Freedmen's Bureau Acts (1865 and 1868)

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Freedmen's Bureau Acts (1865 and 1868)

Elizabeth Regosin

During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, Congress enacted two major pieces of legislation, the first to create the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or Freedmen's Bureau, and the second (getting past two presidential vetoes) to sustain the Freedmen's Bureau. The history of the bureau's fate at the hands of legislators and the president reflects the history of Reconstruction itself, a history of good intentions, cross purposes, and promises both fulfilled and unfulfilled.


Congress passed the first piece of legislation, "An Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees," on March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507), as the American Civil War neared its end. As the historian Eric Foner explains, the idea for such an agency had been brewing since 1863, when the three-man American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission reported to Congress on its fact-finding mission about the condition of African Americans in the South. According to the report, former slaves would need temporary assistance as they made the transition from slavery to freedom. Designed to grant material aid, to supervise and redistribute abandoned land in "insurrectionary states," and to address any subject relating to the freedpeople, the initial plan for the Freedmen's Bureau was proposed for "freedmen" alone. In the debates around the bill in both houses of Congress, legislators raised the question of including those loyal whites in the South who might have needed assistance at the war's end. Other areas of concern included where in the government the bureau would be housed and what the bureau's role would be in the maintenance and distribution of abandoned lands to freedpeople.


The act of March 3, 1865, provided that the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands would operate "during the present war of rebellion, and for one year thereafter," offering freedpeople and loyal white Southerners material aid and access to land. The bureau was to be housed in the War Department and placed under the control of a commissioner who was to be appointed by the president and to work under the president's direction. The act authorized the secretary of war to "direct such issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel, as he may deem needful for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children...." In addition, it provided that the commissioner could set aside "tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned ... and to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman ... there shall be assigned not more than forty acres of such land, and the person to whom it was so assigned shall be protected in the use and enjoyment of the land for the term of three years...." The provision for land also allowed freedmen and refugees to purchase the land, although the language of the statute was vague as to how that might come about and whether the federal government actually had the authority to do so.

Leadership of the Freedmen's Bureau fell into the hands of Union General Oliver Otis Howard, who was named commissioner in May 1864. Howard and his agents were busy that first year. Much of their work was devoted to helping former slaves make the transition from slavery to freedom not just economically, as perhaps originally conceived, but also socially and politically. Among their many responsibilities, Freedmen's Bureau agents doled out clothing, food, and other provisions. They registered freedpeople's marriages and spoke to them about "proper" familial relationships. They also helped freedpeople locate family members from whom they had been separated under slavery, and they assisted freedpeople in relocating. Agents helped black communities to establish schools. As the historian Donald G. Nieman explains, bureau agents soon discovered that facilitating the transition from slavery to freedom required attention to the relationships between freedpeople and their employers and protection of freedpeople's legal rights. Before long, bureau agents were negotiating labor contracts and even setting up courts to arbitrate disputes among freedmen and between blacks and whites. One of the agents' more challenging tasks was protecting freedpeople from discrimination in local courts and by local officials.


Originally, legislators saw the creation of the bureau as an extraordinary wartime measure, necessary to protect and support those innocent victims of slavery and the war. Since the bureau's existence was only temporary, a means of helping freedpeople and refugees get on their feet, the original act had not even provided for a budget outside of what already existed in the War Department. As the bureau's expiration date drew near, it was obvious to many that its services were still desperately needed in the South, in spite of the fact that the war was over. In fact, to many it seemed that the end of the war produced a greater need for a government agency to watch over the freedpeople. In addition to violence and prejudice, emancipation brought discriminatory laws, known as Black Codes, in many southern states. Provisions of these laws limited freedpeople's mobility, undermined their civil rights, and gave them stiffer penalties than whites for crimes.

In January 1866 Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull introduced into Congress a new Freedmen's Bureau bill (S. 60) designed not only to extend the life of the bureau but also to expand the scope of its responsibilities. S. 60 initially proposed that the bureau "continue in force until otherwise provided by law." New provisions in the 1866 bill included a broader jurisdiction, the division of those parts of the country where freedpeople resided into twelve districts, three million acres of public land set aside for freedpeople to buy or settle upon, the validation of claims to confiscated lands granted to freedpeople during the war by General Sherman, provisions for schools and asylums, and military protection and jurisdiction over cases where the rights and immunities of freedpeople had been denied in the courts or by state and local laws.


Debates around the expanded scope of the bureau as outlined in S. 60 focused on issues such as the bureau's term and jurisdiction, the federal government's responsibilities, and the power of the legislative branch to extend the bureau during peacetime. Some Democrats objected to what they saw as the permanent nature of this provision. One main question was where the bureau should operate. Initially the bill provided that the bureau would operate wherever there were freedpeople and refugees in the United States. Some legislators proposed that the jurisdiction be limited to those states that were in rebellion, in other words, those states that had seceded from the Union. Others argued against such limitations, pointing to a need for the Freedmen's Bureau in the border states where many freedpeople resided.

Those who objected to the bill raised questions about the authority of the different branches of government to enact and enforce such legislation. They asked whether the material needs of freedpeople and refugees were the concern of the states or of the federal government. They challenged the legislature's authority to enact such legislation during peacetime. Opponents claimed that the creation of a permanent, peacetime bureau to protect freedpeople's rights would, in essence, be the creation of a separate judiciary for them.


In the end, both houses of Congress passed S. 60, but President Andrew Johnson vetoed it. Among the concerns raised in his veto message, Johnson claimed that what had originally been a wartime measure would have "no limitation in point of time, but will form a part of the permanent legislation of this country." He argued that the bill would give the Freedmen's Bureau too much power and that it would be too expensive to maintain it. In keeping with his lenient policy of restoring land to white Southerners, Johnson claimed that the bill's land provisions violated the Fifth Amendment right to property. Ultimately, Johnson argued that the Freedmen's Bureau was unnecessary because freedpeople were protected under the Constitution and in the courts of the states and of the nation.

Congress did not override Johnson's veto that day, but six months later, when he vetoed the revised bill (H.R. 613), Congress overrode his veto and passed the law extending the bureau's tenure and expanding its scope. Enacted on July 16, 1866, the new Freedmen's Bureau Act (14 Stat. 173) extended the life of the bureau for two years, provided for the creation of schools, authorized the secretary of war to "issue such medical stores or other supplies and transportation, and afford such medical or other aid," and defined ineligible those who could "find employment, and could, by proper industry or exertion, avoid such destitution, suffering, or dependence." Addressing concerns voiced in both houses of Congress and by the president, the new law did not divide the South into districts, greatly reduced its land provisions, and lowered the cost of the bureau by minimizing its structure.

According to the new law, bureau agents would continue their work to protect from discrimination the freedpeople's "right to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to have full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty, personal security, and the acquisition, enjoyment, and disposition of estate, real and personal, including the constitutional right to bear arms." In addition, the act extended military protection and jurisdiction in states where judicial proceedings had been interrupted by the war only until those states were fully restored in their constitutional relationship to the government and were again represented in Congress.


Although its structure and function were pared down to the barest minimum by the end of 1868, the Freedmen's Bureau operated until June 1872. Historians have long debated the extent to which it was successful and what ultimately was the reason for its failure to fully protect and provide for freedpeople. Some point to President Johnson's explicit efforts to undermine the bureau as well as his lenience toward Southern landowners. Others point to divisions in Congress and concessions that led to legislation inadequate to the task of supporting, funding, and staffing the Freedmen's Bureau and providing freedpeople with access to land. Still others claim that the bureau's downfall was in its day-to-day operations. As these historians see it, the fault rests either with Howard, or with the other employees of the bureau, who in their ambivalence or outright racism did not help freedpeople as much as they could have.

What is clear is that the bureau's potential was great and the tasks it was charged with of great importance. Although it made significant efforts on behalf of freedpeople, when its doors were closed the work of the Freed-men's Bureau remained largely undone.

See also: Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1875; Force Act of 1871; Ku Klux Klan Act.


Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Litwack, Leon. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

Moreno, Paul. "Racial Classifications and Reconstruction Legislation." Journal of Southern History 61, no. 2 (May 1995): 271304.

Nieman, Donald G. To Set the Law in Motion. New York: KTO Press, 1979.

Nieman, Donald G. "Andrew Johnson, the Freedmen's Bureau, and the Problem of Equal Rights, 18651866." In The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Freedom, ed. Donald G. Nieman. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1994.

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson, who was vice president under Abraham Lincoln, assumed the presidency in 1865 when Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson supported a modified version of Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction, but he faced strong opposition from those who felt his policies did not adequately protect the newly won rights of former slaves. Three members of Johnson's cabinet resigned because they disagreed with his positions, and one of the remaining four members, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, also opposed Johnson. In 1866 Johnson vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Act, which provided for temporary aid to former slaves making their transition to freedom, and Congress passed the bill over his veto. The following year Johnson vetoed the Tenure of Office Act, which Congress had designed to keep Stanton in office as his disagreements with Johnson escalatedand Congress once again passed the law over his veto. The Tenure of Office Act stipulated that individuals could only be dismissed from Senate appointments with the consent of the Senate, and that a president seeking to remove such an individual was guilty of a "high misdemeanor." Despite increasing pressure from Johnson, Stanton refused to resign, and Johnson ultimately removed him and appointed Lorenzo Thomas in his place. Three days later, the House of Representatives voted to impeach Johnson for "high crimes and misdemeanors" in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson based his defense on the idea that the Constitution allowed the president to remove cabinet members from office and that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional. The trial and vote were dramatic, with Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa, who had suffered a stroke, carried into the chamber to cast his vote for acquittal. Johnson was acquitted by one vote. He remained in office until 1869, but his battles with Congress rendered him ineffective for the remainder of his term. Johnson was elected to the Senate by Tennessee shortly before his death in 1875.

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Freedmen's Bureau Acts (1865 and 1868)

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