The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War has now reached the January 1865 time period covered by Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln. For anyone who has not seen this movie, Spielberg dramatizes Abraham Lincoln’s effort to get the 13th Amendment, definitively ending slavery in the United States, through the U.S. House of Representatives. The 13th Amendment’s passage in the House on January 31, 1865 was a major milestone in the history of emancipation in the United States (it had passed the U.S. Senate the previous April), allowing the amendment to proceed to the states for final ratification (which would occur in December 1865).
Yet the passage of the 13th Amendment was not the only noteworthy development in January 1865 relative to slave emancipation in the United States. On January 11, 1865, slavery ended in Missouri by state action, the second of the loyal slave states to end slavery on its own (Maryland had ended slavery about two months before on November 1, 1864). State-based emancipation does not get mentioned in Spielberg’s movie, which is understandable given the film’s emphasis on the effort to get the 13th Amendment through Congress.
Another noteworthy event in January 1865 related to emancipation occurred on January 9 in Nashville, Tennessee. That month, an all-white convention of Tennessee Unionists met to write a new constitution and restore loyal state government. Yet Tennessee’s African-American population refused to allow the concerns of their race to go unheard. A group of fifty-nine black residents of Nashville signed a letter dated January 9, 1865, outlining their concerns to the convention.
Not surprisingly, given that Tennessee was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation (since much of it was under Union occupation by the end of 1862), and the passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress was still uncertain, the first demand made by these fifty-nine black Tennesseans was that the convention explicitly end slavery in the state. They stated:
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.
Yet the black petitioners wanted more than simply to end slavery in Tennessee once and for all. Despite the professed disclaimer that “We do not ask for the privilege of citizenship,” the letter argued precisely that the convention should grant Tennessee’s African Americans basic citizenship rights, especially suffrage.
To bolster their argument for citizenship rights, they first based their claim on the service of black soldiers in the Civil War. The petition stated:
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.
Next they pointed out that free blacks prior to 1835 had been permitted to vote in Tennessee elections.
From 1796 to 1835, a period of thirty-nine years, free colored men voted at all her elections without question. Her leading politicians and statesmen asked for and obtained the suffrages of colored voters, and were not ashamed of it. Such men asAndrew Jackson, President of the United States, Hon. Felix Grundy, John Bell, Hon. Hugh L. White, Cave Johnson, and Ephraim H. Foster, members of the United States Senate and of the Cabinet, Gen. William Carroll, Samuel Houston, Aaron V. Brown, and, in fact, all the politicians and candidates of all parties in Tennessee solicited colored free men for their votes at every election.
They then turned to the argument that African Americans deserved citizenship rights because they were valuable, contributing members of Tennessee society.
This is not a Democratic Government if a numerous, law-abiding, industrious, and useful class of citizens, born and bred on the soil, are to be treated as aliens and enemies, as an inferior degraded class, who must have no voice in the Government which they support, protect and defend, with all their heart, soul, mind, and body, both in peace and war.
The black citizens also appealed to religion as a basis for their claim, not surprising given the religiosity of the South.
This Government is based on the teachings of the Bible, which prescribes the same rules of action for all members of the human family, whether their complexion be white, yellow, red or black. God no where in his revealed word, makes an invidious and degrading distinction against his children, because of their color. And happy is that nation which makes the Bible its rule of action, and obeys principle, not prejudice.
Lastly, given the convention was composed of Tennessee Unionists, they pointed out that African Americans as a group had been loyal to the national government throughout the war.
The Government has asked the colored man to fight for its preservation and gladly has he done it. It can afford to trust him with a vote as safely as it trusted him with a bayonet.
How boundless would be the love of the colored citizen, how intense and passionate his zeal and devotion to the government, how enthusiastic and how lasting would be his gratitude, if his white brethren were to take him by the hand and say, “You have been ever loyal to our government; henceforward be voters.”
Yet it was not just voting rights that the black residents of Nashville petitioned for in their January 9 letter. They also wanted the ability to testify in court against white Tennesseans, something which had heretofore worked against them in legal proceedings. They made their argument in this regard, in especially compelling terms, pointing out that Tennessee law gave greater standing in court to white rebels than it did to loyal African Americans.
At present we can have only partial protection from the courts. The testimony of twenty of the most intelligent, honorable, colored loyalists cannot convict a white traitor of a treasonable action. A white rebel might sell powder and lead to a rebel soldier in the presence of twenty colored soldiers, and yet their evidence would be worthless so far as the courts are concerned, and the rebel would escape. A colored man may have served for years faithfully in the army, and yet his testimony in court would be rejected, while that of a white man who had served in the rebel army would be received.
Certainly, the passage of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1865 was a monumental event, a major milestone in the final end of slavery in the United States. Nonetheless, this January 9 letter of the black residents of Nashville highlights a problem in the depiction of this event in Spielberg’s Lincoln, one that was much discussed at the time of the film’s release in late 2012. That is, its portrayal of African Americans as largely passive in the emancipation drama. If this January 9 letter demonstrates anything, it is at the grassroots, African Americans were anything but passive in early 1865 and their ambitions went beyond simple freedom. The efforts of these fifty-nine black Tennesseans demonstrates they wanted more than the end of slavery, they wanted inclusion as citizens, and in January 1865 were willing to petition a state convention with the ability to grant it. While the letter of the black residents of Nashville was ignored by the white Unionist convention, their efforts were indicative of black demands for citizenship rights that had been made for decades by African Americans and which would become even more strident as the war gave way to the Reconstruction period.