A Failed Mission: The Freedmen’s Bureau

President Lincoln established the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission to provide an understanding of what it would take for a positive transition from slavery to freedom for African Americans. In 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established and authorized for one year.

From the beginning, the Bureau was doomed to fail. Congress provided the Bureau with no funding, so War Department funds were used to support it. Since the only federal presence in former slave-holding areas was military, the Bureau took on a military flavor, with a general selected to head it.

Further complicating the work of the Bureau was Black Codes passed by southern legislatures. These codes essentially reestablished slave-like conditions for African Americans.

The Bureau did some good, most notably in teaching basic literacy, reconnecting families, providing legal counsel, and advocating for equitable pay arrangements. However, the Bureau had far too few staff to deal with the intensity of the challenge it faced.

When Congress renewed the authorization for the Bureau in 1866, President Johnson vetoed the authorizing legislation. His veto was overridden, and the Bureau continued in operation. However, funding continued to be a problem, and staff shortages worsened.

With the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans and employees of the Bureau came under attack. The Bureau ceased to exist in 1872.

The most significant accomplishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau was education. Schools were established for African Americans. But the source of funding for these schools became a source of continued animosity. Former Confederate property was seized and used to fund the schools. As African Americans took advantage of the educational opportunities available to them, colleges were also created.

Other missions of the Bureau were less successful. When we think of the result of the Union victory in the Civil War, we think that the lives of slaves as being substantially better. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Just imagine how the arguments which doomed the Freedmen’s Bureau remain today. The primary argument against the Bureau was that it would foster a life of dependence. That’s the same argument used today against programs in support of citizens who are facing life struggles.

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“Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellow-men.”- Mahatma Gandhi

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