On October 10, 1865, Andrew Johnson greeted members of the First District of Columbia Colored Regiment on the grounds of the White House. He wanted to thank them for their service, and give them some advice now that the war was over and they would be leaving military service.
You do understand, no doubt, and it you do not, you cannot understand too soon, that simple liberty does not mean the privilege of going into the battle-field, or into the service of the country as a soldier. It means other things as well; and now, when you have laid down your arms, there are other objects of equal importance before you. Now that the government has triumphantly passed through this rebellion, after the most gigantic battles the world ever saw, the problem is before you, and it is best that you should understand it; and, therefore, I speak simply and plainly. Will you now, when you have returned from the army of the United States, and take the position of the citizen; when you have returned to the associations of peace, will you give evidence to the world that you are capable and competent to govern yourselves? That is what you will have to do.
In short, the challenge confronting these black men, at least in the eyes of their president, was to prove that they were capable of self-government. But what exactly did that mean … especially as the president had not made suffrage available to blacks in his reconstruction proclamations?
Liberty is not a mere idea; a mere vagary. It is an idea or it is a reality; and when you come to examine this question of liberty, you will not be mistaken in a mere idea for the reality. It does not consist in idleness. Liberty does not consist in being worthless. Liberty does not consist in doing all things as we please, and there ran be no liberty without law. In a government of freedom and of liberty there must be law and there must be obedience and submission to the law, without regard to color. Liberty (and may I not call you my countrymen) consists in the glorious privilege of work; of pursuing the ordinary avocations of peace with industry and with economy; and that being done, all those whom have been industrious and economical are permitted to appropriate and enjoy the products of their own labor. This is one of the great blessings of freedom; and hence we might ask the question, and answer it by stating that liberty means freedom to work and enjoy the products of your own labor.
Well, certainly the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s own labor would be important to those people who, when enslaved, had lacked that freedom. They had aready experienced “the glorious privilege of work.”
You will soon be mustered out of the ranks. It is for you to establish the great fact that you are fit and qualified to be free. Hence, freedom is not a mere idea, but is something that exists in fact. Freedom is not simply the privilege to live in idleness; liberty does not mean simply to resort to the low saloons and other places of disreputable character. Freedom and liberty do not mean that the people ought to live in licentiousness, but liberty means simply to be industrious, to be virtuous, to be upright in all our dealings and relations with men; and to those now before me, members of the first regiment of colored volunteers from the District of Columbia and the Capital of the United States, I have to say that a great deal depends upon yourselves. You must give evidence that you are competent for the rights that the government has guaranteed to you. Henceforth each and all of you must be measured according to your merit. If one man is more meritorious than the other, they cannot be equals; and he is the most exalted that is the most meritorious without regard to color.
In other words, black people must now show themselves worthy of freedom by going to work. They must prove themselves “competent for the rights that the government has guaranteed to you.”
There was a small problem here: the federal government offered no such guarantees of rights. In fact, as Johnson spoke, the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had not yet become part of the Constitution. Nor did the act abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862 given black men rights. However, it encouraged their emigration abroad.
Johnson would reject efforts to secure federal protection for basic civil rights through legislation and opposed the Fourteenth Amendment.
And the idea of having a law passed in the morning that will make a white man a black man before night, and a black man a white man before day, is absurd. That is not the standard. It is your own conduct; it is your own merit; it is the development of your own talents and of your own intellectuality and moral qualities.
One wonders what legislatiive effort Johnson was describing in October 1865. Congress would not convene for nearly another two months. One would be especially interested in th effort to make white men black before night.
Let this then be your course: adopt a system of morality. Abstain from all licentiousness. And let me say one thing here, for I am going to talk plain. I have lived in a Southern State all my life and know what has too often been the case. There is one thing you should esteem higher and more supreme than almost all others; and that is the solemn contract with all the penalties in the association of married life. Men and women should abstain from those qualities and habits that too frequently follow a war. Inculcate among your children and among your associations, notwithstanding you are just back from the army of the United States, that virtue, that merit, that intelligence are the standards to be observed, and those which you are determined to maintain during your future lives. This is the way to make white men black and black men white.
In other words, behave yourselves. Don’t mess around.
As Johnson reminded his listeners, he was a southern man. As a southern man, he might have recalled that the most significant threat to marriages between blacks were white slaveholders looking to break up those couples through sale … and that slave marriages were not recognized by law.
I’m still trying to figure out who Johnson meant when he spoke of making white men black.
He that is most meritorious and virtuous and intellectual and well-informed, must stand highest without regard to color. It is the very basis upon which heaven rests itself. Each individual takes his degree in the sublimer and more exalted regions in proportion to his merits and his virtue. Then I shall say to you on this occasion in returning to your homes and firesides after feeling conscious and proud of having faithfully discharged your duty, returning with the determination that you will perform your duty in the future as you have in the past, abstain from all those bickerings and jealousies and revengeful feelings which too often spring up between different races.
In other words, behave, black folks. Don’t stir up trouble with white folks. Johnson appears to have had difficulty giving the same advice to white people on how to behave with black people.
There is a great problem before us, and I may as well allude to it here in this connection; and that is, whether this race can be incorporated and mixed with the people of the United States, to be made a harmonious and permanent ingredient in the population. This is a problem not yet settled, but we are in the right line to do so. Slavery raised its head against the government, and the government raised its strong arm and struck it to the ground. So that port of the problem is settled; the institution of slavery is over thrown. But another part remains to be saved and that is, Can four millions of people, raised as they have is with all the prejudices of the whites, can they take their places in the community and be made to work harmoniously and congruously in our system? This is a problem to be considered. Are the digestive powers, of the American Government sufficient to receive this element new shape, and digest and make it work healthfully upon the system that has incorporated it? This is question to be determined. Let us make the experiment, and make it in good faith.
In other words, thanks for your service in preserving the Union. By the way, it’s not clear yet whether you can remain part of the Union you helped save. But it’s a burden for black people to bear: it’s up to them to negate white prejudice. That appears to be the experiment.
If that cannot be done, there is another problem before us. If we have to become a separate and distinct people (although I trust that the system can be made to work harmoniously, and the great problem will be settled without going any further;) if it should be so that the two races cannot agree and live in peace and prosperity, and the laws of Providence require that they should be separated — in that event, looking to the far-distant future and trusting that it may never come; if it should come, Providence, that works mysteriously but unerringly and certainly, will point out the way, and the mode, and the manner by which these people are to be separated, and to be taken to their lands of inheritance and promise; for such a one is before them.
In other words, if black people can’t force white people to abandon their prejudices by leading model lifes, working hard, getting married, and no causing any trouble, then someone’s going to have to leave … and it won’t be the white people. By the way, Johnson warned, don’t coming looking to him for leadership in this matter. Turn to Providence, which will somehow point the way. That’s not Johnson’s job: just ask him.
Hence we are making the experiment. Hence let me impress upon you the importance of controlling your passions, developing your intellect, and of applying your physical powers to the industrial interests of the country; and that is the true process by which this question can be settled. Be patient, persevering and forbearing, and you will help to solve the problem. Make for yourselves a reputation in this cause as you have won for yourselves a reputation in the cause in which you have been engaged.
In short, it’s up to black people to solve the problem of white anti-black prejudice and demonstrate that they deserve to be treated equally.
In speaking to the members of this regiment I want them to understand that so far as I am concerned I do not assume or pretend that I am stronger than the laws, of course, of nature, or that I am wiser than Providence itself. It is our duty to try and discover what those great laws are which are at the foundation of all things, and, having discovered what they are, conform our actions and our conduct, to them, and to the will of God who ruleth all things. He holds the destinies of nations in the palm of His hand; and He will solve the question and rescue these people from the difficulties that have so long surrounded them. Then let us be patient, industrious and persevering. Let us develop any intellectual and moral worth. I trust what I have said may be understood and appreciated. Go to your homes and lead peaceful, prosperous and happy lives, in peace with all men. Give utterance to no word that would cause dissensions; but do that which will be creditable to yourselves and to your country.
That about sums it up. Yes, your people helped build the very house you now visit. Perhaps some of your ancestors labored here, even if they did not enjoy the fruits of their labor. Please leave it to Providence, not your president, as to what happens next, but make sure that you behave and conform … and please don’t complain.
This is a remarkable speech, to be sure. It is not exactly how we envision a president speaking to United States veterans. Yet one needs only to imagine Andrew Johnson with a Twitter account to understand that there really is nothing new under the sun, however much you may be astonished by what you read nowadays.