The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations

By Paul A. Cimbala; Randall M. Miller | Go to book overview

2
Andrew Johnson and the
Freedmen's Bureau

Hans L. Trefousse

ANDREW JOHNSON'S HOSTILITY to the Freedmen's Bureau has long been recognized; leading historians—LaWanda and John H. Cox, Donald G. Nieman, Paul A. Cimbala, and William S. McFeely, to mention but a few—have all commented on it.1 What is less well documented, however, is the reason why the president chose the Bureau to break with the Republican/Union Party by vetoing a bill for its continuance that was prepared by Senator Lyman Trumbull. Trumbull was a leading Republican moderate, with whom Johnson otherwise well might have made common cause against the radical Republicans. A minority even within their own party, the radicals could hardly have succeeded had not Johnson totally alienated the moderates. His break with the organization that elected him was one of the crucial decisions of his administration, for whatever else may be said about him, he was not a passive president who merely reacted to pressure. He carefully planned his policies, and his dealings with the Freedmen's Bureau are examples.

In order to examine Johnson's action, it is first necessary to recall the history of the Freedmen's Bureau, or, as it was officially called, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Congress established the Bureau during the last months of Abraham Lincoln's administration and placed it in the War Department for the duration of the conflict and for one year thereafter, "for the supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel States, or from any district of country within the territory embraced in the operations of the army, under rules approved by the President." With a commissioner paid $3,000 a year and an assistant commissioner for

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