Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Nashville resolution puts pressure on illegal residents - in 1856

The Tennessean reports in this column on Nashville history that "The Dec. 28, 1856, issue of the Union and American details a public meeting 'of the citizens of Davidson County' at the state Capitol on Dec. 24. A resolution was adopted ordering magistrates and constables in each civil district to 'serve legal notice on all free Negroes within such district to leave the state, who are here without authority.'"

A state-wide law which had been on the books since 1806 required free African-Americans in Tennessee to carry "certificates of freedom" with them at all times. These certificates were required to participate in civic life; states like Ohio imposed fines on employers who hired African-Americans who did not have a certificate of freedom.

In 1831, the desire to force free African-Americans out of Tennessee heated up when the state legislature passed a law that made it illegal for newly freed African-Americans to stay in Tennessee upon their emancipation. In 1854, the Tennessee legislature passed another law making it even clearer where the voters of the state stood in terms of popular sentiment toward former slaves: all emancipated slaves were to be sent to the west coast of Africa.

Tennessee wasn't the only state trying to rid itself of free African-Americans. In 1806, the Virginia General Assembly effectively illegalized all its emancipated slaves, ordering any freed slaves who were still in the state in 1807 to be sold back into slavery. Illinois changed its state constitution in 1848 to prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to Illinois, and in 1853, the Illinois legislature made it a crime to bring a free African-American into the state.

At the same time of the "citizens of Davidson County" resolution in 1856, the Nashville-based Southern Methodist Publishing House published, and the federal court for the Middle District of Tennessee recognized, this lecture on the morality of slavery, which gives insight to the popular sentiment that gave rise to the Davidson County resolution.

Of particular parallel to modern political thought are lecturer William A. Smith's conclusion that there could be no government without slavery - and his argument that the state has no more obligation towards the "uncivilized race which may chance to dwell within [our] borders" than the obligations it owes to "savages on our border."

"In maintaining the institution of domestic slavery we are either right or wrong, in a moral point of view," Smith wrote, acknowledging that neither necessity nor ignorance would be an excuse for moral error.

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