Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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A group of African Americans sent the Petition of Black Residents of Nashville to the Union Convention of 1865 asking for an immediate end to slavery in Tennessee. Why do you think those that signed the petition placed so much emphasis on their loyalty to the Union cause during the Civil War?

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The authors of this document petitioned the Union Convention out of a very legitimate concern. They believed that, in the absence of a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery, that slaveholders in Tennessee would certainly attempt to return many of them to bondage:

Many masters in Tennessee whose slaves have left them, will certainly make every effort to bring them back to bondage after the reorganization of the State government, unless slavery be expressly abolished by the Constitution.

There was ample reason to believe this, and it was not a foregone conclusion on the ground in the former Confederacy that slavery would be dead in the wake of the Civil War. So they urged the Union Convention, held at Nashville, to specifically abolish slavery in the new state constitution it was assembled to establish. The emphasis on African-American loyalty during the Civil War was a powerful rhetorical device, pointing out that "not a single Negro traitor" could be found in Tennessee. The traitors, they stressed in their petition, were the men who might seek to re-enslave them in the absence of an amendment forbidding it. By emphasizing their own loyalty, they staked a claim not just to freedom fro slavery in the future, but to citizenship in postwar Tennessee and the United States. As they wrote, if African American men had been loyal to a nation that enslaved them, surely they would be good citizens of a nation that acknowledged their freedom. So by emphasizing their loyalty, they pointed out the injustice of slavery, and in so doing made a potent appeal for its abolishment in the government the Convention was intended to establish. The Convention found this argument compelling, and they did indeed abolish slavery throughout the state at the same time as they announced their attempt to nullify the ordinance of secession their state passed at the beginning of the war.

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The writers pointed out that African Americans were loyal Unionists and that they should not be returned to slavery once the war was over. As the Civil War ended, it was not guaranteed that slavery would end. The Emancipation Proclamation was seen as a war measure by many since slaves in the border states remained in bondage. African Americans petitioned the military government in Nashville touting that they were loyal and that slavery and the Confederacy are inseparable concepts. By ending slavery, one takes away any future Confederate movement in the state and the region overall. The writers also mention that loyal African Americans would become loyal Union voters as well—this statement provides political incentive to end slavery as it would create a new voting bloc for the Union party leaders.

The writers of the petition then go on to make common cause with the Founders of the nation in that the African American was worthy of the inalienable rights long denied him under slavery. They stated that they had a right to freedom as they stood by the Union even though the slaveholding aristocracy separated from the Union.

The petition makes repeated claim to equality as a moral imperative as well as consistent with the founding principles of the country. The writers state that African Americans have earned this right through service to the Union cause and by not backing the Confederate government which was formed on the undemocratic principle of slavery.

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The African Americans of Tennessee were uneasy about their status as the Civil War (1861–1865) was winding down. They feared that the government of Tennessee would attempt to re-enslave them after the war.

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had come into effect on January 1, 1863. But since Tennessee was occupied by the North throughout most of the war, its African Americans were not legally free. Lincoln's action did not free slaves in areas of the South liberated by the North. The Emancipation Proclamation had had limited practical impact on servitude in the US. It was important, however, because it made Anglo-French intervention on the South's side much more unlikely. Lincoln was against slavery, but he was cautious about abolishing it. If he acted too rashly, the North might lose the war by alienating the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri.

"Near 200,000 of our brethren are to-day performing military duty in the ranks of the Union army," the colored citizens of Nashville said. Indeed, the fact that blacks were able and willing to serve as soldiers bolstered their fight for freedom. Black soldiers knew that they could not easily surrender after a losing battle; in 1864, hundreds of black soldiers were massacred as they tried to surrender at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. The petitioners knew that the sacrifices of their brothers in arms meant that they had earned their freedom, so they emphasized it in their letter.

Slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, which was ratified in December 1865.

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As the Civil War neared its end in early 1865, a group of black residents of Nashville, Tennessee, petitioned the United States government to end slavery. They counted on the federal government's antipathy towards the Confederacy to further their cause.

The writers of the petition believed that Southern slave owners would try to reclaim their slaves at the end of the war and would try to force them back onto plantations. The writers of this petition furthered their cause by connecting slavery with the corruption and disloyalty of the Confederacy and wrote that the same corruption that had caused the Confederate states to break away from the Union had forged the Confederacy's close connection to slavery. In other words, both the Confederate government and its system of slavery arose from corrupt, evil roots. By making this connection, the writers hoped to win over the federal (Union) government, which opposed the Confederacy and was about to win the war against them.

The writers of the petition differentiated themselves from the Southerners who were faithful to the Confederacy and stated that they were loyal to the Union to further convince the federal government to grant their freedom. They stated that if granted their freedom, they would dedicate themselves to defending the Union. They used concepts from the founding of the nation, including the idea of "natural rights," to argue that it was also their natural right to enjoy freedom after the war. Their established allegiance to the Union would strengthen the federal government in the former Confederate states after the war was over.

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