February 3rd, 2016
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February 9, 1865
The Freedmen’s Bureau The Bills Before Congress To-day.
A measure of far-reaching influence and importance to the colored race and to the country comes up before Congress to-day — Mr. ELIOT’S bill for the establishment of a “Freedmen’s Bureau,” or, in other words, of a separate department of Government, controlling the interests of millions of human beings in the future. The new bill is a compound of the two bills — the House and the Senate — which have been up before for the settlement of this difficult matter. It has been framed mainly by Senators HOWARD and SUMNER, and Messrs. ELIOT and KELLEY, of the House.
In point of fact, this measure, if passed, will found an imperium in imperio, a separate department, responsible alone to the President, and supported by military power from him, to take charge of the abandoned and forfeited lands of the rebels, settle them with freedmen, guard the interests of these latter, aid in adjusting wages, in enforcing contracts, and in protecting these unfortunate people from injustice, and securing them their liberty. The commissioner of the bureau and his agents shall have power to establish regulations, and cause them to be enforced, for the protection of this great class, and before any civil or military court they shall act as their legal advisers. In certain cases, they can hire out the freedmen with suitable persons at a proper compensation. The assistant commissioners and agents can, under certain specified conditions, be tried by courts-martial in their respective districts.
This bill, as will be seen even in this very brief abstract, is of vast consequence. It provides a government in the future for millions of blacks, and disposes of hundreds of millions of property. So important a measure, wherein so many difficulty questions of economy and politics are settled, and involving such immense consequences, ought not to be passed in a hurry.
The problem is one of the most refined in social administration. To protect an inferior race and not sap its independence; to govern an ignorant but a most honest and deserving population; to provide against the wrongs which, in the future, the overreaching shrewdness of the Northerners and the habits of oppression of the Southerners may inflict on the freed slaves; to preserve and guard labor, secure production and repress idleness.
All these are difficult objects to attain, and we might well frame many Congressional bills before they could be reached. Manifestly, when peace is finally concluded, the United States will have a new kind of political task before it — the securing future peace in the insurgent territory, and the enforcing the laws of Congress in a dissatisfied and disobedient community. The protection, then, of the freedmen, and the best development of their labor, will appeal to both the honor and the interests of the nation. But in the meantime, we do not think the Government is fully prepared for a separate administration of the freedmen. At the present, it seems to us more wise that this bureau should be a bureau of the War Department. All the machinery is at hand for the purpose; the power, the instrumentalities, courts, officers, systems of supply and fixed rules. There would be no clashing of military authorities; the country to be settled by the freedmen is now held by the war power, and the summary authority of the latter is a benefit in such matters as the management of the interests of freed slaves. Looking merely at persons, to no public man could the fate of the freedmen be so safely trusted as to the present Secretary of War.
We hold then Mr. ELIOT’s bill defective in not making this bureau a branch of the War Department. Its provisions need also more careful revision than they have yet enjoyed at the hands of the two Houses. The fifth section seems at first reading to include “all the real estate to which the United States have title,” which would give the Freedmen’s Bureau control over all public lands; but this may be limited by the previous sections, to the rebel States. The thirteenth section also includes a repeal of the joint resolution of Congress, July, 1862, by which confiscation was limited to the life-estate in land of the traitor. This is too important a measure to be inclosed with a Freedman’s Bill. The President himself is known to have caused the passage of this joint resolution, and a repeal of it in this law would not certainly add to the probabilities of his signing the present bill. Besides, the question of amnesty and the whole matter of confiscation, ought to come up in other connections, and be discussed by themselves.
We trust that Congress will give this grave matter thorough consideration before taking action upon it. Mr. ELIOT’s bill, beside being open to the serious objections already made, is cumbersome, divergent, impracticable and ineffective in many of its details. The concise bill of Mr. SCHENCK, which we print elsewhere, is much more satisfactory in character and principle, though that also requires a revision of some of its features.