Posted by: Democratic Thinker | February 13, 2015

Lincoln—On The Tennessee Test Oath

The American Civil War

In the midst of the Civil War, certain political functionaries in Tennessee ask Abraham Lincoln to involve the Federal government in the state’s presidential election.

My conclusion is that I can have nothing to do with the matter, either to sustain the plan as the Convention and Governor Johnson have initiated it, or to revoke or modify it as you demand. By the Constitution and laws, the President is charged with no duty in the conduct of a presidential election in any State; nor do I, in this case, perceive any military reason for his interference in the matter.


On The Tennessee Test Oath.


WASHINGTON, October 22, 1864.

Messrs. Wm. B. Campbell, Thos. A. R. Nelson, James T. B. Carter, John Williams, A. Blizzard, Henry Carper, Bailie Peyton, John Lellyett, Emerson Etheridge, John D. Perryman:


ON the 15th day of this month, as I remember, a printed paper, with a few manuscript interlineations, called a protest, with your names appended thereto, and accompanied by another printed paper purporting to be a proclamation by Andrew Johnson, Military Governor of Tennessee, and also a manuscript paper purporting to be extracts from the Code of Tennessee, was laid before me. The Protest, Proclamation and Extracts are respectively as follows:

To his Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States:

SIR: The undersigned, loyal citizens of the United States and of the State of Tennessee, on our own behalf and on behalf of the loyal people of our State, ask leave to submit this Protest against the Proclamation of his Excellency Andrew Johnson, Military Governor, ordering an election to be held for President and Vice President, under certain regulations and restrictions therein set forth. A printed copy of said proclamation is herewith inclosed.

The Constitution of the United States provides that “Each State shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors,” etc. Under this provision of the Federal Constitution, the Legislature of Tennessee, years before the present rebellion, prescribed the mode of election to be Observed, which will be found to differ essentially from the mode prescribed by the Military Governor. We herewith inclosc a copy of the law of Tennessee governing the holding of said election.

The Military Governor expressly assumes, by virtue of authority derived from the President, to so alter and amend the election law of Tennessee, (enacted under authority of the Constitution of the United States, as above set forth), as to make the same conform to his own edict as set forth in the proclamation aforesaid.

He assumes so to modify our law as to admit persons to vote at the said election who are not entitled to vote under the law and the Constitution of Tennessee. Instance this: our Constitution and law require that each voter shall be “a citizen of the county wherein he may offer his vote, for six months next preceding the day of election;” while the Governor’s order only requires that he shall (with other qualifications named) be a citizen of Tennessee for six months, etc. This provision would admit to vote many persons not entiled by law.

We will, for the sake of brevity, pass over some less important points of conflict between the proclamation and the law, but will instance in this place another. By our law it is provided that the polls shall be opened in every civil district, in each county in the State; but the proclamation provides only for their being opened at one place in each county. This provision would put it out of the power of many legal voters to exercise the elective franchise.

We solemnly protest against these infringements of our law, conflicting as they do with the very letter of the Federal Constitution, because they are without authority, and because they will prevent a free, fair, and true expression of the will of the loyal people of Tennessee.

But we protest still more emphatically against the most unusual and impracticable test oath which it is proposed to require of all citizen voters in Tennessee. A citizen qualified to vote, and whose loyalty can not be “disproved by other testimony,” is to be required to swear, first, that he “will henceforth support the Constitution of the United States and defend it against all enemies.” This obligation we are willing to renew daily; but this is not yet deemed a sufficient test of loyalty. He is required to make oath and subscribe to a mass of vain repetitions concerning his activity as a friend of the Union, and the enemy of its enemies—concerning his desires, his hopes and fears—and that he finds it in his heart to rejoice over the scenes of blood, and of wounds, of anguish and death, wherein his friends, his kindred, his loved ones are slain, or maimed, or made prisoners of war—whereby the land of his birth or adoption is made desolate, and lamentation and mourning are spread over the whole nation. While all the civilized world stands aghast in contemplation of the unequaled horrors of our tremendous strife, the citizen of Tennessee is called upon by her military Governor, under your authority, to swear that in these things he finds occasion to rejoice! As if this were still not enough, the citizen is further required to swear to the indefinite prolongation of this war, as follows: “That I will cordially oppose all armistices or negotiations for peace with rebels in arms, until the Constitution of the United States, and all laws and proclamations made in pursuance thereof, shall be established over all the people of every State and Territory embraced within the National Union;” until (in brief) the war shall be at an end. Now, we freely avow to your Excellency, and to the world, that we earnestly desire the return of peace and good-will to our new unhappy country—that we seek neither pleasure, profit, nor honor in the perpetuation of war—that we should feel bound, as Christians, as patriots and as civilized men—that we are bound by the oaths we have taken—to countenance and encourage any negotiations which may be entered into by the proper authorities, with the intent to restore peace and union under the Constitution we have sworn to support and defend. We should be traitors to our country, false to our oaths—false, indeed, to the primary clause of the oath we are now discussing, to oppose such negotiations. We can not consent to swear at the ballot-box a war of extermination against our countrymen and kindred, or to prolong by our opposition, for a single day after it can be brought to an honorable and lawful conclusion, a contest the most sanguinary and ruinous that has scourged mankind.

You will not have forgotten, that in the month of July last, you issued the following proclamation:

WASHINGTON, July 8, 1864.}

To whom it may concern:

“Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive Government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points; and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways.


This is certainly a proposition to treat with Rebels in arms—with their chiefs. Are we now to understand by this proclamation of one acting under your authority, and himself a candidate with you for the second office, that even the above proposition is withdrawn—that you will henceforth have no negotiations-upon any terms, but unrelenting war to the bitter end? Or, are we to understand, that while you hold this proposition open, or yourself free to act as your judgment may dictate, we, the citizens of Tennessee, shall swear to OPPOSE your negotiations?

In the next breath, the voter who has been thus qualified, is required to swear that he will “heartily aid and assist the loyal people in whatever measures may be adopted for the attainment of these ends.” Adopted by whom? The oath does not say. We can not tell what measures may be adopted. We can not comment upon the absurdity of the obligation here imposed, without danger of departing from that respectful propriety of language which we desire to preserve in addressing the Chief Magistrate of the American people. But this is the clause of an oath which the candidate for the Vice Presidency requires at the lips of the loyal and qualified voters of Tennessee, before these citizens shall be allowed to vote for or against you and himself at the coming election?

For these reasons, and others, which, for the sake of brevity, we omit, we solemnly protest against the interference of the Military Governor with the freedom of the elective franchise in Tennessee. We deny his authority and yours, to alter, amend, or annul any law of Tennessee. We demand that Tennessee be allowed to appoint her Electors, as expressly provided by the Federal Constitution, which you have sworn to support, protect, and defend, in the manner which the Legislature thereof has prescribed. And to that end, we respectfully demand of you, as the principal under whose authority this order has been issued, that the same shall be revoked. We ask that all military interference shall be withdrawn so far as to allow the loyal men of Tennessee a full and free election. By the loyal men of Tennessee we mean those who have not participated in the rebellion, or given it aid and comfort; or who may have complied with such terms of amnesty as have been offered them under your authority.

On the 8th day of December, 1863, you, as President, issued a proclamation, declaring that “a full pardon is hereby granted, with restoration of all rights of property,” &c., to each of our citizens having participated, directly or by implication, in the existing rebellion, (with certain exceptions,) “upon the condition that every such person shall take and subscribe an oath, and thenceforward keep and maintain said oath inviolate.” And it is further provided in the Proclamation aforesaid, that in the contingency of the re-organization of a State Government in Tennessee, or certain other States named, the persons having taken the oath referred to, being otherwise qualified by the election law of the State, shall be entitled to vote. The undersigned would state, that many of our citizens have complied, in good faith, with the terms of amnesty proposed in your proclamation aforesaid, and are, therefore, by reason of the full pardon granted them, fully entitled to vote and exercise all other rights belonging to loyal citizens, without let or hindrance; and we respectfully appeal to you as President of the United States. to make good your promise of pardon to these citizens, by the removal of all other and further hindrance to the exercise of the elective franchise.

But if it be claimed upon the plea of military necessity, that guards and restrictions shall be thrown around the ballot-box in Tennessee, we still ask the withdrawal of the Proclamation of the Military Governor, because the conditions thereby imposed upon the loyal men of Tennessee as a qualification for voting are irrelevant, unreasonable, and not in any sense a test of loyalty. But they pledge the citizen to oppose the lawful authorities in the discharge of their duty. The oath required is only calculated .to keep legal and rightful voters from the polls. We suggest that no oath be required but such as is prescribed by law. Our people will not hesitate, however, to take the usual oath of loyalty—for example, in the language of the primary clause of the oath in question—”That I will henceforth support the Constitution of the United States, and defend it against the assaults of its enemies.” Denying your right to make any departure from the law in the case, we shall, however, feel no hardship in this.

The convention to which Gov. Johnson refers was a mere partisan meeting, having no authority, and not representing the loyal men of Tennessee, in any sense.

The names of the signers of this protest have been placed before the people of Tennessee as candidates for Electors, who, if chosen, are expected to cast the electoral vote of Tennessee for George B. McClellan for President, and George H. Pendleton for Vice President. By virtue of such position, it becomes our province especially to appear before you in the attitude we do. We are aware that grave questions may arise, in any event, with regard to the regularity of the vote in Tennessee, in consequence of the partially disorganized condition of the State. The friends of your re-election, however, announced an electoral ticket; and the public became aware that preparations were being made for the holding of the election, leaving that matter no longer a question. Some time thereafter, our electoral ticket was placed before the public, and within a few days followed the proclamation complained of. We, for ourselves and those we represent, are willing to leave all questions involving the right of Tennessee to participate in the election to the decision of competent authority.

[Here follow the names of the ten signers as given at the beginning of this letter.]


NASHVILLE, TENN., Sept. 30th, 1864.

WHEREAS, A respectable portion of the loyal people of Tennessee, representing a large number of the counties of the State, and supposed to reflect the will of the Union men in Their respective counties, recently held a convention in the city of Nashville, in which, among other things touching the re-organization of the State, they with great unanimity adopted the following resolutions:

2. Resolved, That the people of Tennessee, who are now and have been attached to the National Union, do hold an election for President and Vice-President in the ensuing election in November.

3. That the electors shall be the following and no others; the same being free white men, twenty-one years of age, citizens of the United States, and for six months previous to the election, citizens of the State of Tennessee—

lst. And who have voluntarily borne arms in the service of the United States during the present war, and who are either in the service or have been honorably discharged.

2d. All the known active friends of the Government of the United States in each county.

4. Resolved, That the citizen electors designated in the foregoing resolutions shall, at least fifteen days before the election, register their names with an agent to be appointed for that purpose, and no citizen not thus registered shall be allowed to vote. Such registration shall be open to the public for inspection, and to be executed according to such regulations as may hereafter be prescribed: Provided that the officers of the election, in the discharge of their duty, may reject any party so registered on proof of disloyalty.

5. Resolved, That, as means for ascertaining the qualifications of the voters, the registers and oflicers holding the election may examine the parties on oath touching any matter of fact. And each voter, before depositing his vote, shall be re(}uired to take and subscribe the following oath, viz:

I solemnly swear, that I will henceforth support the Constitution of the United States, and defend it against the assaults of all enemies; that I am an active friend of the Government of the United States, and the enemy of the so-called Confederate States; that I ardently desire the suppression of the present rebellion against the Government of the United States; that I sincerely rejoice in the triumph of the armies and navies of the United States, and in the defeat and overthrow of the armies, navies, and of all armed combination in the interest of the so-called Confederate States; that I will cordially oppose all armistices or negotiations for peace with rebels in arms, until the Constitution of the United States and all laws and proclamations made in pursuance thereof, shall be established over all the people of every State and Territory embraced within the National Union, and that I will heartily aid and assist the loyal people in whatever measures may be adopted for the attainment of these ends; and further that I take this oath freely and voluntarily, and without mental reservation. So help me God.

Said oath being prima facie evidence, subject to be disapproved by other testimony.

6. Resolved, That the polls be opened at the county seat, or some other suitable place in each county, and the ballot-box be so guarded and protected as to secure to electors a free, fair, and impartial election, and that polls also be opened for the convenience of the soldiers, at such places as may be accessible to them.

And whereas, it further appears from the proceedings of said Convention, “That the Military Governor of the State of Tennessee is requested to execute the foregoing resolutions in such manner as he may think best subserves the interests of the Government.”

And whereas I, Andrew Johnson, Military Governor of the State of Tennessee, being anxious to co-operate with the loyal people of the State, and to encourage them in all laudable efforts to restore the State to law and order again, and to secure the ballot-box against the contamination of treason by every reasonable restraint that can be thrown around it, I do therefore order and direct that an election for President and Vice-President of the United States of America he opened and held at the county seat, or other suitable place in every county in the State of Tennessee, upon the first Tuesday after the first Monday in the month of November next, at which all citizens and soldiers, being free white men, twenty-one years of age, citizens of the United States, and for six months prior to the election citizens of the State of Tennessee, who have qualified themselves by registration, and who take the oath prescribed in the foregoing resolutions, shall be entitled to Vote, unless said oath shall be disproved by other testimony, for the candidates for President and Vice-President of the United States.

And to the end that the foregoing resolutions, which are made part of this proclamation, may be faithfully executed, and the loyal citizens of the State, and none others, be permitted to exercise the right of suffrage I do hereby appoint the several gentlemen whose names are affixed to this proclamation, to aid in said election, and superintend the registration of the loyal voters in their respective counties, as provided by the fourth resolution above quoted.

But as the day of election is near at hand, and there may be a difficulty in completing the registration within the time limited, it is not intended that the registration be an indispensable pre-requisite to the qualification of the voter; and in such cases, where it is impracticable, and where the voter is of known and established loyalty, he shall be entitled to vote, notwithstanding he may not have registered his name as required by the foregoing resolution.

The election shall be opened, conducted, returns made, etc., in all respects as provided by the 4th chapter of the “Code of Tennessee,” except so far as the same is modified by this proclamation.

But in cases where the County Court fail or neglect to appoint inspectors or judges of election, and there is no Sheriff or other civil officer in the county qualified by law to open and hold said election, the registrating agents, hereto appended, may act in his stead, and in all respects discharge the duties imposed in such cases upon sheriff’s.

In like manner it is declared the duty of the military officers commanding Tennessee regiments, battalions, or detached squads, and surgeons in charge of the hospitals of Tennessee soldiers to open and hold elections on the day aforesaid, under the same rules and regulations hereinbefore prescribed, and at such suitable places as will be convenient to the soldiers who are hereby declared entitled to vote without registration.

[L. S.]

In testimony whereof, I, Andrew Johnson, Military Governor of the State of Tennessee do hereunto set my hand, and have caused the great seal of the State to be affixed at this Department, on the 30th day of September, A. D. 1864.

By the Governor:


EDWARD H. EAST, Secretary of State.

[The names of superintendents of election in the several counties, and the extracts from the Tennessee code are omitted here.]

At the time these papers were presented as before stated, I had never seen either of them, nor heard of the subject to which they relate, except in a general way, only one day previously. Up to the present moment nothing whatever upon the subject has passed between Governor Johnson, or any one else connected with the proclamation and myself since receiving the papers as stated, I have given the subject such brief consideration as I have been able to do in the midst of so many pressing public duties. My conclusion is that I can have nothing to do with the matter, either to sustain the plan as the Convention and Governor Johnson have initiated it, or to revoke or modify it as you demand. By the Constitution and laws, the President is charged with no duty in the conduct of a presidential election in any State; nor do I, in this case, perceive any military reason for his interference in the matter. The movement set on foot by the Convention and Governor Johnson does not, as seems to be assumed by you, emanate from the National Executive. In no proper sense can it be considered other than as an independent movement of at least a portion of the loyal people of East Tennessee. I do not perceive in the plan any menace of violence or coercion toward any one. Governor Johnson like any other loyal citizen of Tennessee, has the right to favor any political plan he chooses, and, as Military Governor, itis his duty to keep the peace among and for the loyal people of the State. I can not discern that by this plan he purposes any more. But you object to the plan. Leaving it alone will be your perfect security against it. It is not proposed to force you into it. Do as you please on your own account peacefully and loyally, and Gov. Johnson will not molest you; but will protect you against violence so far as in his power.

I presume that the conducting of a Presidential election in Tennessee in strict accordance with the old code of the State is not now a possibility. It is scarcely necessary to add that if any election shall be held, and any votes shall be cast in the State of Tennessee for President and Vice-President of the United States, it will belong, not to the military agents nor yet to the Executive Department, but exclusively to another department of the Government, to determine whether they are entitled to be counted in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States. Except it be to give protection against violence, I decline to interfere in any way with any Presidential election.