The Nashville Petition of 1865 and the Promise of Reconstruction: Part I

ECW welcomes guest author Heath Anderson

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.”

These words were written to a convention of white Unionists meeting in Nashville, Tennessee on January 9, 1865, by the “colored citizens of Nashville,” many of whom were likely enslaved before the Civil War and now looked toward the downfall of the Confederacy with hopeful apprehension. By the end of the month, the Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress, forever abolishing chattel slavery in the United States. A few months later, Ulysses S. Grant compelled Robert E. Lee to surrender the principal Confederate army at Appomattox. The Reconstruction years that followed saw a restored nation that enshrined equality before the law for all races in the Constitution but struggled to defend this promised equality for African Americans. Yet, as the Black petitioners of Nashville remind us, the Union triumph in the Civil War represented an unprecedented moment of hope and the promise of an unwritten future.

Alfred R. Waud, “Mustered Out” Harper’s Weekly, May 19, 1866. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62. This sketch depicts the joyous return of Black veterans to their friends and family in Little Rock, Arkansas following the Civil War. It captures the revolutionary change just passed through and the free and reunited Black family made possible by emancipation and Union victory.

The Black residents of Nashville addressed their petition to a gathering of white delegates that comprised the “Liberty and Union Convention” in Nashville on January 9. These white southerners were called “Unionists” for their opposition to secession and support of Tennessee’s Unionist Governor Andrew Johnson and his successor, William G. Brownlow. Parts of Tennessee had always had strong Unionist sentiment, and the 1865 convention, the latest of several convened during the war, proposed amendments to Tennessee’s Constitution that abolished slavery and declared the state’s secession null and void to enable its reentry into the Union. However, this was as far as most white Unionists like Andrew Johnson, and loyal white citizens generally, were prepared to go. The Black signees of the Nashville Petition expressed a more expansive vision for Reconstruction’s potential and asserted their claim to all the rights and privileges of citizenship enjoyed by white Americans, including suffrage. They argued that the defeat of the Confederacy and the destruction of slavery vindicated the true principles of the American founding, specifically, the Declaration of Independence as properly understood: that all humans were created equal and should be treated so by their government. The petitioners described their devotion 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.” They argued that now was the moment to secure this unique experiment in self-government for all time by fully guaranteeing their voting rights and equality before the law as American citizens.

The Nashville Petition is one of many written by freedpeople during this period, but it is especially valuable because its creation in early January of 1865 demonstrates how freedpeople understood the Civil War and Reconstruction as one revolutionary moment in which they continually mobilized to claim their future as Americans. Their rhetoric anticipated the Republican Party’s passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which enshrined their equality before the law and granted them the right to vote under the Reconstruction Acts. These events were practically unthinkable a few years previously, demonstrating the transformative social and political change caused by the Civil War. As a document, the Nashville Petition encapsulates this dramatic moment and shows how Black people embraced the triumph of Union victory and the promise of the Reconstruction era to follow.[1]

For many African Americans, the results of the Civil War vindicated their belief that freedom and equality for all races to vote and participate in society were inherent in the American experiment and were now in the process of being made real. The petitioners expressed this belief by stating that, “we claim freedom, as our natural right,” and they asked the Union commission to “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.” While this document demonstrates a unity of purpose between Black and white loyal citizens to excise slavery’s corrupting influence from the republic, it also underscores Reconstruction’s intrinsic tragedy. Preservation of the Union and Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” meant different things to white and Black Americans. For most loyal white citizens, preserving the Union, abolishing slavery, and pursuing equality before the law for the freedmen represented the culmination of the United States’ victory in the Civil War. As the Nashville Petition demonstrates, Black people valued these goals and accomplishments, but they also saw emancipation as a moment of possibility for broader racial equality that was a bridge too far for most loyal white citizens. Having saved the republic from anarchy through the abolishment of slavery, white northerners did not generally consider the pursuit of racial equality a goal worth endangering the Union they had fought so hard to save.[2]

Despite these differing visions for Reconstruction, the political mobilization of these Black petitioners and their professions of love and loyalty for the Union inspired Republicans to champion their demands for full citizenship and suffrage to an unprecedented degree in the years immediately following the war. In these revolutionary years, Black men were granted citizenship and voting rights quicker than any other emancipated people in history. These momentous events are sometimes overshadowed by Reconstruction’s eventual end. However, this petition of freedpeople reminds us that this so-called retreat from Reconstruction lay long in the future, beyond the scope of most people in 1865 to anticipate. In the winter and spring of 1865, the Union defeated the rebellion, freed more than four million people from horrific bondage, and would soon take extraordinary steps to ensure their freedom against reactionary former rebels. In his classic synthesis on Reconstruction, Eric Foner concludes with the appraisal that it was “remarkable it was attempted at all and survived as long as it did.” This coincides with the Nashville petitioners’ cautious optimism in the wake of emancipation’s radical upheaval of American life. During the years of Reconstruction that followed, Republicans echoed the rhetoric of the Nashville petitioners, aligning with Black people to rewrite the state constitutions in the former Confederacy and uphold the promise of a republic no longer tainted by the stain of slavery and the arbitrary discrimination of southern aristocrats.[3]

“Reading the Emancipation Proclamation.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-DIG-pga-08518. The authors of the Nashville Petition understood the death of slavery and the triumph of Union armies as a manifestation of the providential truth of human equality.

To make sense of their new reality, the Nashville petitioners pointed to American history, a history they understood as irrevocably their own. As one scholar has argued, Black people had long “affirmed their humanity and freedom” by crafting narratives about United States history that highlighted their fundamental role in building the nation and reinforced their biblical faith in deliverance from bondage. The petitioners described this view of emancipation as the culmination of “God’s plan for human history” when they wrote that 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.” Their language contains no fiery rhetoric or calls for vengeance on the southern slavocracy that bound their people for generations. Instead, they called for using this extraordinary moment of the Union’s triumph to grant the long overdue rights and privileges they believed were given to them by God and codified in the nation’s founding documents. With the death of slavery, they asserted that nothing now stood between them and the guarantee of equality before the law as full United States citizens.[4]

To shape that future, the Nashville petitioners demanded citizenship and the vote by appealing not only to the ideas of equality and natural rights but also to their patriotic service during the Civil War. Long a pathway to freedom, military service had, in the view of these petitioners, entitled them to all the rights and privileges of white citizens. They also stated that their love for the country that secured their freedom guaranteed their loyalty during the trials of Reconstruction. “What higher order of citizen is there than the soldier?” asked the petitioners. “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.” These impassioned appeals resonated with Republicans, who were divided on the capacity of Black people to claim the mantle of citizenship but recognized that justice to the freedpeople and suppression of the late rebellion necessitated creating a loyal voting bloc in the former rebel states. Republican senator Adonijah Welch, for instance, embodied this rhetoric. He regarded the freedman “infinitely superior to them [southern whites] all as a patriot. His steady, unflinching love of this Union would render him a far safer depository of the right of suffrage than he who has compassed all knowledge of science and hates his country.”[5]

The Nashville petitioners’ rhetoric about their love for the Union and the value and responsibility of republican citizenship represented a nuanced appeal to the moral convictions they shared with white Republicans, and which formed the basis of their political alliance. One scholar on the Republican Party and the Fourteenth Amendment notes that in antebellum America, “ideas about equality coexisted with ideas derived from natural law or from the nature of republican society.” The petitioners tapped directly into this shared language when they wrote, “we know the burdens of citizenship, and are ready to bear them…we do not ask for the privilege of citizenship, wishing to shun the obligations imposed by it.” They also challenged white contemporaries’ commitment to a republican system when they stated, “this is not a Democratic Government if a numerous, law-abiding, industrious, and useful class of citizens… must have no voice in the Government which they support, protect and defend, with all their heart…both in peace and war.”  This kind of rhetoric likely soothed the anxieties of white Republicans, many of whom harbored deep doubts about the fitness of formerly enslaved people to be citizens. The Nashville Petition is perhaps the fullest expression of grassroots Black sentiment in the waning months of the Civil War, but it was far from the only one. As the war ended, Republicans turned their focus to how to rebuild a free and democratic South. They encountered ample evidence that freedpeople were mobilizing to support their efforts.[6]

Heath Anderson is a Ph.D. candidate at Mississippi State University under the direction of Dr. Andrew Lang. He grew up in Virginia and developed a passion for history and the American Civil War from a young age, traveling to numerous museums, battlefields, and living history events. Heath attained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University where he wrote a thesis on Confederate General William Mahone and the Readjuster Party. Heath’s primary research interest is the period of Reconstruction following the war, and how local politics and events influenced federal policy on Reconstruction.


[1] “Black Residents of Nashville to the Union Convention,” January 9, 1865, in Hayden et al., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867,ser. 3, vol. 1, Land and Labor. Web Link: http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/tenncon.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harperperennial, 1988).

[4] Jason Phillips, Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth Century Americans Imagined the Future (New York, Oxford University Press, 2018), 157;“Black Residents of Nashville to the Union Convention.”

[5] Adonijah Welch as quoted in William E. Nelson’s The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 88.

[6] William E. Nelson, The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 13; “Black Residents of Nashville to the Union Convention.”



9 Responses to The Nashville Petition of 1865 and the Promise of Reconstruction: Part I

  1. Excellent, informative and well written article. Thanks also for highlighting the overall success, perhaps against the odds, of the United States’ Reconstruction effort.

  2. I have looked at lots of Waud’s illustrations concerning the Civil War, but the inclusion of this one is just spectacular. It needs to be seen by more folks, definitely. Thanks for using your “ills” so skillfully to illustrate your writing.

  3. Meg,

    I am thrilled that sketch resonated with you! I just discovered it when I was finishing up this piece and was immediately struck by it. It fit perfectly.

    -Heath

  4. Well said! Given the fractured nature of the US at the moment this would resonate profoundly. This is a perfect example of why learning history is so important to us and why so many conflicts could be avoided if all could understand how we got where we are today.

  5. Pingback: Emerging Civil War
  6. One small error: the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by Congress in January of 1865 did not end slavery. It’s ratification by the requisite number of state legislatures (as called for in the Constitution) accomplished that act, in December of 1865.

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