Go to the homepage...

Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction // The Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights Bills

As soon as the 39th Congress convened on December 4, 1865, Republicans proposed numerous legal and constitutional remedies to curb the political power of ex-Confederates and protect the civil rights of the ex-slaves.  The two most important pieces of legislation were the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill. 

Earlier in the year, on March 3, 1865, Congress had passed the first Freedmen’s Bureau Act.  It created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, within the War Department.  The new federal agency provided relief to ex-slaves and other war refugees in the form of temporary shelter, food, fuel, and other basic provisions, assistance in labor-contract negotiation, the establishment of schools, and similar services.  The December 23, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly profiled the Freedmen’s Bureau in Richmond, Virginia.  The article briefly described the distribution of rations and the functioning of the court.  The last paragraph listed the offices in the building, a sketch of which appeared on another page of the issue.

However, Congress had provided the Freedmen’s Bureau with no funding, which forced it to draw from the War Department’s existing budget, and had set the agency to expire a year later on March 3, 1866.  Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, devoted time to reading reports on the situation in the post-war South and to understanding the operations of the Freedmen’s Bureau through discussions with the agency’s commissioner, General Oliver O. Howard.  On January 5, 1866, Trumbull introduced a bill to extend the life and expand the powers of the Freedmen’s Bureau.  It was referred to his Judiciary Committee, where an amended version was reported to the full Senate six days later.  The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill allocated direct funding for the agency, granted its military courts the authority to try all cases involving the denial of civil rights “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and imposed penalties of a $1000 fine and/or a year in prison on state officials who denied such civil rights.  Those regulations applied only to unreconstructed states of the former Confederacy.

Trumbull’s Civil Rights Bill was also reported from his Judiciary Committee to the full Senate on January 11, 1866.  It was the first legislative attempt to give meaning to the freedom conferred by the Thirteenth Amendment’s abolition of slavery, and was based on authority granted by the Thirteenth Amendment’s enforcement clause (which Trumbull had authored), “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”  The proposed law made it a federal crime, punishable by fine and imprisonment, to deprive any person of his or her civil rights.  Judicial authority over the act was assigned to the federal courts.  On February 1, Trumbull successfully added a citizenship clause to the measure.  The Civil Rights Bill granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States (except untaxed Indians), and guaranteed them equal rights under the law. 

Harper's Weekly References

1)  December 23, 1865, p. 811
article, “The Freedmen’s Bureau at Richmond, Virginia”

2)  December 23, 1865, p. 813
illustration (top), “The Freedmen’s Bureau at Richmond, Virginia”

3)  January 27, 1866, p. 51, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

4)  February 17, 1866, p. 99, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

Go to the homepage...

Congressional Joint Committee on Reconstruction // The Freedmen's Bureau and Civil Rights Bills






Website design © 2001-2005 HarpWeek, LLC & Caesar Chaves Design
All Content © 1998-2005 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to