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8.11.2 Freedmen’s Bureau

Speech by Hon. L. Trumbull of Illinois in the Senate of the United States, January 19, 1866.

Trumbull, Lyman [Washington, H. Polkinhorn & son, printers, 1866]
Library of Congress

Trumbull, Lyman. Freedmen's Bureau. [Washington, H. Polkinhorn & son, printers, 1866] Pdf.

This speech comes from Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull, who supported federal funding of the Freedmen's Bureau. Legislators designed the Freedmen’s Bureau to help freedpeople obtain many necessities after the war: food, clothing, tools, employment, education, and other general support. The Bureau also had the authority to settle disputes and protect freedpeople from discrimination and unfair treatment by white Southerners. It appears that not all of Senator Trumbull’s fellow senators agreed with him about designating federal funding for such a project. What are the different arguments that Trumbull gives for the importance of the Freedmen’s Bureau? What injustices does he say these formerly enslaved people suffered? What does he argue their relationship had been to the US Army (Union) during the Civil War? Does Senator Trumbull see any option other than federal support for freedpeople? What does he fear will happen to these people if the federal government does not offer support?

Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1865 and authorized it to operate with federal support for one year. In Senator Trumbull’s speech, he argues for a bill that would extend the Bureau’s life, and place it under the War Department. Congress passed this bill in early 1866, but President Johnson vetoed it and Congress failed to override the veto by just two votes. The failure to override the veto came down to the fact that some Republican legislators worried about creating an antagonistic relationship with the executive branch. A summer of violence on the part of white southerners who refused to acknowledge equality for their fellow Black citizens, as well as President Johnson’s continued resistance to federal protection for civil rights, prompted Republican legislators to reaffirm their commitment to federal Reconstruction. In July of 1866, Congress passed a new Freedmen’s Bureau bill, which Johnson vetoed and Congress overrode. The Freedmen’s Bureau not only helped with everyday needs of the newly-freed people, but also helped legalize marriages that had begun under slavery and helped Black veterans access backpay and pension payments. The Freedmen’s Bureau established offices throughout the cities of the southern and border states where Black Americans and poor whites could petition the federal agency for assistance. The agency had an overwhelmingly large task, and never enough funding. While it helped many citizens in its several years of operation, it did not begin to meet all the needs of the formerly enslaved, or protect against the many prejudices they faced.

Now, sir, we have thrown upon us four millions of people who have toiled all their lives for others; who, unlike the Indians, had no property at the beginning of the rebellion; who were never permitted to own anything, never permitted to eat the bread their own hands had earned; many of whom are without any means of support, in the midst of a prejudiced and hostile population who have been struggling to overthrow the Government. These four million people, made free by the acts of war and constitutional amendment, have been, wherever they could, loyal and true to the Union; and the Senator seriously asks, what authority have we to appropriate money to take care of them? What would he do with them? Would he allow them to starve and die? Would he turn them over to the mercy of the men who, through their whole lives, have had their earnings, to be enslaved again?