1865: “We Claim Freedom”

Nashville, January 9th, 1865

We the undersigned petitioners, American citizens of African descent, natives and residents of Tennessee, and devoted friends of the great National cause, do most respectfully ask a patient hearing of your honorable body in regard to matters deeply affecting the future condition of our unfortunate and long suffering race.

First of all, however, we would say that words are too weak to tell how profoundly grateful we are to the Federal Government for the good work of freedom which it is gradually carrying forward; and for the Emancipation Proclamation which has set free all the slaves in some of the rebellious States, as well as many of the slaves in Tennessee.

After two hundred years of bondage and suffering a returning sense of justice has awakened the great body of the American people to make amends for the unprovoked wrongs committed against us for over two hundred years.

Your petitioners would ask you to complete the work begun by the nation at large, and abolish the last vestige of slavery by the express words of your organic law.

Many masters in Tennessee whose slaves have left them, will certainly make every effort to bring them back to bondage after the reorganization of the State government, unless slavery be expressly abolished by the Constitution.

We hold that freedom is the natural right of all men, which they themselves have no more right to give or barter away, than they have to sell their honor, their wives, or their children.

We claim to be men belonging to the great human family, descended from one great God, who is the common Father of all, and who bestowed on all races and tribes the priceless right of freedom. Of this right, for no offence of ours, we have long been cruelly deprived, and the common voice of the wise and good of all countries, has remonstrated against our enslavement, as one of the greatest crimes in all history.

We claim freedom, as our natural right, and ask that in harmony and co-operation with the nation at large, you should cut up by the roots the system of slavery, which is not only a wrong to us, but the source of all the evil which at present afflicts the State. For slavery, corrupt itself, corrupted nearly all, also, around it, so that it has influenced nearly all the slave States to rebel against the Federal Government, in order to set up a government of pirates under which slavery might be perpetrated.

In the contest between the nation and slavery, our unfortunate people have sided, by instinct, with the former. We have little fortune to devote to the national cause, for a hard fate has hitherto forced us to live in poverty, but we do devote to its success, our hopes, our toils, our whole heart, our sacred honor, and our lives. We will work, pray, live, and, if need be, die for the Union, as cheerfully as ever a white patriot died for his country. The color of our skin does not lesson in the least degree, our love either for God or for the land of our birth.

We are proud to point your honorable body to the fact, that so far as our knowledge extends, not a negro traitor has made his appearance since the beginning of this wicked rebellion.

Whether freeman or slaves the colored race in this country have always looked upon the United States as the Promised Land of Universal freedom, and no earthly temptation has been strong enough to induce us to rebel against it. We love the Union by an instinct which is stronger than any argument or appeal which can be used against it. It is the attachment of a child to its parent. Devoted as we are to the principles of justice, of love to all men, and of equal rights on which our Government is based, and which make it the hope of the world. We know the burdens of citizenship, and are ready to bear them. We know the duties of the good citizen, and are ready to perform them cheerfully, and would ask to be put in a position in which we can discharge them more effectually. We do not ask for the privilege of citizenship, wishing to shun the obligations imposed by it.

Near 200,000 of our brethren are to-day performing military duty in the ranks of the Union army. Thousands of them have already died in battle, or perished by a cruel martyrdom for the sake of the Union, and we are ready and willing to sacrifice more. But what higher order of citizen is there than the soldier? or who has a greater trust confided to his hands? If we are called on to do military duty against the rebel armies in the field, why should we be denied the privilege of voting against rebel citizens at the ballot-box? The latter is as necessary to save the Government as the former.

If they are good law-abiding citizens, praying for its prosperity, rejoicing in its progress, paying its taxes, fighting its battles, making its farms, mines, work-shops and commerce more productive, why deny them the right to have a voice in the election of its rulers?

This is a democracy— a government of the people. It should aim to make every man, without regard to the color of his skin, the amount of his wealth, or the character of his religious faith, feel personally interested in its welfare. Every man who lives under the Government should feel that it is his property, his treasure, the bulwark and defence of himself and his family, his pearl of great price, which he must preserve, protect, and defend faithfully at all times, on all occasions, in every possible manner.

Excerpts from “Petition of the Colored Citizens of Nashville, January 9, 1865” written by African American citizens and presented to the Tennessee’s Liberty and Union Convention.

Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It (Library of America: The Civil War Collection) (pp. 661-662). Kindle Edition.

Two Years Later

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which offered freedom for the enslaved within Confederate-held states and regions and opened the opportunity for African American men to enlist in the Federal military. Two years later—in January 1865—as the war’s end loomed on the horizon, the black community looked ahead, petitioning for the guarantee of citizenship and civil rights.

This particular document (which is quoted with excerpts) addressed the state of Tennessee. Tennessee had joined the Confederacy, but by January 1865, the state was firmly in the hands of Union supporters and enforced with a military presence. Andrew Johnson, the military governor since 1862 (soon to be sworn in as Lincoln’s new vice president) set up a state convention to address new policies and to bring the state back into the union as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Tennessee Abolishes Slavery

The “Liberty and Union Convention” voted to abolish slavery within the state of Tennessee, passing the state amendment in February. (Tennessee did ratify the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution on April 7, 1865.)

But then they stopped. The law makers did not follow thorough on other requests in the January 9th petition. Citizenship, voting, and other civil rights were not granted by the state at that time.

However, by 1866, the state legislature started to address these issues with new laws which allowed African American men to testify in court against whites. The following year—1867—the state granted African American men the right to vote. (Unfortunately, by the 1880’s, a Democrat Party controlled legislature reversed many of these progressive steps and passed numerous disenfranchisement laws.)

Historical Musings

The text of this petition offers a fascinating look definitions and responsibility of citizenship through a 19th Century lens. In their 1865 petition, the African American community made the compelling argument that they had helped build the state (mostly in the bonds of slavery), that they believed in the American dreams of liberty and responsibility, and that they wished to have a say in the government of their state.

Just as Frederick Douglass and other leaders had predicted, the willing service and sacrifice of black soldiers during the Civil War gave additional weight to their petitions and arguments. If they were willing to die for this country, they should have freedom, citizenship, and citizens’ rights. These echoes came from early in the war period, and by the ending of the Civil War, this topics came to the forefront of politic discussions and would have far-reaching impact on the next decades of U.S. History and continue to influence the modern era.

One comment

  1. What a powerful reminder this letter is of the significant events occurring off of the battlefield as the war is dragging to a close. It is easy to look at the date in January 1865 and begin to think of events that would have recently occurred like Lincoln having been reelected, Hood’s Army having been destroyed at Nashville, or coming actions like the continuing siege of Petersburg, and Sherman’s movement through the Carolinas. But this is a reminder that such a significant population of enslaved, or formerly enslaved, still have their very futures in the balance. To be in that position and not be sure if they will remain free, if or how they can participate in government, will they face retribution from former slave owners, and all of this while USCT troops are fighting and dying.

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