Careless seems the great Avenger;
History's lessons but record
One death-grapple in the darkness
'Twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above His own.
[On the meaning of the bar of music]
The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, -- the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asiaand Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of thisproblem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South andNorth in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points, of union and localautonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the questionof Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict. Curious it was, too, howthis deeper question
ever forced itself to the surface despite effort and disclaimer. No sooner hadNorthern armies touched Southern soil than this old question, newly guised,sprang from the earth, -- What shall be done with Negroes? Peremptory militarycommands this way and that, could not answer the query; the EmancipationProclamation seemed but to broaden and intensify the difficulties; and the WarAmendments made the Negro problems of to-day.
It is the aim of this essay to study the period ofhistory from 1861 to 1872 so far as it relates to the American Negro. Ineffect, this tale of the dawn of Freedom is an account of that government ofmen called the Freedmen's Bureau, -- one of the most singular and interestingof the attempts made by a great nation to grapple with vast problems of raceand social condition.
The war has naught to do with slaves, cried Congress, thePresident, and the Nation; and yet no sooner had the armies, East and West,penetrated Virginia and Tennessee than fugitive slaves appeared within theirlines. They came at night, when the flickering camp-fires shone like vastunsteady stars along the black horizon: old men and thin, with gray and tuftedhair; women with frightened eyes, dragging whimpering hungry children; men andgirls, stalwart and gaunt, -- a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless,helpless, and pitiable, in their dark distress. Two methods of treating thesenewcomers seemed equally logical to opposite sorts of minds. Ben Butler, inVirginia, quickly declared slave property contraband of war, and put thefugitives to work; while Fremont, in Missouri, declared the slaves free undermartial law. Butler's action was approved, but Fremont's was hastilycountermanded, and his successor, Halleck, saw things differently."Hereafter," he commanded, "no slaves should be allowed to comeinto your lines at all; if any come without your knowledge, when owners callfor them deliver them." Such a policy was difficult to enforce; some ofthe black refugees declared themselves freemen, others showed that theirmasters had deserted them, and still others were captured with forts andplantations. Evidently, too, slaves were a source of strength to theConfederacy, and were being used as laborers and producers. "Theyconstitute a military resource," wrote
Secretary Cameron, late in 1861; "and being such, that they should not beturned over to the enemy is too plain to discuss." So gradually the toneof the army chiefs changed; Congress forbade the rendition of fugitives, andButler's "contrabands" were welcomed as military laborers. Thiscomplicated rather than solved the problem, for now the scattering fugitivesbecame a steady stream, which flowed faster as the armies marched.
Then the long-headed man with care-chiselled face who satin the White House saw the inevitable, and emancipated the slaves of rebels onNew Year's, 1863. A month later Congress called earnestly for the Negrosoldiers whom the act of July, 1862, had half grudgingly allowed to enlist.Thus the barriers were levelled and the deed was done. The stream of fugitivesswelled to a flood, and anxious army officers kept inquiring: "What mustbe done with slaves, arriving almost daily? Are we to find food and shelter forwomen and children?"
It was a Pierce of Boston who pointed out the way, andthus became in a sense the founder of the Freedmen's Bureau. He was a firmfriend of Secretary Chase; and when, in 1861, the care of slaves and abandonedlands devolved upon the Treasury officials, Pierce was specially detailed fromthe ranks to study the conditions. First, he cared for the refugees at FortressMonroe; and then, after Sherman had captured Hilton Head, Pierce was sent thereto found his Port Royal experiment of making free workingmen out of slaves.Before his experiment was barely started, however, the problem of the fugitiveshad assumed such proportions that it was taken from the hands of theover-burdened Treasury Department and given to the army officials. Alreadycentres of massed freedmen were forming at Fortress Monroe, Washington, NewOrleans, Vicksburg and Corinth, Columbus, Ky., and Cairo, Ill., as well as atPort Royal. Army chaplains found here new and fruitful fields;"superintendents of contrabands" multiplied, and some attempt atsystematic work was made by enlisting the able-bodied men and giving work tothe others.
Then came the Freedmen's Aid societies, born of thetouching appeals from Pierce and from these other centres of distress. Therewas the American Missionary Association,
sprung from the Amistad, and now full-grown for work; the various churchorganizations, the National Freedmen's Relief Association, the AmericanFreedmen's Union, the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission, -- in all fifty ormore active organizations, which sent clothes, money, school-books, andteachers southward. All they did was needed, for the destitution of thefreedmen was often reported as "too appalling for belief," and thesituation was daily growing worse rather than better.
And daily, too, it seemed more plain that this was noordinary matter of temporary relief, but a national crisis; for here loomed alabor problem of vast dimensions. Masses of Negroes stood idle, or, if theyworked spasmodically, were never sure of pay; and if perchance they receivedpay, squandered the new thing thoughtlessly. In these and other ways werecamp-life and the new liberty demoralizing the freedmen. The broader economicorganization thus clearly demanded sprang up here and there as accident andlocal conditions determined. Here it was that Pierce's Port Royal plan ofleased plantations and guided workmen pointed out the rough way. In Washingtonthe military governor, at the urgent appeal of the superintendent, openedconfiscated estates to the cultivation of the fugitives, and there in theshadow of the dome gathered black farm villages. General Dix gave over estatesto the freedmen of Fortress Monroe, and so on, South and West. The governmentand benevolent societies furnished the means of cultivation, and the Negroturned again slowly to work. The systems of control, thus started, rapidlygrew, here and there, into strange little governments, like that of GeneralBanks in Louisiana, with its ninety thousand black subjects, its fifty thousandguided laborers, and its annual budget of one hundred thousand dollars andmore. It made out four thousand pay-rolls a year, registered all freedmen,inquired into grievances and redressed them, laid and collected taxes, andestablished a system of public schools. So, too, Colonel Eaton, thesuperintendent of Tennessee and Arkansas, ruled over one hundred thousandfreedmen, leased and cultivated seven thousand acres of cotton land, and fedten thousand paupers a year. In South Carolina was General Saxton, with hisdeep interest in black folk. He
succeeded Pierce and the Treasury officials, and sold forfeited estates, leasedabandoned plantations, encouraged schools, and received from Sherman, afterthat terribly picturesque march to the sea, thousands of the wretched campfollowers.
Three characteristic things one might have seen inSherman's raid through Georgia, which threw the new situation in shadowyrelief: the Conqueror, the Conquered, and the Negro. Some see all significancein the grim front of the destroyer, and some in the bitter sufferers of theLost Cause. But to me neither soldier nor fugitive speaks with so deep ameaning as that dark human cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of thoseswift columns, swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing andchoking them. In vain were they ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn frombeneath their feet; on they trudged and writhed and surged, until they rolledinto Savannah, a starved and naked horde of tens of thousands. There too camethe characteristic military remedy: "The islands from Charleston south,the abandoned rice-fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea,and the country bordering the St. John's River, Florida, are reserved and setapart for the settlement of Negroes now made free by act of war." So readthe celebrated "Field-order Number Fifteen."
All these experiments, orders, and systems were bound toattract and perplex the government and the nation. Directly after theEmancipation Proclamation, Representative Eliot had introduced a bill creatinga Bureau of Emancipation; but it was never reported. The following June acommittee of inquiry, appointed by the Secretary of War, reported in favor of atemporary bureau for the "improvement, protection, and employment ofrefugee freedmen," on much the same lines as were afterwards followed.Petitions came in to President Lincoln from distinguished citizens andorganizations, strongly urging a comprehensive and unified plan of dealing withthe freedmen, under a bureau which should be "charged with the study ofplans and execution of measures for easily guiding, and in every wayjudiciously and humanely aiding, the passage of our emancipated and yet to beemancipated blacks from the old condition of forced labor to their new state ofvoluntary industry."
Some half-hearted steps were taken to accomplish this, in
part, by putting the whole matter again in charge of the special Treasuryagents. Laws of 1863 and 1864 directed them to take charge of and leaseabandoned lands for periods not exceeding twelve months, and to "providein such leases, or otherwise, for the employment and general welfare" ofthe freedmen. Most of the army officers greeted this as a welcome relief fromperplexing "Negro affairs," and Secretary Fessenden, July 29, 1864,issued an excellent system of regulations, which were afterward closelyfollowed by General Howard. Under Treasury agents, large quantities of landwere leased in the Mississippi Valley, and many Negroes were employed; but inAugust, 1864, the new regulations were suspended for reasons of "publicpolicy," and the army was again in control.
Meanwhile Congress had turned its attention to thesubject; and in March the House passed a bill by a majority of two establishinga Bureau for Freedmen in the War Department. Charles Sumner, who had charge ofthe bill in the Senate, argued that freedmen and abandoned lands ought to beunder the same department, and reported a substitute for the House billattaching the Bureau to the Treasury Department. This bill passed, but too latefor action by the House. The debates wandered over the whole policy of theadministration and the general question of slavery, without touching veryclosely the specific merits of the measure in hand. Then the national electiontook place; and the administration, with a vote of renewed confidence from thecountry, addressed itself to the matter more seriously. A conference betweenthe two branches of Congress agreed upon a carefully drawn measure whichcontained the chief provisions of Sumner's bill, but made the proposedorganization a department independent of both the War and the Treasuryofficials. The bill was conservative, giving the new department "generalsuperintendence of all freedmen." Its purpose was to "establishregulations" for them, protect them, lease them lands, adjust their wages,and appear in civil and military courts as their "next friend." Therewere many limitations attached to the powers thus granted, and the organizationwas made permanent. Nevertheless, the Senate defeated the bill, and a newconference committee was appointed. This committee reported a new
bill, February 28, which was whirled through just as the session closed, andbecame the act of 1865 establishing in the War Department a "Bureau ofRefugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands."
This last compromise was a hasty bit of legislation,vague and uncertain in outline. A Bureau was created, "to continue duringthe present War of Rebellion, and for one year thereafter," to which wasgiven "the supervision and management of all abandoned lands and thecontrol of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen," under"such rules and regu- lations as may be presented by the head of theBureau and approved by the President." A Commissioner, appointed by thePresident and Senate, was to control the Bureau, with an office force notexceeding ten clerks. The President might also appoint assistant commissionersin the seceded States, and to all these offices military officials might bedetailed at regular pay. The Secretary of War could issue rations, clothing,and fuel to the destitute, and all abandoned property was placed in the handsof the Bureau for eventual lease and sale to ex-slaves in forty-acre parcels.
Thus did the United States government definitely assumecharge of the emancipated Negro as the ward of the nation. It was a tremendousundertaking. Here at a stroke of the pen was erected a government of millionsof men, -- and not ordinary men either, but black men emasculated by apeculiarly complete system of slavery, centuries old; and now, suddenly,violently, they come into a new birthright, at a time of war and passion, inthe midst of the stricken and embittered population of their former masters.Any man might well have hesitated to assume charge of such a work, with vastresponsibilities, indefinite powers, and limited resources. Probably no one buta soldier would have answered such a call promptly; and, indeed, no one but asoldier could be called, for Congress had appropriated no money for salariesand expenses.
Less than a month after the weary Emancipator passed tohis rest, his successor assigned Major-Gen. Oliver O. Howard to duty asCommissioner of the new Bureau. He was a Maine man, then only thirty-five yearsof age. He had marched with Sherman to the sea, had fought well at Gettysburg,and
but the year before had been assigned to the command of the Department ofTennessee. An honest man, with too much faith in human nature, little aptitudefor business and intricate detail, he had had large opportunity of becomingacquainted at first hand with much of the work before him. And of that work ithas been truly said that "no approximately correct history of civilizationcan ever be written which does not throw out in bold relief, as one of thegreat landmarks of political and social progress, the organization andadministration of the Freedmen's Bureau."
On May 12, 1865, Howard was appointed; and he assumed theduties of his office promptly on the 15th, and began examining the field ofwork. A curious mess he looked upon: little despotisms, communisticexperiments, slavery, peonage, business speculations, organized charity,unorganized almsgiving, -- all reeling on under the guise of helping thefreedmen, and all enshrined in the smoke and blood of the war and the cursingand silence of angry men. On May 19 the new government -- for a government itreally was -- issued its constitution; commissioners were to be appointed ineach of the seceded states, who were to take charge of "all subjectsrelating to refugees and freedmen," and all relief and rations were to begiven by their consent alone. The Bureau invited continued cooperation withbenevolent societies, and declared: "It will be the object of allcommissioners to introduce practicable systems of compensated labor," andto establish schools. Forthwith nine assistant commissioners were appointed.They were to hasten to their fields of work; seek gradually to close reliefestablishments, and make the destitute self-supporting; act as courts of lawwhere there were no courts, or where Negroes were not recognized in them asfree; establish the institution of marriage among ex-slaves, and keep records;see that freedmen were free to choose their employers, and help in making faircontracts for them; and finally, the circular said: "Simple good faith,for which we hope on all hands for those concerned in the passing away ofslavery, will especially relieve the assistant commissioners in the dischargeof their duties toward the freedmen, as well as promote the generalwelfare."
No sooner was the work thus started, and the general
system and local organization in some measure begun, than two gravedifficulties appeared which changed largely the theory and outcome of Bureauwork. First, there were the abandoned lands of the South. It had long been themore or less definitely expressed theory of the North that all the chiefproblems of Emancipation might be settled by establishing the slaves on theforfeited lands of their masters, -- a sort of poetic justice, said some. Butthis poetry done into solemn prose meant either wholesale confiscation ofprivate property in the South, or vast appropriations. Now Congress had notappropriated a cent, and no sooner did the proclamations of general amnestyappear than the eight hundred thousand acres of abandoned lands in the hands ofthe Freedmen's Bureau melted quickly away. The second difficulty lay inperfecting the local organization of the Bureau throughout the wide field ofwork. Making a new machine and sending out officials of duly ascertainedfitness for a great work of social reform is no child's task; but this task waseven harder, for a new central organization had to be fitted on a heterogeneousand confused but already existing system of relief and control of ex-slaves;and the agents available for this work must be sought for in an army still busywith war operations, -- men in the very nature of the case ill fitted fordelicate social work, -- or among the questionable camp followers of aninvading host. Thus, after a year's work, vigorously as it was pushed, theproblem looked even more difficult to grasp and solve than at the beginning.Nevertheless, three things that year's work did, well worth the doing: itrelieved a vast amount of physical suffering; it transported seven thousandfugitives from congested centres back to the farm; and, best of all, itinaugurated the crusade of the New England schoolma'am.
The annals of this Ninth Crusade are yet to be written,-- the tale of a mission that seemed to our age far more quixotic than thequest of St. Louis seemed to his. Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved thecalico dresses of women who dared, and after the hoarse mouthings of the fieldguns rang the rhythm of the alphabet. Rich and poor they were, serious andcurious. Bereaved now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these,they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among thewhite
and black of the South. They did their work well. In that first year theytaught one hundred thousand souls, and more.
Evidently, Congress must soon legislate again on thehastily organized Bureau, which had so quickly grown into wide significance andvast possibilities. An institution such as that was well-nigh as difficult toend as to begin. Early in 1866 Congress took up the matter, when SenatorTrumbull, of Illinois, introduced a bill to extend the Bureau and enlarge itspowers. This measure received, at the hands of Congress, far more thoroughdiscussion and attention than its predecessor. The war cloud had thinned enoughto allow a clearer conception of the work of Emancipation. The champions of thebill argued that the strengthening of the Freedmen's Bureau was still amilitary necessity; that it was needed for the proper carrying out of theThirteenth Amendment, and was a work of sheer justice to the ex-slave, at atrifling cost to the government. The opponents of the measure declared that thewar was over, and the necessity for war measures past; that the Bureau, byreason of its extraordinary powers, was clearly unconstitutional in time ofpeace, and was destined to irritate the South and pauperize the freedmen, at afinal cost of possibly hundreds of millions. These two arguments wereunanswered, and indeed unanswerable: the one that the extraordinary powers ofthe Bureau threatened the civil rights of all citizens; and the other that thegovernment must have power to do what manifestly must be done, and that presentabandonment of the freedmen meant their practical re- enslavement. The billwhich finally passed enlarged and made permanent the Freedmen's Bureau. It waspromptly vetoed by President Johnson as "unconstitutional,""unnecessary," and "extrajudicial," and failed of passageover the veto. Meantime, however, the breach between Congress and the Presidentbegan to broaden, and a modified form of the lost bill was finally passed overthe President's second veto, July 16.
The act of 1866 gave the Freedmen's Bureau its finalform, -- the form by which it will be known to posterity and judged of men. Itextended the existence of the Bureau to July, 1868; it authorized additionalassistant commissioners, the retention of army officers mustered out of regularservice, the sale of certain forfeited lands to freedmen on nominal
terms, the sale of Confederate public property for Negro schools, and a widerfield of judicial interpretation and cognizance. The government of theunreconstructed South was thus put very largely in the hands of the Freedmen'sBureau, especially as in many cases the departmental military commander was nowmade also assistant commissioner. It was thus that the Freedmen's Bureau becamea full-fledged government of men. It made laws, executed them and interpretedthem; it laid and collected taxes, defined and punished crime, maintained andused military force, and dictated such measures as it thought necessary andproper for the accomplishment of its varied ends. Naturally, all these powerswere not exercised continuously nor to their fullest extent; and yet, asGeneral Howard has said, "scarcely any subject that has to be legislatedupon in civil society failed, at one time or another, to demand the action ofthis singular Bureau."
To understand and criticise intelligently so vast a work,one must not forget an instant the drift of things in the later sixties. Leehad surrendered, Lincoln was dead, and Johnson and Congress were atloggerheads; the Thirteenth Amend- ment was adopted, the Fourteenth pending,and the Fifteenth declared in force in 1870. Guerrilla raiding, theever-present flickering after-flame of war, was spending its forces against theNegroes, and all the Southern land was awakening as from some wild dream topoverty and social revolution. In a time of perfect calm, amid willingneighbors and streaming wealth, the social uplifting of four million slaves toan assured and self-sustaining place in the body politic and economic wouldhave been a herculean task; but when to the inherent difficulties of sodelicate and nice a social operation were added the spite and hate of conflict,the hell of war; when suspicion and cruelty were rife, and gaunt Hunger weptbeside Bereavement, -- in such a case, the work of any instrument of socialregeneration was in large part foredoomed to failure. The very name of theBureau stood for a thing in the South which for two centuries and better menhad refused even to argue, -- that life amid free Negroes was simplyunthinkable, the maddest of experiments.
The agents that the Bureau could command varied all theway from unselfish philanthropists to narrow-minded busy-
bodies and thieves; and even though it be true that the aver- age was farbetter than the worst, it was the occasional fly that helped spoil theointment.
Then amid all crouched the freed slave, bewilderedbetween friend and foe. He had emerged from slavery, -- not the worst slaveryin the world, not a slavery that made all life unbearable, rather a slaverythat had here and there something of kindliness, fidelity, and happiness, --but withal slavery, which, so far as human aspiration and desert wereconcerned, classed the black man and the ox together. And the Negro knew fullwell that, whatever their deeper convictions may have been, Southern men hadfought with desperate energy to perpetuate this slavery under which the blackmasses, with half-articulate thought, had writhed and shivered. They welcomedfreedom with a cry. They shrank from the master who still strove for theirchains; they fled to the friends that had freed them, even though those friendsstood ready to use them as a club for driving the recalcitrant South back intoloyalty. So the cleft between the white and black South grew. Idle to say itnever should have been; it was as inevitable as its results were pitiable.Curiously incongruous elements were left arrayed against each other, -- theNorth, the government, the carpet-bagger, and the slave, here; and there, allthe South that was white, whether gentleman or vagabond, honest man or rascal,lawless murderer or martyr to duty.
Thus it is doubly difficult to write of this periodcalmly, so intense was the feeling, so mighty the human passions that swayedand blinded men. Amid it all, two figures ever stand to typify that day tocoming ages, -- the one, a gray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quitthemselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves; who bowed to the evilof slavery because its abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood atlast, in the evening of life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes;-- and the other, a form hovering dark and mother- like, her awful face blackwith the mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white master'scommand, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, andclosed in death the sunken eyes of his wife, -- aye, too, at his behest hadlaid herself low to his lust, and borne a tawny man-child to the world, only tosee her dark boy's limbs scattered to the
winds by midnight marauders riding after "damned Nig- gers." Thesewere the saddest sights of that woful day; and no man clasped the hands ofthese two passing figures of the present-past; but, hating, they went to theirlong home, and, hating, their children's children live today.
Here, then, was the field of work for the Freedmen'sBureau; and since, with some hesitation, it was continued by the act of 1868until 1869, let us look upon four years of its work as a whole. There were, in1868, nine hundred Bureau officials scattered from Washington to Texas, ruling,directly and indirectly, many millions of men. The deeds of these rulers fallmainly under seven heads: the relief of physical suffering, the overseeing ofthe beginnings of free labor, the buying and selling of land, the establishmentof schools, the paying of bounties, the administration of justice, and thefinanciering of all these activities.
Up to June, 1869, over half a million patients had beentreated by Bureau physicians and surgeons, and sixty hospi- tals and asylumshad been in operation. In fifty months twenty- one million free rations weredistributed at a cost of over four million dollars. Next came the difficultquestion of labor. First, thirty thousand black men were transported from therefuges and relief stations back to the farms, back to the critical trial of anew way of working. Plain instructions went out from Washington: the laborersmust be free to choose their employers, no fixed rate of wages was prescribed,and there was to be no peonage or forced labor. So far, so good; but wherelocal agents differed toto caelo in capacity and character, where thepersonnel was continually changing, the outcome was necessarily varied.The largest element of suc- cess lay in the fact that the majority of thefreedmen were willing, even eager, to work. So labor contracts were written, --fifty thousand in a single State, -- laborers advised, wages guaranteed, andemployers supplied. In truth, the organiza- tion became a vast labor bureau, --not perfect, indeed, notably defective here and there, but on the wholesuccessful beyond the dreams of thoughtful men. The two great obstacles whichconfronted the officials were the tyrant and the idler, -- the slaveholder whowas determined to perpetuate slavery under
another name; and, the freedman who regarded freedom as perpetual rest, -- theDevil and the Deep Sea.
In the work of establishing the Negroes as peasantproprietors, the Bureau was from the first handicapped and at last absolutelychecked. Something was done, and larger things were planned; abandoned landswere leased so long as they remained in the hands of the Bureau, and a totalrevenue of nearly half a million dollars derived from black tenants. Some otherlands to which the nation had gained title were sold on easy terms, and publiclands were opened for settlement to the very few freedmen who had tools andcapital. But the vision of "forty acres and a mule" -- the righteousand reasonable ambition to become a landholder, which the nation had all butcategorically promised the freedmen -- was destined in most cases to bitterdisappointment. And those men of marvellous hindsight who are today seeking topreach the Negro back to the present peonage of the soil know well, or ought toknow, that the opportunity of binding the Negro peasant willingly to the soilwas lost on that day when the Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau had to goto South Carolina and tell the weeping freedmen, after their years of toil,that their land was not theirs, that there was a mistake -- somewhere. If by1874 the Georgia Negro alone owned three hundred and fifty thousand acres ofland, it was by grace of his thrift rather than by bounty of the government.
The greatest success of the Freedmen's Bureau lay in theplanting of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementaryeducation among all classes in the South. It not only called theschool-mistresses through the benevolent agencies and built them schoolhouses,but it helped discover and support such apostles of human culture as EdmundWare, Samuel Armstrong, and Erastus Cravath. The opposition to Negro educationin the South was at first bitter, and showed itself in ashes, insult, andblood; for the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. Andthe South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always hashad, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, ofdissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know. Perhaps someinkling of this paradox, even in the unquiet days of the Bureau, helped thebayonets
allay an opposition to human training which still to-day lies smouldering inthe South, but not flaming. Fisk, Atlanta, Howard, and Hampton were founded inthese days, and six million dollars were expended for educational work, sevenhundred and fifty thousand dollars of which the freedmen themselves gave oftheir poverty.
Such contributions, together with the buying of land andvarious other enterprises, showed that the ex-slave was handling some freecapital already. The chief initial source of this was labor in the army, andhis pay and bounty as a soldier. Payments to Negro soldiers were at firstcomplicated by the ignorance of the recipients, and the fact that the quotas ofcolored regiments from Northern States were largely filled by recruits from theSouth, unknown to their fellow soldiers. Consequently, payments wereaccompanied by such frauds that Congress, by joint resolution in 1867, put thewhole matter in the hands of the Freedmen's Bureau. In two years six milliondollars was thus distributed to five thousand claimants, and in the end the sumexceeded eight million dollars. Even in this system fraud was frequent; butstill the work put needed capital in the hands of practical paupers, and some,at least, was well spent.
The most perplexing and least successful part of theBureau's work lay in the exercise of its judicial functions. The regular Bureaucourt consisted of one representative of the employer, one of the Negro, andone of the Bureau. If the Bureau could have maintained a perfectly judicialattitude, this arrangement would have been ideal, and must in time have gainedconfidence; but the nature of its other activities and the character of itspersonnel prejudiced the Bureau in favor of the black litigants, and ledwithout doubt to much injustice and annoyance. On the other hand, to leave theNegro in the hands of Southern courts was impossible. In a distracted landwhere slavery had hardly fallen, to keep the strong from wanton abuse of theweak, and the weak from gloating insolently over the half-shorn strength of thestrong, was a thankless, hopeless task. The former masters of the land wereperemptorily ordered about, seized, and imprisoned, and punished over andagain, with scant courtesy from army officers. The former slaves wereintimidated, beaten,
raped, and butchered by angry and revengeful men. Bureau courts tended tobecome centres simply for punishing whites, while the regular civil courtstended to become solely institu- tions for perpetuating the slavery of blacks.Almost every law and method ingenuity could devise was employed by thelegislatures to reduce the Negroes to serfdom, -- to make them the slaves ofthe State, if not of individual owners; while the Bureau officials too oftenwere found striving to put the "bottom rail on top," and gave thefreedmen a power and independence which they could not yet use. It is all wellenough for us of another generation to wax wise with advice to those who borethe burden in the heat of the day. It is full easy now to see that the man wholost home, fortune, and family at a stroke, and saw his land ruled by"mules and niggers," was really benefited by the passing of slavery.It is not difficult now to say to the young freedman, cheated and cuffed aboutwho has seen his father's head beaten to a jelly and his own mother namelesslyassaulted, that the meek shall inherit the earth. Above all, nothing is moreconvenient than to heap on the Freedmen's Bureau all the evils of that evilday, and damn it utterly for every mistake and blunder that was made.
All this is easy, but it is neither sensible nor just.Someone had blundered, but that was long before Oliver Howard was born; therewas criminal aggression and heedless neglect, but without some system ofcontrol there would have been far more than there was. Had that control beenfrom within, the Negro would have been re-enslaved, to all intents and pur-poses. Coming as the control did from without, perfect men and methods wouldhave bettered all things; and even with imperfect agents and questionablemethods, the work accom- plished was not undeserving of commendation.
Such was the dawn of Freedom; such was the work of theFreedmen's Bureau, which, summed up in brief, may be epitomized thus: for somefifteen million dollars, beside the sums spent before 1865, and the dole ofbenevolent societies, this Bureau set going a system of free labor, establisheda beginning of peasant proprietorship, secured the recognition of blackfreedmen before courts of law, and founded the free common school in the South.On the other hand, it failed to
begin the establishment of good-will between ex-masters and freedmen, to guardits work wholly from paternalistic methods which discouraged self-reliance, andto carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish thefreedmen with land. Its successes were the result of hard work, supplemented bythe aid of philanthropists and the eager striving of black men. Its failureswere the result of bad local agents, the inherent difficulties of the work, andnational neglect.
Such an institution, from its wide powers, greatresponsibilities, large control of moneys, and generally conspicuous position,was naturally open to repeated and bitter attack. It sustained a searchingCongressional investigation at the instance of Fernando Wood in 1870. Itsarchives and few remaining functions were with blunt discourtesy transferredfrom Howard's control, in his absence, to the supervision of Secretary of WarBelknap in 1872, on the Secretary's recommendation. Finally, in consequence ofgrave intimations of wrong-doing made by the Secretary and his subordinates,General Howard was court-martialed in 1874. In both of these trials theCommissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau was officially exonerated from any wilfulmisdoing, and his work commended. Nevertheless, many unpleasant things werebrought to light, -- the methods of transacting the business of the Bureau werefaulty; several cases of defalcation were proved, and other frauds stronglysuspected; there were some business transactions which savored of dangerousspecula- tion, if not dishonesty; and around it all lay the smirch of theFreedmen's Bank.
Morally and practically, the Freedmen's Bank was part ofthe Freedmen's Bureau, although it had no legal connection with it. With theprestige of the government back of it, and a directing board of unusualrespectability and national reputation, this banking institution had made aremarkable start in the development of that thrift among black folk whichslavery had kept them from knowing. Then in one sad day came the crash, -- allthe hard-earned dollars of the freedmen disappeared; but that was the least ofthe loss, -- all the faith in saving went too, and much of the faith in men;and that was a loss that a Nation which to-day sneers at Negro shiftlessnesshas never yet made good. Not even ten additional years of
slavery could have done so much to throttle the thrift of the freedmen as themismanagement and bankruptcy of the series of savings banks chartered by theNation for their especial aid. Where all the blame should rest, it is hard tosay; whether the Bureau and the Bank died chiefly by reason of the blows of itsselfish friends or the dark machinations of its foes, perhaps even time willnever reveal, for here lies unwritten history.
Of the foes without the Bureau, the bitterest were thosewho attacked not so much its conduct or policy under the law as the necessityfor any such institution at all. Such attacks came primarily from the BorderStates and the South; and they were summed up by Senator Davis, of Kentucky,when he moved to entitle the act of 1866 a bill "to promote strife andconflict between the white and black races . . . by a grant of unconstitutionalpower." The argument gathered tremendous strength South and North; but itsvery strength was its weakness. For, argued the plain common-sense of thenation, if it is unconstitutional, unpractical, and futile for the nation tostand guardian over its helpless wards, then there is left but one alternative,-- to make those wards their own guardians by arming them with the ballot.Moreover, the path of the practical politician pointed the same way; for,argued this opportunist, if we cannot peacefully reconstruct the South withwhite votes, we certainly can with black votes. So justice and force joinedhands.
The alternative thus offered the nation was not betweenfull and restricted Negro suffrage; else every sensible man, black and white,would easily have chosen the latter. It was rather a choice between suffrageand slavery, after endless blood and gold had flowed to sweep human bondageaway. Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro, under anyconditions, to the polls; not a single Southern legislature believed free Negrolabor was possible without a system of restrictions that took all its freedomaway; there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regardEmancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a duty. In such asituation, the granting of the ballot to the black man was a necessity, thevery least a guilty nation could grant a wronged race, and the only method ofcompelling the South
to accept the results of the war. Thus Negro suffrage ended a civil war bybeginning a race feud. And some felt gratitude toward the race thus sacrificedin its swaddling clothes on the altar of national integrity; and some felt andfeel only indifference and contempt.
Had political exigencies been less pressing, theopposition to government guardianship of Negroes less bitter, and theattachment to the slave system less strong, the social seer can well imagine afar better policy, -- a permanent Freedmen's Bureau, with a national system ofNegro schools; a carefully supervised employment and labor office; a system ofimpartial protection before the regular courts; and such institutions forsocial betterment as savings-banks, land and building associations, and socialsettlements. All this vast expenditure of money and brains might have formed agreat school of prospective citizenship, and solved in a way we have not yetsolved the most perplexing and persistent of the Negro problems.
That such an institution was unthinkable in 1870 was duein part to certain acts of the Freedmen's Bureau itself. It came to regard itswork as merely temporary, and Negro suffrage as a final answer to all presentperplexities. The political ambition of many of its agents and protegesled it far afield into questionable activities, until the South, nursing itsown deep prejudices, came easily to ignore all the good deeds of the Bureau andhate its very name with perfect hatred. So the Freedmen's Bureau died, and itschild was the Fifteenth Amendment.
The passing of a great human institution before its workis done, like the untimely passing of a single soul, but leaves a legacy ofstriving for other men. The legacy of the Freedmen's Bureau is the heavyheritage of this generation. To-day, when new and vaster problems are destinedto strain every fibre of the national mind and soul, would it not be well tocount this legacy honestly and carefully? For this much all men know: despitecompromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free. In the backwoods of theGulf States, for miles and miles, he may not leave the plantation of his birth;in well-nigh the whole rural South the black farmers are peons, bound by lawand custom to an economic slavery, from which the only
escape is death or the penitentiary. In the most cultured sections and citiesof the South the Negroes are a segregated servile caste, with restricted rightsand privileges. Before the courts, both in law and custom, they stand on adifferent and peculiar basis. Taxation without representation is the rule oftheir political life. And the result of all this is, and in nature must havebeen, lawlessness and crime. That is the large legacy of the Freedmen's Bureau,the work it did not do because it could not.
I have seen a land right merry with the sun, wherechildren sing, and rolling hills lie like passioned women wanton with harvest.And there in the King's Highways sat and sits a figure veiled and bowed, bywhich the traveller's footsteps hasten as they go. On the tainted air broodsfear. Three centuries' thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowedhuman heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed. Theproblem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.