee to the Union.

17th U.S. President Andrew Johnson | Image Credit:

Military Governor Andrew Johnson, who attended the assembly, called upon the delegates to form a new government. He urged them, “Begin at the foundation, elect the lower officers, and, step by step, put the government in motion.”

Regarding who should be allowed to vote in the election for convention delegates, Johnson declared that anyone “who has engaged in this Rebellion has been, by his own act, expatriated” and thus had no right to suffrage “until he has filed his declaration and taken the oath of allegiance.” Johnson went further than other governors by equating Confederates with foreigners, but at the same time he opened a path for them to regain their rights as citizens.

Johnson hoped to encourage Confederates to lay down their arms and pledge loyalty to the Union by announcing that he was “for a white man’s Government, and in favor of free white qualified voters controlling this country, without regard to Negroes.”

As for the slavery issue, Johnson said, “Now is the time to settle it.” He alleged that the Confederates had “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.”

There was no need to debate emancipation, as it was already being done in Tennessee. According to Johnson, the main focus should now be on restoring a Unionist government while “leaving the Negroes out of the question.” After that, the next phase would be “assigning the Negro his new relation” to whites in society. And since slaves outnumbered free blacks in Tennessee, it should be as simple to “contain them in one condition as in another.”

Of the black man, Johnson asserted, “If he can rise by his own energies, in the name of God let him rise,” though he reminded his white Unionist audience that he did not “argue that the Negro race is equal to the Anglo-Saxon–not at all.” In keeping with President Abraham Lincoln’s policy of colonization, Johnson expressed hope 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.”

After ranging over various other topics, Johnson returned to the task at hand of restoring Tennessee to the Union. He concluded, “Things have a beginning, and you have put the ball in motion.”


References; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 361; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 391; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 456

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