The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations

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

10
"A Full-Fledged Government of Men": Freedmen's Bureau Labor Policy in South Carolina, 1865–1868

James D. Schmidt

WHEN BREVET MAJOR GENERAL ROBERT KINGSTON SCOTT assessed his previous year's work as assistant commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina in early 1867, he used the standard of northern free labor. "That free labor is a success," Scott declared, "there can be no doubt in every instance where it has been tested by practical and fair minded men, who were willing to treat the black men as laborers are treated at the north and in other parts of the country." By invoking the benchmark of northern free labor, the assistant commissioner acted in accord with many other northerners, both in and out of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees and Abandoned Lands. As the work of Eric Foner and other historians has made clear, the Bureau operated primarily as an agent of free-labor ideology, trying to balance out the needs of planters and freedpeople with the assumptions of bourgeois society in the North. By the time of the Civil War, however, those assumptions had come to mean many things for many different groups of people. For some, free labor implied the ownership of productive property, either in the form of land or in the form of a small shop or other petty proprietorship. For others, it meant simple self-ownership, which implied freedom from the will of another and the ability to sell one's labor power freely in the marketplace. For still others, as historians of labor law have uncovered in recent years, free labor implied a set of legal relationships that regulated both the marketplace and the shop floor.1

-219-

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