The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Even before the fighting of the Civil War ended, Northern leaders began to plan for the postwar reconstruction of the Southern states. One of the biggest questions, of course, was what to do with millions of people who were exiting the condition of slavery. Especially important to many Republicans was preventing a return to a similar situation in which white Southerners dominated black Southerners politically, economically, and socially. While that unhappy result did, in the end, come to pass, before Reconstruction ended, there were many experiments, some at least partially successful, designed to give former slaves political and economic strength and an ability to determine their own future. The Freedmen's Bureau, created by this bill in early 1865, was one such attempt; and by providing economic, and, later, educational opportunities for Southern blacks, it helped lay some of the groundwork for black communities to consolidate and then hold together through the later dark days of Jim Crow and segregation. Therefore, the bill also showed that Reconstruction was not a badly flawed experiment in social change that was doomed to failure; rather, it showed, as historian Eric Foner argues in his influential book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution: 1863–1877, that the period was one, which witnessed remarkable successes and was, therefore, a worthwhile undertaking.

Summary Overview

Even before the fighting of the Civil War ended, Northern leaders began to plan for the postwar reconstruction of the Southern states. One of the biggest questions, of course, was what to do with millions of people who were exiting the condition of slavery. Especially important to many Republicans was preventing a return to a similar situation in which white Southerners dominated black Southerners politically, economically, and socially. While that unhappy result did, in the end, come to pass, before Reconstruction ended, there were many experiments, some at least partially successful, designed to give former slaves political and economic strength and an ability to determine their own future. The Freedmen's Bureau, created by this bill in early 1865, was one such attempt; and by providing economic, and, later, educational opportunities for Southern blacks, it helped lay some of the groundwork for black communities to consolidate and then hold together through the later dark days of Jim Crow and segregation. Therefore, the bill also showed that Reconstruction was not a badly flawed experiment in social change that was doomed to failure; rather, it showed, as historian Eric Foner argues in his influential book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution: 1863–1877, that the period was one, which witnessed remarkable successes and was, therefore, a worthwhile undertaking.

Defining Moment

While the spring of 1864 had seen the Union armies stalled before Atlanta and suffering massive losses in Virginia, by the end of the year, President Abraham Lincoln had been re-elected and the tide of the war was clearly moving in the direction of Northern victory. More thought could now be given to what the South would look like after the war ended. As slaves fled to Union lines throughout the war, Northern generals had to decide, on an individual basis, or at times with some limited direction from Washington, what to do with them. Sometimes, they were put to work on military fortifications, but as the trickle of people turned into a flood, other ideas appeared, such as that suggested by General William T. Sherman in January 1865 to offer 10,000 families plots of land and a mule on South Carolina's Sea Islands.

The Freedmen's Bureau Bill can, therefore, be seen as the latest and most wide-reaching instance of the North trying to determine a solution for how millions of former slaves would fit into a post-Civil War Southern society and economy. Of course, this time, the law was made at the federal level by a Congress dominated by pro-Union Republicans, since many Democrats had obviously left Congress when the war started. Congress was also often influenced by the Radical Republicans, a group who heavily supported deep federal involvement in the South after the war and who wanted to completely remake Southern society. While the bill's authors were not the most extreme of these radicals, they had been involved in the multiple social reform movements of the pre-war decades that spawned from the Second Great Awakening, including abolitionism.

Therefore, as the war appeared to be winding down, they made their recommendation for a postwar organization to aid former slaves–and loyal Southern whites–in a number of ways. Yet, as Eric Foner has pointed out in Reconstruction, the bill “reflected the tensions between the laissez-faire and interventionist approaches to the aftermath of emancipation” because, while the Freedmen's Bureau had extensive federal authority to seize and redistribute Southern land, it was also originally designed to last for only one year after the war ended (68–69). The question of the depth and length of Northern and federal commitment to African Americans in the South, therefore, still remained open, even after the Freedman's Bureau Bill seemed to provide a direct avenue for former slaves to become economically viable participants in a new postwar society and economy.

Author Biography

The main authors and supporters of the bill were Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, assisted by the influential abolitionist George Curtis, and the three men who lead the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, Samuel Howe, James McKaye, and Robert Owen (Kennedy, Foner 68). The latter organization had been created in 1863, owing to the need for Union forces to determine what to do with thousands of ex-slaves, who were fleeing to Union lines. These men, as Foner notes in Reconstruction, also had firsthand experience of such events during the war. They were all strong proponents of the need for drastic and wide-reaching social changes in the South that would provide a solid economic foundation and future for Southern African Americans. However, not even all their ideas, radical for the time, made their way into the bill, let alone came to fruition during the Reconstruction period.

Document Analysis

While several parts of the bill lay out the usual hierarchies of authority and annual salaries of newly created positions that are contained in any federal bill, the sections of the bill that expand the scope of federal authority are the most intriguing. They were also the most impactful in the history of Reconstruction. Within the Department of War, the bill not only created a new commissioner to head this organization, but also assistant commissioners to direct the bureau's operations in each of the ten states that had seceded from the Union. Therefore, the Republican-led Congress was already attempting to create structures to rebuild the South, evidenced most by the fact that the Bureau would be in place “during the present war of rebellion, and for one year thereafter,” so even while the fighting raged on.

Overall, while the bill spoke of giving “provisions, clothing, and fuel” to “loyal refugees and freedmen,” and, therefore, also included loyal Southern whites who might need help, the most important aspect of the bill was exactly how it provided for the future of these people, especially the former slaves. Each family would receive up to forty acres of land, at a low annual rental rate of six percent of the land's value, for a length of time that was guaranteed to be three years. After that time had passed, the renters could then purchase the land from the government. Therefore, the federal government was attempting to provide former slaves, and loyal whites as well, with a way to transition from serving a master to being their own individual small farmer.

Had hundreds of thousands of black families been able to use this bill successfully to move into the ranks of small freeholders, it would have been quite a transformation of Southern society. However, the rise of the sharecropping model, in which blacks became trapped in endless cycles of debt; the Democratic resurgence in the South; and the failure of Reconstruction in other respects all combined to prevent such a happy result. Still, in this bill and for a time during Reconstruction in general, the power of the federal government in the South was quite enhanced. For instance, the bill noted that the land to be provided to former slaves and loyal Southern whites was land “as shall have been abandoned, or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise.” Essentially, any time a supporter of secession had left his farm or plantation, that land would be deemed “abandoned” and federal power would be expanded to confiscate and redistribute that land. In addition, the “otherwise” option left the door open to the further expansion of that sort of federal power in the future, and as Reconstruction progressed, some Radical Republicans would certainly push for such an expansion. Overall, the bill sought to provide a means of making a living for the millions of former slaves in the South and did so by legislatively expanding the reach and power of the federal government.

Essential Themes

One of the clearest themes in the history of the Freedmen's Bureau Bill was that of whether or not–and how far–to expand federal authority, especially regarding the political, economic, and civil rights of black Southerners. Since the original bill only authorized the Bureau to operate for a year after the end of the war, Congress had to pass the bill again in the early part of 1866. Although Andrew Johnson, who was president by then, vetoed the bill as an unconstitutional expansion of federal authority, his move united both moderate and Radical Republicans, who then passed the extension of the Bureau over his veto. However, this same debate over the extent of federal involvement in the protection of black economic and civil rights was not resolved in 1866 and continued until enough Northerners decided essentially to abandon Southern African Americans in the Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction and pulled the remaining army forces out of the South.

The Freedmen's Bureau Bill also touched on issues of black agency, meaning the ability of African Americans to shape their own history and to affect the context in which they found themselves. While relatively few African Americans actually obtained land in the South during Reconstruction, the Freedmen's Bureau played a large role in helping former slaves organize politically, protect themselves in court, expand their educational opportunities, and generally attempt to assert their economic and civil rights between 1865 and 1872. For instance, the Bureau founded Howard University in Washington, DC, and Bureau officials were often supportive of Union Leagues, which were political organizations of black Southern Republicans during Reconstruction (Kennedy 144). Therefore, the Freedmen's Bureau often provided an avenue for black Southern voices to be heard. In addition, the pressure that Union generals and politicians felt during the Civil War to do something with the increasing numbers of former slaves who were fleeing to Union lines during the war, as noted above, helped push Northerners to think about possible postwar solutions, including the Freedmen's Bureau. In this way, African Americans “voted with their feet” and did their own part in creating the post-Civil War history of the American South.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Print.
  • Kennedy, Robert C. “On This Day: The Freedmen's Bureau.” HarpWeek. The New York Times Company, 2001. Web. 3 April 2014.
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