Freedman’s Bureau Bill Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Freedman’s Bureau Bill, enacted by the U.S. Federal Government approximately six weeks before the conclusion of the war, was pivotal in the transition of countless African Americans from a state of slavery to that of freedom. It was written and debated by the 39th Congress–the same seating of Congress that also dealt with the Fourteenth Amendment that which prohibited the denial of citizenship based on race. With the notable exception of the previous amendment to the Constitution–the abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth–the Fourteen was extremely eventful, and a monumental step forward for African Americans. This bill was another progression, one that aimed to assist those who before had known only oppression.

However, the bill was not looked upon with great enthusiasm by all, especially by those living within the Confederacy; and it did not take long for the organization it created to be mocked. The prevailing attitude toward the Freedman’s Bureau, as it soon became known, was embodied in Southern literature in the refrain, “Forty Acres and a Mule”–which was intended to suggest a doomed dream of agrarian reform (by which former slaves would obtain property). What is significant is the bill itself and what it stood for in the eyes of a government that tried to do right by those countless men, women, and children subjected to a life of labor and cruelty.

Summary Overview

The Freedman’s Bureau Bill, enacted by the U.S. Federal Government approximately six weeks before the conclusion of the war, was pivotal in the transition of countless African Americans from a state of slavery to that of freedom. It was written and debated by the 39th Congress–the same seating of Congress that also dealt with the Fourteenth Amendment that which prohibited the denial of citizenship based on race. With the notable exception of the previous amendment to the Constitution–the abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth–the Fourteen was extremely eventful, and a monumental step forward for African Americans. This bill was another progression, one that aimed to assist those who before had known only oppression.

However, the bill was not looked upon with great enthusiasm by all, especially by those living within the Confederacy; and it did not take long for the organization it created to be mocked. The prevailing attitude toward the Freedman’s Bureau, as it soon became known, was embodied in Southern literature in the refrain, “Forty Acres and a Mule”–which was intended to suggest a doomed dream of agrarian reform (by which former slaves would obtain property). What is significant is the bill itself and what it stood for in the eyes of a government that tried to do right by those countless men, women, and children subjected to a life of labor and cruelty.

Defining Moment

When historians begin to research a particular event or person, no matter the topic, it is vital that they appreciate the wider context, as well. In the case of the Freedman’s Bureau Bill, it is notable that it was written on March 3, 1865, during the death throes of the Confederacy. This in itself is meaningful. Federal lawmakers were conscious that the South was at its knees, the Confederate army running low on able men and provisions and facing high number of desertions. It was understood that the war would not go on much longer. Furthermore, the Confederate government was cognizant of the conditions faced by the populace at large: inflation was rampant, and the blockade along the coastline of the American South meant that people in the South were desperate. Thus it happened that General Robert E. Lee ultimately surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9–a little more than a month after the drafting of the Freedman’s Bureau Bill.

The timing of the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau Bill was sound. For nearly two years, African American soldiers and sailors proved themselves again and again in the heat of battle; the most famous of the black regiments, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, led by Bostonian Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, highlighted the wartime capabilities of African Americans in July 1863. With the end of the war in sight, and thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children set to be free at the close of it, it was imperative that the lawmakers develop a system for their transition, both for their immediate aid and for their direction and support once the guns stopped. The bill was, after all, “an act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees.”

Author Biography

For the men who constructed this document, as well as those involved in the drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment, the timing was crucial. The war looked to be over shortly, and it was essential that proper steps be taken to alleviate any undue suffering postwar. The 39th Congress had much to contend with: new amendments on the destruction of slavery and resolutions on the treatment of former slaves. Though not dealt with in the Freedman’s bill, Congress also had to consider what was to be done with the former Confederate states. This is an theme that appears in the second half of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind: Scarlett O’Hara, along with her friends and family, feels that the war continues for them long after the South’s surrender, particularly with the presence of Union soldiers and the apparently brainwashed former slaves being protected by both the government and the Freedman’s Bureau.

Careful lines needed to be drawn on how to approach the welfare of former slaves–they would be in need of shelter and provisions, but also of longer term support or guidance for their new lives. The Freedman’s Bureau Bill laid out how the lawmakers thought the new organization should be run: “the said bureau shall be under the management and control of a commissioner to be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate…” An intriguing part of the legislation is the assertion that the commissioner of the bureau would be required to swear an oath–the text of which was unavailable; it is a shame that the proposed oath did not form the original text of the bill as it might have given further insight into what the bureau hoped to achieve.

Document Analysis

In his online essay devoted to The Freedman’s Bureau, historian William Troost, of the University of British Columbia, succinctly captures the significance of the Bureau’s foundation–especially once enacted; Troost writes: “…the entire social order of the region [the former Confederacy] was disturbed as slave owners and former slaves were forced to interact with one another in completely new ways (web).” The conclusion of the war meant that the social dynamics of the South had changed–masters no longer could hold legal sway over those in bondage. Enslaved husbands would no longer have to watch their wives sold on the auction block, or see their children bequeathed to far off relatives or their owners. Enslaved children, such as Frederick Douglass once was, would no longer be removed from their mothers, to be raised miles away from maternal eyes.

Literacy and Land Reform

The Freedman’s Bureau Bill was not the sole idea of its kind; the months leading to the conclusion of the war saw the formation of a number of groups committed to the betterment of freed men and women. Historian James M. McPherson lists a number of organizations that went South to assist former slaves in ways similar to the officially sanctioned Freedman’s Bureau, from those devoted to general and education needs to those focused on religious matters. These organizations included the American Missionary Association, the National Freedmen’s Relief Association, the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society, and the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission (709-710). Literacy was high on the list of priorities for many of those who came South to teach. To quote William Troost again:

Prior to the Civil War it had been the policy in the sixteen states slaves states to fine, whip, or imprison those who gave instruction to blacks or mulattos…This lack of literacy created great problems for blacks in a free labor system. Freedmen were repeatedly taken advantage of as they were often unable to read or draft contracts

The Bureau, over the following few years, expanded the funds allocated to the education of former slaves and the founding of schools; by 1870, this endeavour produced approximately eighty-six thousand literate individuals.

While the Bureau’s literacy operations were, unquestionably, vital for the progress of freed men and women following their release from slavery, another of the organization’s legacies, that of land redistribution, remains probably better known to students of Reconstruction.

The phrase “Forty Acres and a Mule” is, indeed, one of the best known expressions from the time of the war’s end and after. From whence did it come? A close inspection of the Freedman’s Bureau Bill reveals the birth of this phrase in Section Four:

And be it further enacted, That the commissioner…shall have authority to set apart, for the use of loyal refugees and freedmen, such tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned, or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise, and to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman, as aforesaid, there shall be assigned not more than forty acres of such land…

In principle, the idea was sound, and must have been viewed as a godsend to those previously facing unending labor on someone else’s land. It was a promise of independence, of the freedom of working one’s own land and providing for one’s own family. For African American men, especially, the assurance of an allotment of land held a number of meanings; it meant that they no longer would be under the dominion of another (white) man, that they could claim the status of head of household, that they could take advantage of the social ideal of a patriarchy within their own family. For African American women, they would now be their own mistresses, as it were, and would be in the prime position of raising their own children. Such women could now rest in their own homes, assured that the children they bore–and those of subsequent generations–would no longer be subject to the trials of slavery. So short a time before, a child’s status as free or slave depended solely on the state of the mother; if the mother was not a slave, then her child would be free; however, if the mother was enslaved, then that status was imposed upon the baby as well. The Freedman’s Bureau Bill, with its assurance of land, as well as its terms of support and direction, gave solidity to the African American family within its own walls.

Disillusionment with the Bureau and Southern Ridicule

As with many such grand endeavours, both before and since, the reality of the Freedman’s Bureau did not measure up to the good intentions its creators had envisioned for it. The appropriation and distribution of land, in particular, was one of the most problematic areas. In his work on the Civil War, historian James M. McPherson observes that the pledge of land was “…a troublesome question…” in its implementation (842). It did not take long for news to travel regarding this vexing matter. Two years after the bill was written, the eminent former slave Frederick Douglass, in the summer of 1867, received a letter concerning the future of the Bureau, which read, in part, “there are a great many Persons that are of the opinion that the Freedman’s Bureau (its affairs), are not conducted as they ought to be.” (Foner. 33. 1955).

In Southern literary works, the Bureau is often mentioned with derision and contempt, most notably in the second half of Margaret Mitchell’s renowned 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind. While strictly a piece of fiction, the novel, like all literature, can be an important window on society. The Civil War was still within living memory when Mitchell began writing during the 1920s–her family, friends, and other contemporaries throughout the South would have been familiar with the tales and social history surrounding the war and its aftermath. Characters within the novel, such as Tony Fontaine and Will Benteen, as well as Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler themselves, make frequent comments on how the Bureau leads on the recently freed former slaves, inciting them to violence and insolence. In one scene, Scarlett and Tony Fontaine discuss the Bureau’s endorsement, for example, of miscegenation (intimate relations between, in this case, white women and black men).

While the implementation of the measures overseen by the Freedman’s Bureau may not have garnered much applause, the effort represented a step forward in the understanding that the United States government needed to have a plan in place for the thousands of freed men, women, and children. Those white former slave owners–or, even non-slaveholding whites–had to come to terms with the new social order, although this, too, led to increasing Black Codes and the eventual Jim Crow laws. The Bureau sought to assist those formerly in bondage in gaining stability, to gain the self-worth they had previously been denied, and perhaps the education they sought.

Essential Themes

In reading through the Freedman’s Bureau Bill in its entirety, there is a distinct feeling of authority that the writers wished to impart in this piece of legislation. The idea of a sanctioned organization designed for the betterment of the previously enslaved population is strong. The writers make frequent use of the standard legal phrase “Be it enacted” (original emphasis) to bring added force to the document and to convey a seriousness regarding the effort. It is important to remember that at the start of the Civil War in April of 1861, lying behind the hostilities was the aim of preserving the country as a whole.

The official tone is reinforced with the description of the intended structure of the organization, as well as the chain of command. Emphasising the jurisdiction of the War Department (known now as the Department of Defence) stressed the gravity that the writers wished to impart to the Bureau. In this vain, the men of the 39th Congress sought to put in place a plan to ensure freed slaves’ education and access to land and employment. The Bureau, in other words, was intended to provide stability now and in the future.

Bibliography
  • Aynes, Richard L. “The 39th Congress (1865-1867) and the 14th Amendment: Some Preliminary Perspectives,” Akron Law Review 42 (2009); Akron Research Paper No. 09-09. Print.
  • Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass: Volume IV–Reconstruction and After. New York: International Publishers, 1955. Print.
  • McPherson, James. M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • Parker, Marjorie H. “Some Educational Activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau,” The Journal of Negro Education 23 1 (Winter 1954), p. 9-21. Print.
  • Troost, William, “The Freedmen’s Bureau,” EH.Net (Economic History Association). Web.
Additional Reading
  • Abbott, Martin. “The Freedmen’s Bureau and Negro Schooling in South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 57 2 (Apr. 1956), p. 65-81. Print.
  • Bentley, George R. A History of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1955. Print.
  • Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974. Print.
  • Berlin, Ira, Steven F. Miller, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. “Afro-American Families in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” Radical History Review 42 (1988), p. 89-121. Print.l
  • Cimbala, Paul A. and Randall M. Miller. In the Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations. New York: Fordham UP, 1999. Print.
  • Finley, Randy. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1996. Print.
  • Hornsby, Alton. “The Freedmen’s Bureau Schools in Texas, 1865-1870,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 76 4 (Apr. 1973), 397-417. Print.
  • Schlomowitz, Ralph. “The Transition from Slave to Freedman Labor Agreements in Southern Agriculture, 1865-1870,” Journal of Economic History 39 1 (1979), p. 333-336. Print.
  • Williams, Heather Andrea. “ ‘Clothing Themselves in Intelligence’: The Freedpeople, Schooling, and Northern Teachers, 1861-1871,” The Journal of African American History 4 (Fall 2002), p. 372. Print.
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