On the Racism of Andrew Johnson, Self-Identified White Ally and “Your Moses”
Robert S. Levine Considers the White-Savior Complex of the 17th President
Andrew Johnson was a racist, like most white Americans of the time. But he was a racist who believed strongly that he cared about Black people. He regularly asserted in his speeches that he was the rare southern leader who had taken a stand against slavery, most emphatically in his October 1864 Moses speech, which supposedly liberated all of the enslaved people of Tennessee. Though that speech lacked the force of law, it helped to bring about changes in the state and made Johnson into a kind of folk hero among Nashville’s African American population. Such was the fame of the speech that the image of the new president as a potential leader of Black people came up again and again, often at Johnson’s instigation, whenever he addressed the issue of Blacks’ civil rights.
Johnson took pride in his relationship to African Americans. But the Blacks he had reached out to in Nashville had been former slaves, or enslaved people themselves, and he spoke to them from the pedestal of a military governorship with a clear sense of racial hierarchy. He relished the power that he had over his audience, and he enjoyed the adulation he received from those he regarded as his inferiors. His Moses speech was sincere, idealistic, incisive, and paternalistic. His repeated invocations of that speech suggest that it made him feel good about himself, and part of what he liked about the memory was his conviction that he had received so much love from Black people.
The situation was different in Washington, DC, where African Americans pressed their claims for the full rights of citizenship. In February 1865, when Johnson was vice president, Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, became the first Black to speak in Congress, addressing an overflow audience of Blacks and whites. A generation earlier, in a famous 1843 address at the African American convention in Buffalo, Garnet had encouraged enslaved Black people to use all possible methods, including violence, to resist the slave masters. In his 1865 lecture at the Capitol, in the waning days of the war, Garnet condemned slavery, hailed the Thirteenth Amendment, and made the case for Black citizenship. He called on Congress to “Emancipate, Enfranchise, Educate, and give the blessings of the gospel to every American citizen.” Douglass and Garnet attended Black conventions together and were sometimes at odds, but in this speech, delivered in the halls of Congress, perhaps with Johnson in attendance, Garnet evoked their shared goals—and the goals of nearly all African American activists of the period.
When Johnson assumed the presidency, he immediately reached out to such activists. He began by accepting a visit from a Black delegation led by John Mercer Langston. Langston was Johnson’s best-known African American supporter. Born free in Virginia in 1829, he was educated at Oberlin College and in 1854 became the first Black admitted to the Ohio bar. During his Oberlin years and beyond, Langston regularly attended Black conventions with Douglass and participated in the Underground Railroad. Like Douglass, he helped to recruit Black troops for the Union army. He met Johnson for the first time in 1864 and instantly regarded him as an inspirational leader. When Langston looked back on that meeting in his 1894 autobiography, he referred to Johnson as “the distinguished military governor of Tennessee” and called it “entirely natural” that he had supported him for the vice presidency.
The two men bonded in Nashville shortly after Johnson gave his Moses speech. Langston described the speech glowingly in his autobiography, remarking on how Johnson gained the respect of the Blacks in attendance. Just a few months later, in December 1864, a group of Nashville’s Black leaders invited Langston to give a speech there. Johnson sent a letter, too, assuring the visiting Black abolitionist that he would be safe and protected in the southern city. According to Langston’s account, when he arrived in Nashville, Johnson invited him to the statehouse and urged him “to exercise in his address the largest freedom of sentiment and expression.” Johnson attended the lecture, titled “The War, Our National Emancipator,” making Langston feel appreciated and given due dignity. Afterward, Johnson congratulated Langston on the address and asked him to visit his office the next day.
As it turned out, Johnson had a plan for Langston: he wanted him to meet with injured Black Union troops in an open-air hospital near Nashville and convey the military governor’s gratitude for their service. Johnson gave this seemingly moving confidence to the visiting speaker: “Tell them that I do not come myself because I could not face them without such feelings as would render me wholly incapable of addressing them.” Langston was pleased to do what Johnson asked, and their friendship carried over into 1865 and beyond.
Shortly after Johnson became president, Langston brought a delegation of Black men to meet with Johnson in the Treasury Building. The group represented the National Equal Rights League, the recently created African American organization promoting Black suffrage and other forms of legal equality central to citizenship, such as the right to own property. Langston and his fellow delegates told Johnson that they hoped he “would see to it that every law which concerned their welfare was duly executed.” Langston, who chaired the delegation, reported that he and his associates came away satisfied that “the president was earnest and positive in the promise that his colored fellow-citizens should find in him a friend mindful always of their welfare.”
The April meeting with Langston and his committee provided Johnson with good publicity. Langston wrote it up for the Philadelphia Press, and he sympathetically conveyed Johnson’s view of the risks he had taken as a southerner in adopting an antislavery position. “It may be a very easy thing, indeed popular, to be an emancipationist north of the line,” Johnson told Langston, “but a very different thing to be such south of it. South of it costs a man effort, property, and perhaps life.” Langston responded sympathetically and saw no reason to be concerned about Johnson’s future actions toward African Americans. Johnson’s “past history,” Langston said, offers “full assurance” that “our liberty and rights will be fully protected and sustained.”
Johnson made time for other such meetings with Black groups. In May 1865 he spoke to a delegation from the National Theological Institute for Colored Ministers, presenting himself as the ideal leader for African Americans. He told them about his Moses speech and how he had emancipated the enslaved people of Tennessee. A Moses to Tennessee’s Black people, he now aspired to be a Moses to all of the nation’s Black people. In this new role, he promised his visitors, “I shall continue to do all that I can for the elevation and amelioration of your condition.” He also offered the advice that he gave at Nashville and would continue to give over the years, “that freedom simply means liberty to work and enjoy the product of your own hands.” He never mentioned the franchise.
Here and afterward, Johnson also consistently failed to say anything about the racism that made it difficult, and often impossible, for African Americans to rise in the United States. But during this meeting he floated an ominous idea that he would return to in some of his subsequent meetings with Black people, namely that if hostility persisted between Blacks and whites, Blacks might have to leave the country. As the meeting came to an end, Johnson offered an eerie blessing to the ministers that seemed to anticipate the failure of race relations in the United States: “I trust in God the time may soon come when you shall be gathered together, in a clime and country suited to you, should it be found that the two races cannot get along together.”
Colonization remained a live possibility for Johnson, as it had for Lincoln well into his first term as president. Transporting over four million African Americans to such places as Liberia and Central and South America would surely have been impossible, even with the support of such organizations as the American Colonization Society, but Johnson’s political imagination was expansive on the subject. He would refer to colonization periodically during his presidency, including when he met with Douglass in February 1866, but without addressing how he would engineer or pay for such an initiative. More often, though, Johnson claimed to support African Americans’ efforts to improve their situation in the United States.
As an avowed champion of Black people, Johnson continued to meet with various African American groups in the early months of his presidency. In June 1865, he welcomed Black delegations from Kentucky and Virginia to the White House. Both groups sought added police protection for the freedpeople. The spokesperson for the Kentucky delegation worried over Blacks’ vulnerability to mob violence, reporting, as just one example, that white men “carry bull whips and upon Meeting colored Men, women or children in the Public high ways any time after dark… surround them and flay them alive in the public Streets.” The delegates from Virginia shared similar accounts of whites’ anti-Black violence. The problem, as the spokesperson for the Virginia group put it, was that Blacks had “nowhere to go for protection.”
Johnson assured both delegations that the freedpeople “need have no apprehension,” though he failed to explain why this should be so. Would they be protected by state police? Federal troops? Johnson observed that conflicts between the races would inevitably arise while the freedpeople were in “transition,” but in that way he seemed to be blaming the victims. Nevertheless, both groups expressed their gratitude to a president willing to set aside time to listen to their concerns.
Johnson’s amiable relations with African Americans continued after these meetings. He gave permission to the Colored People’s Educational Monument Association to hold a celebration in memory of Abraham Lincoln on White House lawns during Johnson’s first Independence Day in office. Permitting the celebration at his official residence further burnished the president’s reputation as the friend of Black people. The gathering also allowed Black and white supporters of Black suffrage to make their case in a public forum. Unable to attend because he was in Rochester, Frederick Douglass sent a letter that was read to the crowd, calling for “the immediate, complete, and universal enfranchisement of the colored people of the whole country.” Sumner also missed the event. His public letter echoed Douglass’s in demanding suffrage for African Americans. Though Sumner had begun to turn on the president by this point, Johnson’s decision to allow the gathering may have softened him, leading him, probably in earnest, to draw on one of Johnson’s favorite conceptions of himself. “I counsel patience,” Sumner wrote, “and confidence in the President, who has told you that he will be ‘Your Moses.’ ”
On this festive Independence Day event in 1865, people like Massachusetts Radical Republican senator Henry Wilson expressed admiration for the president, reminding the hundreds of Blacks on the White House grounds that Johnson had promised to be a Moses to them. Given that history, Wilson assured the crowd that Johnson would “be to you what Abraham Lincoln would have been, had he been spared to complete the great work of emancipation and enfranchisement.” Wilson placed Lincoln and Johnson together in harmonious succession.
In his last public speech Lincoln had said, with respect to his Louisiana plan, that he could imagine giving the vote to literate Blacks, Black property holders, and Black soldiers. Historians have celebrated that speech and predicted that Lincoln as a Reconstruction president would have eventually championed impartial Black suffrage. But perhaps it’s just as likely that, in the pragmatic interest of sectional reconciliation, he would have continued to advocate limited Black suffrage, at least for a while. We’ll never know. What we do know is that four months after Lincoln’s death, Johnson proposed limited Black suffrage, and he did so in the pragmatic way of Lincoln. But there was one major difference: Lincoln went public with his plan, while Johnson temporarily kept his private.
Excerpted from The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2021 by Robert S. Levine.