Freeman's Bureau

The Freeman's Bureau was established by Congress on 3rd March, 1865. The bureau was designed to protect the interests of former slaves. This included helping them to find new employment and to improve educational and health facilities. In the year that followed the bureau spent $17,000,000 establishing 4,000 schools, 100 hospitals and providing homes and food for former slaves.

The Freeman's Bureau also helped to establish Howard University in Washington in 1867. Instigated by the Radical Republicans in Congress it was named after General Oliver Howard, a Civil War hero and commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees and a leading figure in the Freeman's Bureau.

Attempts by Congress to extend the powers of the Freemen's Bureau was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson in February, 1866. This increased the conflict between Johnson and the Radical Republicans in Congress.

Primary Sources

(1) African Freedmen's Inquiry Commission Report (1864)

We must not treat them as stepchildren; there is too much danger in doing too much as in doing too little. For a time we need a freedmen's bureau, but not because these people are negroes, only because they are men who have been, for generations, despoiled of their rights.

The Commission is confirmed in the opinion that all aid given to these people should be regarded as a temporary necessity; that all supervision over them should be provisional only, and advisory in its character. The sooner they shall stand alone and make their own unaided way, the better both for our race and for theirs. The essential is that we secure to them the means of making their own way; that is, that we give them, to use the familiar phrase, "a fair chance".

If, like whites they are to be self-supporting, then, like whites, they ought to have those rights, civil and political, without which they are but laboring as a man labors with hands bound.

(2) General Oliver Howard, speech in August, 1865 on the activities of the Freemen's Bureau.

The government did not establish the Freedmen's Bureau in order to put Army officers in fat places. It does not wish to multiply positions. The object of the Bureau is to aid these people in their transition from the darkness of slavery to the light, to the privileges and the enjoyments of freedom. I have proposed all the time to myself to be always looking forward to the end of the Freedmen's Bureau; and just as soon as any State will show by the action of its officers, by the action of its people, by the sentiments put forth, that they are ready and willing to keep the promise and pledge of our beloved President, endorsed by our Congress, to our freedmen, then they may have the privilege of doing it, and it will relieve me from the responsibility.

(3) Report on the work of the Freemen's Bureau that was signed by General Oliver Howard and Salmon P. Chase (August, 1867)

The abolition of slavery and the establishment of freedom are not the one and the same thing. The emancipated negroes were not yet really freemen. Their chains had indeed been sundered by the sword, but the broken links still hung upon their limbs. The question, "What shall be done with the negro? agitated the whole country. Some were in favour of an immediate recognition of their equal and political rights, and of conceding to them at once all the prerogatives of citizenship. But only a few advocated a policy so radical, and, at the same time, generally considered revolutionary, while many, even of those who really wished well to the negro, doubted his capacity for citizenship, his willingness to labour for his own support, and the possibility of his forming, as a freeman, an integral part of the Republic.

The idea of admitting the freedmen to an equal participation in civil and political rights was not entertained in any part of the South. In most of the States they were not allowed to sit on juries, or even to testify in any case in which white men were parties. They were forbidden to own or bear firearms, and thus were rendered defenceless against assault. Vagrant laws were passed, often relating only to the negro, or, where applicable in terms of both white and black, seldom or never enforced except against the latter.

In some States any court - that is, any local Justice of the Peace - could bind out to a white person any negro under age, without his own consent or that of his parents? The freedmen were subjected to the punishments formerly inflicted upon slaves. Whipping especially, when in some States disfranchised the party subjected to it, and rendered him for ever infamous before the law, was made the penalty for the most trifling misdemeanor.

These legal disabilities were not the only obstacles placed in the path of the freed people. Their attempts at education provoked the most intense and bitter hostility, as evincing a desire to render themselves equal to the whites. Their churches and schoolhouses were in many places destroyed by mobs. In parts of the country remote from observation, the violence and cruelty engendered by slavery found free scope for exercise upon the defenceless negro. In a single district, in a single month, forty-nine cases of violence, ranging from assault and battery to murder, in which whites were the aggressors and blacks the sufferers, were reported.

General Howard issued his first order defining the general policy of the Bureau on the 19th day of May 1865, at once appointed his Assistant Commissioners, and entered upon the work assigned to him. In this work he was greatly embarrassed by the lack of any governmental appropriations for his Bureau, by the opposition in the South to any measures looking towards the elevation of the freed people, and by the very widespread distrust in the North of their capacity for improvement.

What is to be the effect of emancipation upon the industry of the community at large, upon the amount of production, upon the intelligence and morals of the people, upon commerce, trade, manufactures, agriculture and population, can as yet be only a matter of conjecture; and yet such and so marked even in these respects have been the results already, that probably few, if any, of the intelligent portion of the Southern people would desire to see slavery re-established. Wherever the planter has honestly and intelligently accommodated himself to the system of free-labour, freedom has reaped a larger harvest than ever was garnered by slavery.

But the effect upon the freed people is no longer a matter of question. They have refuted slavery's accusation of idleness and incapacity. They have not only worked faithfully and well under white employers, but, when facilities have been accorded them, have proved themselves capable of independent and even self-organized labour. They are not generally extravagant or wasteful. The church and the schoolhouse are alike crowded with eager, expectant people, the rapidity of whose development under these fostering influences has amazed both foes and friends, and contributed more, perhaps, than any other cause to mitigate the prejudice which survived slavery, and make the work of enfranchisement complete.

(4) Andrew Johnson, letter to Benjamin B. French, the commissioner of public buildings (8th February, 1866)

Everyone would, and must admit, that the white race was superior to the black, and that while we ought to do our best to bring them up to our present level, that, in doing so, we should, at the same time raise our own intellectual status so that the relative position of the two races would be the same.

(5) When Congress attempted to increase the powers of the Freemen's Bureau in February, 1866, the proposed bill was vetoed by Andrew Johnson.

I share with Congress the strongest desire to secure to the freedmen the full employment of their freedom and property and their entire independence and equality in making contracts for their labor, but the bill before me contains provisions which in my opinion are not warranted by the Constitution and are not well suited to accomplish the end in view.

The bill proposes to establish, by authority of Congress, military jurisdiction over all parts of the United States containing refugees and freedmen. It would by its very nature apply with most force to those parts of the United States in which the freedmen most abound, and it expressly extends the existing temporary jurisdiction of the Freedmen's Bureau, with greatly enlarged powers, over those states "in which the ordinary course of judicial proceedings has been interrupted by the rebellion."