William H. Johnson Talks Emancipation

In honor of the sudden interest in Juneteenth, commemorating the day the belated word of emancipation reached slaves in Texas, I went off in search of whether there had been any sort of acknowledgements of that day or similar milestones in the Albany, Schenectady and Troy area. Not too surprisingly, that particular celebration, which has taken on much greater magnitude and meaning over the years, was mostly acknowledged in newspapers of the late 19th and early 20th century expressly as a Black celebration in Texas and the South – at least in the few accounts I found of it in old area newspapers. Around these parts, however, there were consistent celebrations of Emancipation Day, but even those seemed to have a highly variable date of celebration.

In 1904, Emancipation Day was celebrated July 21 in Brandywine Park in Schenectady, and Dr. William H. Johnson was to deliver the address. (In 1902 the Brandywine celebration was held on August 20th; in 1907, it was held on June 20th.). Given that I couldn’t find much written about these celebrations, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at what Dr. Johnson may have said in his address – and for that, I only need to look to his autobiography. His writing style is broad and descriptive, and allows a wide range of expression across its pages, so excerpting it risks misinterpreting it; therefore I highly recommend that anyone go ahead and read it for yourself, as it’s wonderful. However, this will give you a good idea of his well-supported view that emancipation was, for Lincoln, a political consideration for preservation of the Union, not a human rights issue.


In that tome, writing 30 years after the end of the Civil War, Johnson writes freely of some of the facts around the Emancipation Proclamation that are no longer generally conveyed, and it’s worth looking at them through the eyes of someone who was there at the time and very much involved in the abolition movement. We find these words in Chapter XVI, “In Slavery Days. (Lecture by Wm. H. Johnson, delivered in Albany.). After significant build-up and discussion of what culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation, Johnson says:

“I address myself to the younger generation, especially to the young men of my race. I tell them that they are free American citizens without any mortgage resting against them. The country owes you a debt of gratitude for two things: first, for the patient sufferings of your ancestors during the one hundred years and more of enforced bondage at the South, for which the general government was responsible. Then for the bravery and heroism displayed by the 178,975 Negro soldiers, your ancestors, that turned the tide in favor of the Union cause.”


Johnson doesn’t talk about the fact that New York State, where he lived and was giving this address, didn’t exactly sprint to emancipation; the old powers that be held on to both slaves and their feudal tenancy system as long as they could. His main point is a discussion of Abraham Lincoln, and clarification that Lincoln himself was no abolitionist:

“During the progress of the war, Mr. Lincoln was often importuned to emancipate the slaves upon humane principles. He refused. He was not a humanitarian, but was President. Time rolled on, our armies met with defeat after defeat, the cause of the Confederacy seemed to prosper. Southern leaders grew impertinent, boasted of ultimate success. They were assisted on the field by their able-bodied slaves. Their slaves were utilized in building fortifications, breast-works, railroads, and growing the provender which the Confederated Army subsisted upon, as well as their families at home, thus permitting every white Southerner to be active on the field.
“Mr. Lincoln knew all this and more, still he pleaded with the South to cease hostilities, return to the Union and retain all their slaves. He wrote in answer to Horace Greeley’s appeal, that if he could, as President, restore the Union without freeing a single slave, he would do it. If he found it necessary to free one-half and let the other half remain in slavery, he would do that. If he found it necessary to set them all free to save the Union, he would do that.
“He declared with emphasis that he was not dealing with the slave question, that it was incidentally a side issue forced upon the country to complicate matters. His mission was to restore the Union. He turned a deaf ear to all entreaties looking to the emancipation of slavery upon any other than military necessity, knowing that that was the highest possible ground to stand upon for the future benefit of the Negro’s manhood.”


Johnson is careful to separate the expediencies of war from the moral high ground we tend to ascribe to these events. He notes that Generals Fremont and Hunter both issued proclamations freeing the slaves in their lines, and that Lincoln “repudiated them both.” He noted that slaves were returned to their masters by the Union until Benjamin F. Butler “refused farther to do so, upon the grounds that they were contraband of war” – hardly a question of human rights. Johnson recognized that Black lives were very much a bargaining chip, describing Lincoln’s visit to Hampton Roads under flag of truce, at which time he “pleaded with the southern leaders to lay down their arms, return to the Union, and retain their slaves.” By then it was too late.


“Then light began to break upon us; we realized beyond the peradventure of a doubt that Mr. Lincoln was the right man in the right place.” The initial proclamation promised payment to loyal Southerners for the loss of their slaves and the possible deportation (recolonization) of willing Black people. Johnson says:

“There is not one word of sympathy expressed, not one line or syllable touching personal liking or dislike; all is based upon constitutional obligation and military necessity. Mr. Lincoln, as President of the United States and Commander of the Army and Navy, having concluded upon mature consideration that the rebellion could not be suppressed without the aid of the Negroes as armed allies, said so, and made the declaration over his own official signature without reservation. There is nothing evasive in his utterances, no special pleadings in the case. The issue and responsibility were met and embraced. He had endeavored to retire the Union without considering the Negro as a factor. He had failed to do so and he knew that two years of disastrous war had proven that the South, with its slaves, as the bearers of burden and drawers of water, forming the labor contingent to the active men in the field was over-balancing and over-matching the forces available on the Union side. Becoming thoroughly convinced of this fact, Mr. Lincoln, God bless his sainted memory, did, under the Constitution, draw off that supply product and motor power and aded it to the Union strength. He did so upon unqualified military necessity, thus dignifying in the highest possible sense the services of the freedmen . . .”
“The new citizens are led to believe that Mr. Lincoln issued his proclamation freeing the slaves through pure love and deep concern for them; the facts do not bear this construction. He did so for no other reason than to use the Negro as a potent instrument tending to the defeat of the rebels and the restoration of the Union. It is seen that Mr. Lincoln only abolished slavery in the State or parts of States in actual rebellion against the Union. He left slavery intact in all the States and territories that were at the time loyal to the general government and covered by the grand old flag . . . It is also seen that Mr. Lincoln in dealing with the question of the suppression of the rebellion, expressed not one word of sympathy for the Negro as a slave, or for his comfort and happiness when turned loose and arrayed against his old master.”


These were not solely William H. Johnson’s views; these issues were brought up in Lincoln’s re-election campaign, and Johnson recalled hearing Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips speak at Tweddle Hall in 1863, criticizing Lincoln “as being false to the cause of universal emancipation and as trifling with the slave question.”

He notes that, of course, Lincoln was re-elected, the rebellion suppressed, the Union restored, reconstruction commenced, and the 13th Amendment passed and ratified. “I have endeavored to show that Mr. Lincoln was not an abolitionist in the sense that the term is understood. That he as President acknowledged the constitutionality and the legality of slavery as far as it existed in the then existing southern States.” Johnson presented correspondence from Lincoln showing, as is well known, that he was offering terms that would allow slavery to continue (but not to be extended), and that he did not necessarily consider either proclamation the last word on southern slavery. But again, Johnson was not being pejorative — merely realistic and factual.

His conclusion:


“I want you, my countrymen, to survive, to outlive the odious color line in politics, in everything. I want myself to forget, and would if I could, that slavery ever existed in this beautiful land; that my people were the subjects of that condition. I want to forget that there ever was a civil war or any unpleasantness existing between the two geographical sections divided by Mason and Dixon’s line, in which the matter of slavery was involved. Were it not a fact that some of the best blood of the truest, bravest and most lovable young Americans were shed on both sides, and many precious lives sacrificed in the prosecution of a cause which both thought to be right and just, I would, if it were possible, blot from the pages of American History that period dating from 1861 to 1865, inclusive, and only remember the we are a nation of free American citizens, one and inseparable, now and forever. This is my contribution to the history of slavery, the rebellion and freedom; my humble contribution to the greatness of honest Abraham Lincoln.”

I don’t find any record of his audience for this lecture, included in his autobiography. However, there are some newspaper references around 1900 to Dr. Johnson giving speeches along these lines, so it’s reasonable to infer that he might have made the same remarks on the realities of the proclamations at various Emancipation Day celebrations. He made similar remarks at a Lincoln’s birthday celebration.

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