Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era

By Herman Belz | Go to book overview

6
The Freedmen's Bureau Act of 1865 and the Principle of No Discrimination According to Color

FROM THE TIME Benjamin F. Butler issued his famous contraband order of May 1861, that escaped slaves would be employed as military laborers, the Union government was engaged in attempts to deal with the results of emancipation. The culmination of these wartime efforts was the Freedmen's Bureau Act of March 3, 1865. Historically, this measure has been best remembered for its provision assigning forty acres of land to every male freedman. Yet at the time of its passage it contained a civil rights dimension that was as important as, if not more important than, its economic content. The result of two years of legislative deliberation on freedmen's affairs, it was intended to recognize the former slaves as free men with ordinary civil rights.

The principle of no discrimination according to color played a conspicuous part in the formation of the Freedmen's Bureau. Ironically, however, in the shaping of the 1865 act it was not Radicals with a reputation for being the special friends of the freedmen who insisted on this principle, but rather Republicans who sought to uphold the interest of loyal white refugees in the South. These same spokesmen for southern refugees were advocates, moreover, of laissez-faire legal equality as a basic approach to the freedmen's question. Regarding the proposal for a permanent department of freedmen's affairs, advocated by Radicals, as an unwholesome and unsound form of guardianship, they believed that emancipated blacks should be recognized as free men or citizens and, as the phrase had it, left severely alone

____________________
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Civil War History, 21, No. 3 ( September 1975), 197-217.

-138-

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