“The Education of the Freedmen” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The Education of the Freedmen” appeared as an unsigned editorial in the February 10, 1866, edition Harper's Weekly, a popular illustrated serial publication printed by Harper & Brothers. It states that the North, recently victorious over the Southern rebellion, has a moral imperative to help former slaves adjust to their new status as American citizens. The essay also lays out a powerful practical argument for educating African Americans and praises the National Freedmen's Relief Association of New York, a charity working to improve the lives of former slaves.

Summary Overview

“The Education of the Freedmen” appeared as an unsigned editorial in the February 10, 1866, edition Harper's Weekly, a popular illustrated serial publication printed by Harper & Brothers. It states that the North, recently victorious over the Southern rebellion, has a moral imperative to help former slaves adjust to their new status as American citizens. The essay also lays out a powerful practical argument for educating African Americans and praises the National Freedmen's Relief Association of New York, a charity working to improve the lives of former slaves.

On one level, the editorial is an appeal to support the so-called freedmen's aid movement, the general label given to a loose, overlapping network of charitable agencies dedicated to improving the social status of African Americans in the South. Considering the political climate of the day, though, the piece had a wider message. In praising those who put their private resources toward educating freed slaves, it implicitly supports the very controversial use of the federal government to improve race relations in Southern society, a process often known as Radical Reconstruction.

Defining Moment

On April 9, 1865, mere days before US president Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union forces. A month later, on May 10, 1865, Confederate president Jefferson Davis was captured, thus ending the American Civil War. The ensuing peace was extremely fragile and the future of the nation was uncertain. In particular, there was debate over how the newly defeated Southern states should be treated by the reunited United States.

In the victorious North, there were two main schools of thought about how Reconstruction, as Lincoln called the process of national reunification, should proceed. Many thought that the governments of the Southern states should be granted authority to continue more or less intact, after swearing loyalty to the US government and vowing never to engage in insurrection again. Others argued that the South should be treated as conquered territory and that Southern governments should not be reinstated without major systemic changes.

The abolition of slavery in the United States at the end of the Civil War complicated the process of Reconstruction. This, along with a series of constitutional amendments, created approximately four million new American citizens, largely concentrated in the former Confederacy, where attitudes toward African Americans were particularly hostile. The newly emancipated African Americans, known as “freedmen,” struggled to fit into postwar society. Many citizens in Northern states felt it was the duty of the reunified nation to provide assistance to the freedmen, including housing, health care, and education.

In March 1865, the month before President Lincoln's assassination, the US government affirmed its commitment to helping former slaves by passing the Freedmen's Bureau Act, which mandated that an agency called the Freedmen's Bureau oversee the provision of improved health care, housing, education, and employment opportunities to freed slaves. Andrew Johnson, the centrist Democrat serving as president after Lincoln, rejected a congressional mandate to give the Freedmen's Bureau expanded resources, including military backing, when he vetoed the Second Freedmen's Bureau Act on February 19, 1866. A less radical version of the bill survived another presidential veto in July 1866.

The February 10, 1866, editorial, “The Education of the Freedmen,” was published in Harper's Weekly just as the Second Freedmen's Bureau Act was being considered. The essay was an effort by the popular publication's editorial staff to raise public awareness of the issue of education among newly freed slaves and to praise those involved with charitable efforts to improve freedmen's education. Given the political context of the time, it was also a way of bolstering support for the federal government's involvement in reforming Southern society, which many Americans called Radical Reconstruction and President Johnson opposed.

Author Biography

“The Education of the Freedmen” was published without an author's name attached to it. Historians typically attribute it to an anonymous author or the editorial staff of Harper's Weekly. Exploring the latter attribution is useful, as Harper's Weekly, and the company that published it, played an important role in shaping public opinion during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

At the end of the seventeenth century, a Methodist carpenter named Joseph Harper was building a home for a Dutch farmer in Newtown, New York, when he fell in love with the landowner's daughter, Elizabeth Kolyer. The couple married and had four sons who survived childhood. When the eldest, James, became a young adult, he was sent to work for a Methodist-owned publishing house called Paul & Thomas in New York City.

He was soon joined by his brother John. In 1817, the two brothers started their own publishing company, J. & J. Harper, on Dover Street in lower Manhattan. They were joined by their two younger brothers, Joseph Wesley and Fletcher, and in 1833, the company was renamed Harper & Brothers.

In 1850, Harper & Brothers began printing Harper's Monthly, based on a newly emerging format of illustrated serial publication. It proved to be such a success that they launched Harper's Weekly in 1857. Harper's Weekly became famous for its reporting on the events of the Civil War, thoughtful editorials, and artwork by celebrated artists, such as political cartoonist Thomas Nast and painter Winslow Homer. By the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, Harper's Weekly was the most popular publication of its kind in the United States.

Document Analysis

“The Education of the Freedmen” begins with an imagined conversation between Abraham Lincoln, described as “our martyr President,” and Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's secretary of war. After Lincoln's assassination, Stanton continued to serve as secretary of war under Andrew Johnson, and his agency was initially put in charge of caring for freed slaves in the South. Stanton frequently disagreed with President Johnson's focus on cooperation with white Southern leaders and spoke out in favor of more radical intervention in race relations in the former Confederate states.

The editorial goes on to argue that it is the duty of the North, which recently “liberated the slave,” to help freedmen with clothing, shelter, education, and health care in order to facilitate their assimilation into a new role as citizens of the United States. Just as many African Americans served with honor in the Union military during the Civil War, the editorial insists, they should be helped to “take their place by-and-by in the great army of voters.” The editorial then asserts that education is the key to this transformation.

In fact, the editorial contends, education had always been a part of the Union strategy for victory in the South. It observes that common schools, as basic education facilities were called at the time, sprang up in the wake of advancing Union armies. Willson's Readers, the standard tool for teaching literacy, were distributed as the Confederate forces retreated.

The article then takes a very frank tone, stating that the reason for educating newly freed African Americans is very practical and of the utmost political importance. It notes that the elite white Confederate class was able to control Southern politics because they were educated and the slaves and poor whites were not. Providing education to all, it contends, is a prudent way to ensure that the white Confederate minority would never again be able to control Southern politics. Education, it emphasizes, is the best way to prevent future insurrections.

The author then praises the National Freedmen's Relief Association of New York–particularly its senior leaders, the well-known New York philanthropists Francis George Shaw and Joseph Collins–and describes how it spent over $750,000 (equivalent to some $12 million in 2013) to clothe, house, and educate freedmen. The editorial concludes by appealing for support from Harper's Weekly readers to help the organization expand to meet the demand for educational facilities in the South, saying that it employs two hundred teachers, but could use as many as five thousand.

Essential Themes

“The Education of the Freedmen” was an important public appeal for putting resources into educating freedmen in the South. Although it begins with an argument based on moral imperative, it quickly turns to a more practical tone. Namely, it notes that educating the freed population is a way to create informed African American voters to counter the political faction of Southern whites, who might renew their insurrection against the Union.

Education has always been an important theme within the history of slavery and its aftermath in the United States. Before the Civil War, most Southern states barred anyone from teaching slaves basic literacy. Such laws were practical measures to prevent slaves from organizing against or running away from their masters. Despite its illegality, some people did teach slaves to read and write, and clandestine schools for African Americans did exist, scattered throughout the South. However, black literacy rates were very low before the Civil War. Some historians estimate that only about ten percent could read and write at a basic level by the war's end.

A loose network of charitable organizations worked to educate African Americans in the South before, during, and after the Civil War. Perhaps the most important of these in the early days of the struggle was the American Missionary Association, an Albany, New York–based group that established schools for fleeing slaves as the Union forces advanced in the South. After the Civil War and Emancipation, the cause of African American education was joined by groups that were part of the so-called freedmen's aid movement. The National Freedmen's Relief Association of New York, mentioned in the editorial, was one of these.

Given the political climate when “The Education of the Freedmen” was published in February 1866, the editorial was implicitly a call for the US government to put resources into the cause. As the Northern military gradually suppressed the Southern insurrection, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton assumed responsibility for providing social services, including education, to the freedmen. The legislative branch, controlled by the Republican Party, pushed for a more permanent governmental entity to oversee the process, but Democratic President Andrew Johnson resisted the creation and funding of such a federal agency.

In the end, the Freedmen's Bureau was able to operate in the postwar South until it was closed due to lack of political support in 1872. In the time it was open, however, the Freedmen's Bureau and nongovernmental organizations representing the freedmen's aid movement managed to build thousands of schools to educate African Americans in the South. Teaching children during the day and adults at night and Sundays, these schools helped to transform Southern society, just as backers of Radical Reconstruction had hoped.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Buchart, Ronald. Northern Schools, Southern Blacks, and Reconstruction: Freedmen's Education, 1862–1875. Westport: Greenwood, 1980. Print.
  • Exman, Eugene. The House of Harper. New York: Harper, 1967. Print.
  • Pohlmann, Marcus and Linda Whisenhunt. Student's Guide to Landmark Congressional Laws on Civil Rights. Westport: Greenwood, 2002. Print.
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