October 24th 1864: Johnson’s ‘Moses of the Colored Man’ Speech
On this day in 1864, vice presidential candidate and military governor of Tennessee Andrew Johnson made his famous ‘Moses of the Coloured Man’ speech in Nashville. In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected President and Northern Radical Hannibal Hamlin his Vice-President. The election of a decidedly anti-slavery ticket prompted the Southern states to secede from the Union, ushering in a bloody Civil War. When it came to the 1864 election, Lincoln chose Andrew Johnson as Vice-President instead of Hamlin in order to broaden his support in the Middle South. On October 24th, during a black rally for the Union ticket in Nashville, Johnson gave a speech from the state capitol building. In the speech he acknowledged that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had not freed the slaves in Tennessee, and thus proclaimed "freedom, full, broad and unconditional, to every man in Tennesse!". The speech saw Johnson shoring up his anti-slavery credentials, attacking hypocritical slaveholders, and suggesting that he would be a ‘Moses’ figure to lead African-Americans towards freedom. However, after Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s elevation to the Presidency it became clear he would be anything but a ‘Moses’ figure. He failed to defend the rights of the freedmen and favoured restoring power to former Confederates. This disparity between his lofty claims in Nashville and reality was not missed by contemporary observers. African-Americans lamented how he had failed to protect their rights, and Northern satirists ironically referred to the President as ‘Moses Johnson’. Many white southerners also seized on the imagery of Johnson’s Moses speech, claiming that he had become the ‘Moses of the white man’ instead. Andrew Johnson battled with the Radical Republicans in Congress throughout his presidency, who had their own vision for the Reconstruction of the postwar South which emphasised rights for the freed slaves. This conflict culminated in 1868 with Johnson becoming the first President to be impeached, narrowly escaping removal from office by one vote. Johnson lost the 1868 Republican nomination to Ulysses S. Grant, who went on to win the Presidency and take over the oversight of Reconstruction.
"I will indeed be your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage, to a fairer future of liberty and peace"