Remarks to the First District of Columbia Colored Regiment
My Friends: My object in presenting myself before you on this occasion is simply to thank you, members of one of the colored regiments which has been in the service of the country to sustain and carry its banner and its laws triumphantly in every part of this broad land. I repeat that I appear before you on the present occasion merely to tender you my thanks for the compliment you have paid me on your return home to again be associated with your friends and your relations and those you hold most sacred and dear.
I repeat, I have little to say, it being unusual in this Government and in most other governments to have colored troops engaged in their service. You have gone forth, as events have shown, and served with patience and endurance in the cause of your country. This is your country as well as anybody else's country. [Cheers.] This is the country in which you expect to live and in which you should expect to do something by your example in civil life, as you have done in the field.
This country is founded upon the principles of equality, and at the same time the standard by which persons are to be estimated is according to their merit and their worth; and you have observed, no doubt, that for him who does his duty faithfully and honestly there is always a just public judgment that will appreciate and measure out to him his proper reward. I know that there is much well calculated in this Government, and since the late rebellion commenced, to excite the white against the black and the black against the white man; there are things you should all understand and at the same time prepare yourselves for what is before you.
Upon the return of peace and the surrender of the enemies of the country, it should be the duty of every patriot and every one who calls himself a Christian, to remember that with the termination of the war his resentments should cease, that angry feelings should subside, and that every man should become calm and tranquil, and be prepared for what is before him. This is another part of your mission. You have been engaged in the effort to sustain your country in the past, but the future is more important to you than the period in which you have just been engaged.
One great question has been settled in this Government, and that is the question of slavery. The institution of slavery made war against the United States, and the United States has lifted its strong arm in vindication of the Government and of free government, and on lifting that arm and appealing to the God of battles, it has been decided that the institution of slavery must go down. [Cheers.] This has been done, and the Goddess of Liberty, in bearing witness over many of our battlefields since the struggle commenced, has made her loftiest flight, and proclaimed that true liberty has been established upon a more permanent and enduring basis than heretofore. [Applause.]
But this is not all; and as you have paid me the compliment to call upon me, I shall take the privilege of saying one or two words as I am before you. I repeat that it is not all. Now, when the sword is returned to the scabbard, when your arms are reversed and the olive branch of peace is extended, as I remarked before, resentment and revenge should subside. Then what is to follow? You do understand, no doubt, and if you do not, you cannot understand too soon, that simple liberty does not mean the privilege of going into the battlefield, or into the service of the country as a soldier. It means other things as well; and now when you have laid down your arms there are other objects of equal importance before you.
Now that the Government has triumphantly passed through this mighty rebellion, after the most gigantic battles the world ever saw, the problem is before you, and it is best that you should understand it; and therefore I speak simply and plainly.
Will you now, when you have returned from the army of the United States and taken the position of the citizen; when you have returned to the avocations of peace, will you give evidence to the world that you are capable and competent to govern yourselves?. That is what you will have to do. Liberty is not a mere idea, a mere vagary. It is an idea, or it is a reality; and when you come to examine this question of liberty, you will not be mistaken in a mere idea for the reality. It does not consist in idleness. Liberty does not consist in being worthless. Liberty does not consist in doing all things as we please, and there can be no liberty without law. In a government of freedom and of liberty there must be law, and there must be obedience and submission to the law, without regard to color. [Cheers.]
Liberty (and may I not call you my countrymen)—liberty consists in the glorious privilege of work—of pursuing the ordinary avocations of peace with industry and with economy; and that being done, all those who have been industrious and economical are permitted to appropriate and enjoy the products of their own labor. [Cheers.] This is one of the great blessings of freedom; and hence we might ask the question and answer it by stating that liberty means freedom to work and enjoy the products of your own labor.
You will soon be mustered out of the ranks. It is for you to establish the great fact that you are fit and qualified to be free. Hence freedom is not a mere idea, but is something that exists in fact. Freedom is not simply the privilege to live in idleness; liberty does not mean simply to resort to the low saloons and other places of disreputable character. Freedom and liberty do not mean that the people ought to live in licentiousness; but liberty means simply to be industrious, to be virtuous, to be upright in all our dealings and relations with men; and those now before me, members of the First Regiment of Colored Volunteers from the District of Columbia and the capital of the United States, I have to say that a great deal depends upon yourselves. You must give evidence that you are competent for the rights that the Government has guaranteed to you.
Henceforth each and all of you must be measured according to your merit. If one man is more meritorious than the other, they cannot be equals; and he is the most exalted that is the most meritorious without regard to color. And the idea of having a law passed in the morning that will make a white man a black man before night, and a black man a white man before day, is absurd. That is not the standard. It is your own conduct; it is your own merit; it is the development of your own talents and of your own intellectuality and moral qualities. Let this then be your course: adopt a system of morality; abstain from all licentiousness.
And let me say one thing here, for I am going to talk plain. I have lived in a Southern State all my life, and know what has too often been the case. There is one thing you should esteem higher and more supreme than almost all others, and that is the solemn contract, with all the penalties, in the association of married life. Men and women should abstain from those qualities and habits that too frequently follow a war. Inculcate among your children and among your associations, notwithstanding you are just back from the army of the United States, that virtue, that merit, that intelligence are the standards to be observed, and those which you are determined to maintain during your future lives.
This is the way to make white men black and black men white. [Cheers.] He that is most meritorious and virtuous, and intellectual and well-informed, must stand highest, without regard to color. It is the very basis upon which Heaven rests itself. Each individual takes his degree in the sublimer [sic] and more exalted regions in proportion to his merits and his virtue. Then I shall say to you on this occasion—in returning to your homes and firesides, after feeling conscious and proud of having faithfully discharged your duty, returning with the determination that you will perform your duty in the future as you have in the past—abstain from all those bickerings and jealousies, and revengeful feelings which too often spring up between different races.
There is a great problem before us, and I may as well allude to it here in this connection, and that is whether this race can be incorporated and mixed with the people of the United States, to be made a harmonious and permanent ingredient in the population. This is a problem not yet settled, but we are in the right line to do so. Slavery raised its head against the Government, and the Government raised its strong arm and struck it to the ground. So that part of the problem is settled; the institution of slavery is overthrown. But another part remains to be solved, and that is: Can four millions of people, raised as they have been with all the prejudices of the whites, can they take their places in the community and be made to work harmoniously and congruously in our system? This is a problem to be considered. Are the digestive powers of the American Government sufficient to receive this clement in a new shape, and digest it, and make it work healthfully upon the system that has incorporated it? This is the question to be determined. Let us make the experiment, and make it in good faith.
If that cannot be done, there is another problem before us. If we have to become a separate and distinct people (although I trust that the system can be made to work harmoniously, and that the great problem will be settled without going any further); if it should be so that the two races cannot agree and live in peace and prosperity, and the laws of Providence require that they should be separated, in that event, looking to the far-distant future, and trusting that it may never come; if it should come, Providence, that works mysteriously, but unerringly and certainly, will point out the way and the mode and the manner by which these people are to be separated, and they are to be taken to. their lands of inheritance and promise—for such a one is before them. Hence we are making the experiment.
Hence, let me impress upon you the importance of controlling your passions, developing your intellect and of applying your physical powers to the industrial interests of the country; and that is the true process by which this question can be settled. Be patient, persevering and forbearing, and you will help to solve the problem. Make for yourselves a reputation in this cause, as you have won for yourselves a reputation in the cause in which you have been engaged.
In speaking to the members of this regiment I want them to understand that, so far as I am concerned, I do not assume or pretend that I am stronger than the laws, of course, of nature, or that I am wiser than Providence itself. It is our duty to try and discover what those great laws are which are at the foundation of all things; and, having discovered what they are, conform our actions and our conduct to them and to the will of God, who ruleth all things. He holds the destinies of nations in the palm of His hand, and He will solve the question and rescue these people from the difficulties that have so long surrounded them.
Then let us be patient, industrious, and persevering. Let us develop any intellectual and moral worth. I trust what I have said may be understood and appreciated. Go to your homes and lead peaceful, prosperous, and happy lives, in peace with all men. Give utterance to no word that would cause dissensions, but do that which will be creditable to yourselves and to your country. To the officers who have led and so nobly commanded you in the field, I also return my thanks for the compliment you have conferred upon me.
Note: The First District of Columbia colored regiment marched to the Executive mansion, where it was reviewed by the President.
Source: John Savage, "Life and Public Services of Andrew Johnson".
Andrew Johnson, Remarks to the First District of Columbia Colored Regiment Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/355903