The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations

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

4
"One of the Most Appreciated
Labors of the Bureau":
The Freedmen's Bureau and
the Southern Homestead Act

Michael L. Lanza

ON JUNE 21, 1866, President Andrew Johnson signed the Southern Homestead Act. It opened up 46 million acres of public lands in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi to actual settlement and specified that applicants could not be discriminated against on the basis of color. The law thus sits squarely at the core of the era's crucial issues concerning land and labor. Questions of land ownership, freedmen's rights, and punishment of Confederates commingled with nineteenth-century assumptions about agrarianism, private property, and the Protestant work ethic.

Freedpeople believed that control of their own land and labor would provide them with the foundation necessary for controlling their own lives and providing for themselves and their families. These assumptions were at the heart of the free labor ideology, part of which emphasized independence founded on land ownership. Another strain emphasized the complementary interests of capital and labor. The realities of freedom demonstrated the conflicts in these two strains: the expectations of white and black, employer and employee, were generally antithetical. The failure of the Southern Homestead Act can be blamed primarily on the power struggle to control the South's land and labor resources. That struggle was simply not one of capital against labor or the haves against the havenots; at its heart was the issue of race and the history of the inequality of capital and labor that permeated southern history.1

-67-

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