Too Great a Burden to Bear: The Struggle and Failure of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas

Too Great a Burden to Bear: The Struggle and Failure of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas

Too Great a Burden to Bear: The Struggle and Failure of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas

Too Great a Burden to Bear: The Struggle and Failure of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas

Synopsis

In its brief seven-year existence, the Freedmen's Bureau became the epicenter of the debate about Reconstruction. Historians have only recently begun to focus on the Bureau's personnel in Texas, the individual agents termed the "hearts of Reconstruction." Specifically addressing the historiographical debates concerning the character of the Bureau and its sub-assistant commissioners (SACs), Too Great a Burden to Bear sheds new light on the work and reputation of these agents.
Focusing on the agents on a personal level, author Christopher B. Bean reveals the type of man Bureau officials believed qualified to oversee the Freedpeople's transition to freedom. This work shows that each agent, moved by his sense of fairness and ideas of citizenship, gender, and labor, represented the agency's policy in his subdistrict. These men further ensured the former slaves' right to an education and right of mobility, something they never had while in bondage.

Excerpt

Few eras in American history have a more profound and lasting imprint on this country as the decade or so that followed the Civil War. Reconstruction, as it’s called, was an attempt to wipe away the vestiges of slavery and to reintegrate the former Confederate states into their normal places in the Union. By infusing the ideals of “free men, free soil, and free labor,” Republicans hoped to shape the South in the image of the victorious North, with all remnants of the old order erased. Central to this restructuring was an organization created with much hope and optimism. Passed on March 3, 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau, was the first federal social-welfare organization. Functioning under the War Department, it operated in all the former Confederacy and slave states. According to historian John A. Carpenter, the “fact that the Freedmen’s Bureau existed at all was a miracle.” It had a multipurpose task: easing the transition of the freedpeople from servitude to freedom; implanting republican ideals of democracy and free labor in the ashes of the “peculiar institution;” and preventing any further attempts to break up the Union.

Legislators wrestled with exactly how to empower it. While some worried the organization might create a permanent dependent class, others feared it might disrupt federalism. A few, however, prophesied the agency becoming a tool to control freed votes, with its agents being “overseers” and “negro drivers,” who might “re-enslave” the emancipated. Still others doubted its constitutionality. With little consensus on how to address the needs of the former slaves, Congress was essentially experimenting. Congressman Robert C. Schenk of Ohio best summarized it as “experimental legislation,” continuing with,

it is better, from the very nature of the case, as it is a matter which relates to
an emergency, to a necessity, to an accident, as it were of the times and the
condition of the war in which we are, that the system should build itself up

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