Historical Context in Freedmen's Bureau Bill

Slavery and Emancipation: The roots of American slavery reach back to the transatlantic slave trade, which provided African slaves to the burgeoning American colonies. The American opinion of slavery was mixed from the start, with some colonies rejecting the practice and others embracing it as a powerful economic tool. Over the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries, these differing opinions came to be divided along geographic lines, with the North opposing slavery, and the South supporting, and in many ways relying on, the institution. In 1861, the Civil War broke out between the two sides, primarily because of the irreconcilable issue of slavery. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure that freed the slaves. While the proclamation was an enormous step toward freedom, Northerners who opposed slavery recognized that there remained much work to do.

The End of the War and Reconstruction: After the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans in the South still faced resistant landowners who wished to keep their cheap laborers. Even more troublingly, they faced a culture steeped in centuries of prejudice and racism. The newly freed African Americans were far from free, or even safe. To address these problems, Radical Republicans in Congress proposed the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, aimed to provide support to “freedmen,” a term for former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was launched in March of 1865, shortly before the end of the Civil War and, due to the limits set forth in the original bill, would operate for one year thereafter. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, denounced the bureau and fought unsuccessfully to veto later attempts to extend its duration. In many ways, these clashes over the Freedmen’s Bureau exemplify the central tension in the federal government during the period of Reconstruction, the decade after the war. There were two visions of Reconstruction. The progressive Republicans who controlled Congress sought to further the goals of the Union cause during the war: providing more freedom and equality for African Americans and generally fighting for social change. President Andrew Johnson, a conservative Democrat from the South, viewed Reconstruction as an opportunity to build the South up to its former level of competency and self-sufficiency. The establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau was a clear, if short-lived, victory for the progressive side.

Historical Context Examples in Freedmen's Bureau Bill:

Text of the Bill

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"And any military officer may be detailed and assigned to duty under this act without increase of pay or allowances...."   (Text of the Bill)

Since Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau within the War Department, the president as commander in chief, the Secretary of War, and the armed forces were largely responsible for assisting the commissioners in their work. This assistance fell under the purview of any military officer’s normal duties, which is why Congress states that no additional pay or allowances will be granted.

"SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of War may direct..."   (Text of the Bill)

Section 2 of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill specifies the broad range of powers that the Secretary of War has regarding logistical aspects of the bureau’s work. Congress included this provision to clarify that the bureau would exist not only under the direction of the War Department but also under the leadership of the Secretary of War, a decision made after multiple meetings and debates over which Executive department would supervise it.

"an act entitled "An act to prescribe an oath of office, and for other purposes,"..."   (Text of the Bill)

This act, approved on July 2nd, 1862, requires every elected or appointed official, except for the president, to “subscribe the following oath or affirmation: ‘I, A. B., do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I have never voluntarily borne arms against the United States since I have been a citizen thereof [...]I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic [...] that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.’” This oath has changed over the years, but the essential goal has remained the same: elected officials must affirm their commitment to upholding the Constitution and faithfully perform their duties.

"the Secretary of War..."   (Text of the Bill)

Edwin Stanton served as Secretary of War from 1862 to 1868 under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. An effective manager and advisor to President Lincoln, Stanton greatly aided the Union war effort. Stanton had an adversarial relationship with President Johnson due to his strong opposition to Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policies. He eventually supported Republican efforts to oust Johnson from office in 1868. Stanton retired that year and was summarily appointed to the United States Supreme Court; however, he died before he could take that office.

"approved by the President..."   (Text of the Bill)

Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill on March 3, 1865. The next day, President Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, in which he presented a vision of a country reunited by shared values, a country that had grown stronger through its struggles. As a Republican and abolitionist, Lincoln approved of the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. However, after his assassination just a month later, federal efforts to protect the freed slaves came under the supervision of Andrew Johnson, a southern Democrat who had opposed the bureau’s creation in the first place.

"That all acts and parts of acts inconsistent with the provisions of this act, are hereby repealed...."   (Text of the Bill)

To preemptively ward off attempts to delegitimize or disempower the Freedmen’s Bureau, Republican lawmakers included Section 5. This sentence gives the aims of the Freedmen’s Bureau priority over any other piece of legislation that might clash with the bill or block any of its measures.

"and for one year thereafter..."   (Text of the Bill)

Congress intended to finance and support the Freedmen’s Bureau for one year after the end of the Civil War. However, due to the persistence of bigotry in Southern states through the Southern “black codes” and opposition from President Johnson, Congress passed another Freedmen’s Bureau Bill on July 3rd, 1866, and overrode President Johnson’s veto on July 16th. This second act extended the duration and power of the bureau, distributing more land to ex-slaves, providing schools for children, and allowing military courts to ensure these rights were provided. Congress extended the bureau’s lifespan again in 1868. It was eventually closed in June of 1872.

"That the commissioner, under the direction of the President, 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..."   (Text of the Bill)

Section 4 of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill addresses two problems at once. First, there was the problem of providing properties where freedmen—many of whom owned no land—a place to live. Second, there was the question of what to do with the numerous tracts of “abandoned lands” across the South, results of the Civil War. The solution, as set forth in the bill, is to rent forty-acre lots of abandoned land to each male freedman at a rate of six percent of its value. The bill stipulates that, after three years, the renters will have the opportunity to purchase and own the land. In reality, freedmen were more commonly given employment on the lands of white landowners rather than receiving and working land of their own.

"the present war of rebellion..."   (Text of the Bill)

In March of 1865, the Civil War was in its fifth and final year. As Lincoln noted in his “Second Inaugural Address,” with a Union victory in sight, the Union must shift its focus to reintegrating the rebel states. However, since the war was based on fundamental disagreements regarding the institution of slavery, reunification was fraught with perils. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in January, 1865, the Union sought to provide the newly freed slaves with the basic necessities to survive in a reunited nation. The establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau aimed to do just that.

"a bureau of refugees, freedmen..."   (Text of the Bill)

The name of the Freedmen’s Bureau suggests that its primary focus was on freedmen, or former slaves who had been emancipated. However, the inclusion of “refugees,” or those displaced during war, provides for slaves who escaped their bondage in the Union border states where slavery still existed. Since a Constitutional amendment had yet to abolish slavery in the entire nation, the inclusion of refugees in the scope of the Freedmen’s Bureau ensures that all ex-slaves will be provided for.

"the War Department..."   (Text of the Bill)

The United States Department of War was formed by Congress on August 7th, 1789, and placed under the direction of the president, as commander in chief. Conceived as a civilian agency that would administer the army under the president and the secretary of war, the department stood until September 18th, 1947, when it was split into the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force, which joined the Department of the Navy to become the United States Department of Defense.

"appoint an assistant commissioner for each of the states declared to be in insurrection, not exceeding ten in number..."   (Text of the Bill)

Pursuant to this clause, assistant commissioners were assigned to the Southern states, mostly during June and July of 1865. Despite the clause limiting them to “ten in number,” thirteen assistant commissioners were assigned, including one for Washington, D.C., which had not been stipulated in the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill.

"treasurer of the United States..."   (Text of the Bill)

The treasurer of the United States during the time of the Freedmen’s Bureau was Francis E. Spinner, who served in the role from 1861 to 1875. A progressively minded Republican, Spinner was best known for offering federal employment to women, whom he hired as clerks—an unprecedented but pivotal and lasting move.

"shall be under the management and control of a commissioner..."   (Text of the Bill)

The first and only commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau was Oliver O. Howard, who had serves as a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War. His record during the war was marked by numerous defeats but devoted service and a sterling reputation for ethical behavior—he was nicknamed “the Christian General.” He proved more effectual in his years as commissioner, expanding the powers of the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide food, education, and medical care to freedmen. It was the first instance in US history when the federal government operated as a force for such broad social welfare. Howard and President Johnson clashed bitterly. Howard chafed under Johnson’s attempts to reign in the Bureau, answering instead to his fellow Radical Republicans in Congress. Johnson was furious at Howard’s attempts to establish his own authority, far beyond the reckoning of the oval office.