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Source: The Greeneville Sun
by Douglas Watson
"Andrew Johnson: The Early Years" was the title of the first lecture during a day-long symposium Thursday on the 17th president held at Tusculum College.
Dr. Robert Orr, a local historian who has written a biography of Andrew Johnson and teaches at Walters State Community College, said, "The emancipation of slaves and the granting of full civil rights to African-Americans are among the greatest accomplishments of U.S. history."
He asked, "Did Andrew Johnson advance or hinder the great causes of emancipation and civil rights? I think he advanced them. Others may disagree."
Dr. Orr said that as a young man Andrew Johnson was influenced by the movement here in the early 19th century to end slavery. "In 1826, the intellectual leaders of East Tennessee included Dr. Samuel Doak and Dr. Charles Coffin. Both lived in Greene County and both were committed to emancipation.
"Andrew Johnson soon adopted the goals of the East Tennessee emancipationist movement. He said on at least two occasions that he had 'always' opposed slavery, and he pursued his emancipation goals through a decades-long struggle to victory in the 1860s."
Dr. Orr continued, "When Andrew Johnson became President of the United States in 1865 his policies reflected the ideas of the East Tennessee emancipationists. He advocated educating the freedmen first, then granting them full citizenship after a period of political apprenticeship."
Dr. Orr recalled, "Tennessee's 1835 Constitution framed mostly by delegates from Middle and West Tennessee, took the vote from free blacks and included a clause that said the state legislature could not free slaves without the consent of the individual slaveholder."
Statehood For East Tenn.
Andrew Johnson in 1841 when he was a state senator offered a bill in the Tennessee legislature for statehood for East Tennessee," Dr. Orr said, where slavery was less widespread and was more widely opposed.
However, the effort failed to make East Tennessee a separate state where slavery could be abolished.
He said, "By the 1840s, radical abolitionists were advocating abolition by violence and disuniuon, which Johnson passionately opposed. He foresaw a terrible future: a land 'drenched in blood, with fields 'converted into fields of carnage' -- which was precisely what was coming."
Dr. Orr acknowledged that some of Andrew Johnson's comments were racist and "unsavory," Johnson having declared that those from "the black race of Africa were inferior to the white man in point of intellect ..."
However, Dr. Orr said, in a "speech in Congress that he looked forward to the day of freedom for the slaves -- when the sable sons of Africa are to pass from bondage to freedom ..."
Ahead Of Lincoln
Dr. Orr said, "Johnson was still talking about a gradual emancipation, of course, but for a politician from a slave state in 1845, it was a significant stand.
"Over a decade later, in 1858, Abraham Lincoln said that emancipation 'might take a hundred years,' and in his annual message of 1862, President Lincoln proposed an emancipation plan that would free the slaves by the year 1900."
Dr. Orr said, "The modern hostility to Andrew Johnson, I believe, mostly comes from comments" he made that are racially insensitive.
However, Dr. Orr added, the 19th century was an age of rough humor. That someone's feelings might be hurt was not thought as a problem.
"The richest man in Greeneville, Dr. Alexander Williams, was described by Johnson as a "squab of self-conceit -- a 'squab' is a young pigeon -- riding along with 'his conspicuous and capacious abdomen slightly projecting over the pommel of his saddle in front, and a corresponding projection in the rear -- presenting ... (the) appearance of a two bushel and a half bag, with about three bushels and a half well shook into it."
Freeing Of His Slaves
Dr. Orr said Johnson freed his own few slaves on Aug. 8, 1863, with the freed slaves choosing to stay with his family.
On Oct. 24, Johnson, then military governor of Tennessee, freed all slaves in the state, which was before slaves were emancipated generally in this country.
After April 1865, when the Civil War's end was followed by President Lincoln's assassination, Dr. Orr said, "President Johnson urged the ex-Confederate states to grant an immediate, qualified black suffrage -- just like Lincoln -- and he looked forward to the the full enfranchisement of the freedmen in the future -- just like Lincoln."
Dr. Orr noted that Johnson was President on Dec. 18, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was adopted, ending slavery in the United States.
The Greeneville-based historian said the Radical Republicans from the North at that time must take much of the blame for the failure to improve race relations after the Civil War.
He said, "The Radical Republicans could have joined Johnson in August 1867 and created a just society... but the Radicals wanted to rig the electorate to gain an advantage in Southern elections," he charged.
Dr. Orr said, "The electorate was rigged, and the Radicals won some elections, but the opportunity to create a just society was lost for 100 years."
He closed by calling Andrew Johnson "a great and good man who followed the principles of the East Tennessee emancipationists to victory after victory.
"And when he was beaten politically by the Radicals in 1867, their policies were implemented and failed for precisely the reason he predicted. The radicals were ignoring the need for an educated electorate.
"Through it all, Andrew Johnson remained an American patriot: devoted to constitutional government and a friend to all races."