Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

Andrew Johnson (1857-1861)

1841: As a state legislator Johnson proposed amending the Tennessee constitution so that slaves would no longer be counted in calculating representation. At the time they were being counted as three-fifths of a free person, the same as in the federal constitution, giving a large advantage to counties where many slaves were owned.  The legislature voted down his amendment.  (Thomas, p48)


1858: “Will it do to assume that any man who labors with his hands is a slave? No, sir, that will not do.  Will it do to assume that any man who does not own slaves, and has to live by his own labor, is a slave?   That will not do…I am a laborer with my own hands, and I never considered myself a slave.”(Thomas, p 124)

1859: “Round and round the giddy circle of slavery agitation have we gone, until our heads are reeling and our stomachs almost heaving. It really seems to me that if some member of this body [the U.S. Senate] was to introduce the Ten Commandments for consideration… somebody would find a Negro in them somewhere; the slavery agitation would come up.” (Thomas, p 126)

Before 1860: “If you liberate the negro, what will be the next step? …Blood, rape, and rapine will be our portion.  You can’t get rid of the negro except by holding him in shavery.” (Winston, p118-9)

1860: (If the slaves were freed in the South) “the non-slaveholder would join with the slave-owner and extirpate them… if one should be more ready to join than another it would be myself.”(Winston, p134)

1860:  After Lincoln was elected Johnson reacted to the threats of Southern states [including his own Tennessee] to secede: “Slavery will find no friends anywhere.”(Thomas, p 153)

1860:  Johnson proposed three constitutional amendments that would have ensured a balance between slave and free states.  For example, the president and vice-president would be popularly elected, but one would have to come from the North and one from the South.(Thomas, p 156)

1862: Johnson advised Lincoln to include in the Emancipation Proclamation only those slaves in areas participating in the rebellion.  Lincoln complied.  (Winston, p244-5)

1864:  "Slavery is the cancer upon the body politic, which must be rooted out before perfect health can be restored...  I have owned slaves - slaves that I bought with my own money - money earned by myself, a quarter of a dollar at a time.  They were confiscated and sold; yet two of them ran away from the Rebel dominions and came here to me.  I hired them - made a bargain with them for their labor, and thus recognized their freedom.  And I find they do better than when they were slaves.  Now if any of you are slave owners, I advise you to go and do likewise, while you have the chance.  Hire your negroes to work for you, and you will find they will do better labor for you than when they were slaves."  (Johnson,  Vol 6.  p549-550.  Also, Moore.)

1864:  "As for the negro I am for setting him free but at the same time I assert that this is a white man’s government…  If whites and blacks can’t get along together arrangements must be made to colonize the blacks [that is, send them to Africa].”  (Winston, p252)

1864: (As military governor) “Colored men of Nashville - You have all heard of the President’s Proclamation, by which he announced to the world that the slaves in a large portion of the secede States were thenceforth and forever free.  For certain reasons, which seemed wise to the President, the benefits of that Proclamation did not extend to you or to your native State.  Many of you consequently were left in bondage.The taskmaster’s scourge was not yet broken, and the fetters still galled your limbs.  Gradually this iniquity has been passing away; but the hour has come when the last vestiges of it must be removed.  Consequently, I , …Andrew Johnson, do hereby proclaim freedom, full, broad, and unconditional, to every man in Tennessee!”(Johnson, p.xxxvii)

1864-5: As military governor of Tennessee (and Vice-President-Elect) Johnson  encouraged the legislature of Tennessee to pass amendments to the state constitution which, among other things outlawed slavery and gave the vote to Blacks who served in the war.  When the amendments were passed Johnson said: “The unjust distinctions in society, fostered by an arrogant aristocracy, based upon human bondage, have been overthrown, and our whole social system reconstructed on the basis of hones industry and personal worth.” (Thomas, p 282-5)

1865:  “You tell me, friends, of the liberation of the colored people of the South.But have you thought of the millions of Southern white  people who have been liberated by the war?"  (Thomas, p347)

1865: “The adoption of this amendment [the thirteenth, banning slavery] reunites us beyond all power of disruption.  It heals the wound that is still imperfectly closed; it removes forever the element which has so long perplexed and divided the country.”(Thomas, p383)

1865:  To a group of Black soldiers: "This is your country as well as anybody else's country.  This country is founded upon the principle of equality... He that is meritorious and virtuous, intellectual and well informed, must stand highest, without regard to color... [the great question is whether] this race can be incorporated and mixed with the people of the United States - to make a harmonious and permanent ingredient in the population." (Cox, 141)

1865: (If I were making the decision for the state of Tennessee) " I should try to introduce negro suffrage gradually; first those who had served in the army; those who could read and write; and perhaps a property qualification for the others, say $200 or $250.  It would not do to let the negro have universal suffrage now; it would breed a war of races." (Cox, 144)

1866: (After speaking to a group of Blacks, including Frederick Douglass, who urged him to support suffrage for all Blacks.)  "Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap!  I know that damned Douglass; he's just like any and he would sooner cut a white man's throat than not."

1867:  “Are the four millions of black persons who yesterday were held in slavery that had existed for generations sufficiently intelligent to cast a ballot? …To give the ballot indiscriminately to a new class wholly unprepared by previous habits and opportunities to perform the trust which it demands is to degrade it and finally to destroy its power.” (Winston, p402)