Summary and Analysis
In 1863, progressive Republican Representative T. D. Eliot conceived of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Emancipation Proclamation had been passed, officially freeing all slaves across the South. There was now a population of vulnerable freedmen—newly freed slaves—seeking security and escape in a hostile region. Eliot and his fellow Republican lawmakers worked to establish a bureau that could protect and assist these nearly four million freedmen.
Congress’s efforts to pass the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill were slowed by a series of obstacles. Throughout 1864, the bill was passed around Congress, receiving feedback and, at times, discouragement. The most pressing task the bill’s backers faced was to decide which department of the federal government would house the Freedmen’s Bureau. After much debate, the War Department (today called the Department of Defense) emerged as the best option. Finally, in March of 1865, the bill was passed in both houses and signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
However, the victory was soon eclipsed by Lincoln’s assassination, the instatement of Andrew Johnson—a conservative Democrat—in the oval office, and the nearing termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was only allotted one year of existence after the end of the Civil War. In 1866, Republican lawmakers banded together again to keep the bureau alive. Through the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866, which was passed despite Johnson’s veto, Congress succeeded in securing the bureau’s continued operation until 1872, when funding for the bureau dried up.
The Summary of the Bill
- Section 1 of the bill establishes the Freedmen’s Bureau, detailing its term of operation (one year after the end of the war), stating its responsibility (overseeing abandoned Southern lands and assisting freedmen), and proposing the instatement of a commissioner, to be selected by the president.
- Section 2 equips the Secretary of War with the power to assign resources and staff to the various projects and operations of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
- Section 3 grants the president the power to install bureau commissioners to oversee specific states in the union. The section further allows the president to assign military troops to assist Freedmen’s Bureau commissioners.
- Section 4 allows the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau to seize abandoned lands and rent them to freedmen at a discounted rate. These freedmen are given the option to later purchase the land from the bureau.
- Section 5 delegitimizes “all acts and parts of acts inconsistent with the provisions of this act,” securing the validity of the Freedmen’s Bureau and warding off any legal attempts to strip it of its powers.
The Bureau in Action
Over its seven-year tenure, the Freedmen’s Bureau achieved mixed results. Due to a chronic lack of federal funding, the bureau managed to fulfill some of the goals outlined in the 1865 bill but could not live up to the lofty ambitions of the Republican lawmakers who conceived of it.
At its height, the bureau had fewer than a thousand agents on the ground in the Southern states. In countless cases, the bureau’s agents were harassed and maligned by white Southerners who opposed the bureau’s work. Some agents gave in to corruption or passivity. More active agents built schools and universities for freedmen (including Howard University), constructed and operated hospitals, and helped freedmen find work and attain legal marriages.
Perhaps the most unequivocal failure of the bureau was their inability to fulfill Section 4 of the 1865 bill. The bureau’s attempts to redistribute abandoned Southern land to freedmen never gained traction. For the most part, white Southerners took control of any land left unclaimed after the war. The dream of land ownership for black Southerners as a building block of Reconstruction never came to fruition.
From a broader perspective, the Freedmen’s Bureau can be seen as one front where the Reconstruction-era Republicans fought their progressive fight. Despite the shortcomings of the Freedmen’s Bureau, its conception and operation contributed a small part to one of the most progressive periods in American legal history.