Freedmen's Bureau Bill

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Summary and Analysis

In 1863, progressive Republican Representative T. D. Eliot conceived of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Emancipation Proclamation had been passed, officially freeing all slaves across the South. There was now a population of vulnerable freedmen—newly freed slaves—seeking security and escape in a hostile region. Eliot and his fellow Republican lawmakers worked to establish a bureau that could protect and assist these nearly four million freedmen.

Congress’s efforts to pass the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill were slowed by a series of obstacles. Throughout 1864, the bill was passed around Congress, receiving feedback and, at times, discouragement. The most pressing task the bill’s backers faced was to decide which department of the federal government would house the Freedmen’s Bureau. After much debate, the War Department (today called the Department of Defense) emerged as the best option. Finally, in March of 1865, the bill was passed in both houses and signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

However, the victory was soon eclipsed by Lincoln’s assassination, the instatement of Andrew Johnson—a conservative Democrat—in the oval office, and the nearing termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was only allotted one year of existence after the end of the Civil War. In 1866, Republican lawmakers banded together again to keep the bureau alive. Through the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866, which was passed despite Johnson’s veto, Congress succeeded in securing the bureau’s continued operation until 1872, when funding for the bureau dried up.

The Summary of the Bill

  • Section 1 of the bill establishes the Freedmen’s Bureau, detailing its term of operation (one year after the end of the war), stating its responsibility (overseeing abandoned Southern lands and assisting freedmen), and proposing the instatement of a commissioner, to be selected by the president.
  • Section 2 equips the Secretary of War with the power to assign resources and staff to the various projects and operations of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
  • Section 3 grants the president the power to install bureau commissioners to oversee specific states in the union. The section further allows the president to assign military troops to assist Freedmen’s Bureau commissioners.
  • Section 4 allows the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau to seize abandoned lands and rent them to freedmen at a discounted rate. These freedmen are given the option to later purchase the land from the bureau.
  • Section 5 delegitimizes “all acts and parts of acts inconsistent with the provisions of this act,” securing the validity of the Freedmen’s Bureau and warding off any legal attempts to strip it of its powers.

The Bureau in Action

Over its seven-year tenure, the Freedmen’s Bureau...

(The entire section is 657 words.)