On March 3, 1865, Congress passed “An Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees” to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical services, and land to displaced Southerners, including newly freed African Americans. The Freedmen’s Bureau was to operate “during the present war of rebellion, and for one year thereafter,” and also established schools, supervised contracts between freedmen and employers, and managed confiscated or abandoned lands. The battle to establish the Freedmen’s Bureau, and then to extend the legislation one year later, was a major factor in the struggle between President Andrew Johnson and Radical Republicans in Congress over Reconstruction and the role of the federal government in integrating four million newly emancipated African Americans into the political life of the nation.
In 1863 Representative T. D. Eliot of Massachusetts proposed a bill establishing a bureau of emancipation within the Department of War to provide protection and support to newly freed African Americans. Freedmen aid societies had been advocating for such an agency through memorials, petitions, and direct lobbying. The House spent two months debating the bill and finally passed it by a vote of 69 to 67 on March 1, 1864. The bill was then referred to the Senate’s Select Committee on Slavery and Freedom, chaired by Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
Senate debate on the bill focused on which executive department should run the bureau. Some senators objected to placing the Freedmen’s Bureau in the Department of War, favoring the Department of the Treasury instead. Insisting that the well-being of freedmen depended on their connection to the land, these senators noted that Congress had placed control of confiscated lands in the Treasury Department and argued that freedmen and lands should be handled by one authority. Senators who favored the War Department believed it had more experience than any other agency in addressing the needs of freedmen and thought military power was necessary to protect former slaves.
Despite the fact that an amended bill would have to go back the House—where it had narrowly passed before—the Senate placed the bureau under the Treasury department and passed its amended Freedman’s Bureau bill on June 28, 1864, by a vote of 21 to 9. The House refused to agree to the Senate’s changes, however, so the bill went to conference. The conference committee reported a new bill on February 2, 1865, authorizing an independent Department of Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, not subject to either the War or the Treasury Departments.
The revised legislation stirred more debate. In addition to the issue of which department should control the Freedmen’s Bureau, senators disputed the role of the federal government in providing special treatment to a specific group of people at the exclusion of others. Some senators argued that the Freedmen’s Bureau would make former slaves and Southern refugees dependent on government bureaucrats who might take advantage of them. It would, in effect, prolong their servitude, Iowa senator James Grimes claimed. “Are they free men, or are they not? If they are free men, why not let them stand as free men?” he asked. Senator Sumner countered that assistance was a necessity during the transition from slavery to freedom. “The curse of slavery is still upon them,” he insisted. “Call it charity or duty,” he said, regarding the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau, “it is sacred as humanity.”
Ultimately, the Senate voted not to concur with the conference report and requested a second conference, which agreed to place control of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in the War Department. Although several senators vociferously opposed the legislation, the Senate adopted the conference report on March 3, 1865, by a vote of 21 to 9, with 22 members abstaining. The House quickly followed suit, and President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill that same day. A little more than a month later, President Lincoln was assassinated, and Vice President Andrew Johnson, who would repeatedly clash with Radical Republicans in the House and Senate, assumed the presidency.
While the Act creating the Freedmen’s Bureau was a considerable legislative accomplishment, it limited the agency’s operation to just one year after the end of the Civil War. On January 5, 1866, Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull introduced a bill to extend the provisions of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act by removing an expiration date and encompassing freedmen and refugees everywhere in the United States—not just in the ex-Confederate states. His bill also expanded the power of military governors to enforce provisions to protect African Americans and defined the organization of interim governments in the South under conditions prescribed by Congress. For nearly three weeks the Senate debated the bill and on January 25, approved it by a vote of 37 to 10. After House approval, the bill went to the president’s desk on February 13. Supporters of the legislation, including Lyman Trumbull, believed President Andrew Johnson would sign the bill, so they were shocked when he sent the bill back to the Senate on February 19 with a veto message. Johnson’s stated reasons for opposing the legislation were similar to the arguments made by the measure’s opponents in the House and Senate—it was unnecessary to extend the original legislation, it infringed on states’ rights, it gave the federal government an unprecedented role in providing aid to a specific group of people at the exclusion of others, and it was expensive. Johnson had resisted all congressionally driven reconstruction programs and denounced those who stood “opposed to the restoration of the Union.” He viewed the Southern states as fully restored and thus “entitled to enjoy their constitutional rights as members of the Union.” Democrats and moderate Republicans supported the president’s position, and a vote to override the veto the next day failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote.
The issue floundered until May, when a more moderate House bill to extend the Freedmen’s Bureau was proposed. This final bill gained approval by both the House and the Senate and went to the president on July 3. Again, President Johnson vetoed the bill. This time, however, both the Senate and the House mustered the two-thirds majorities necessary to override the veto. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866 became law on July 16, extending the work of the agency for two more years.