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Freedmen's Bureau Bill // Civil Rights Bill

In the January 27, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published January 17), editor George William Curtis characterized General Ulysses S. Grant’s assurance of a continued federal military presence in the South and the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill to be twin parts of “A Long Step Forward” in the reconstruction of the nation.  In particular, Curtis emphasized that the bill’s promised allocation of unoccupied land to ex-slaves would let them attain economic independence and viability, which, in turn, would lead to political rights.  (In reality, the ex-slaves received little land, so that most remained economically dependent on their former masters, the white plantation owners.)  The editor was also confident that Congress and President Johnson would approve the legislation.  His prediction was half right.   

On January 25, 1866, the Senate passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill 37-10, with all favorable votes cast by Republicans and all negative votes by Democrats.  On February 6, the House passed the bill 136-33, with only one Republican casting a no vote.  However, on February 19, President Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill as unconstitutional and contrary to the public welfare.  Until that time, many Republicans believed that Johnson was willing to work with them on Reconstruction.  Senator Lyman Trumbull, the bill’s sponsor, and Senator William Fessenden, head of the Reconstruction Committee, had both discussed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill with the president, who had given them the impression he had no objection it.  Therefore, Johnson’s veto caught Republicans off guard, causing an outburst of surprise on the Senate floor when the veto message was read.  Formal debate was postponed until the next day, when the Senate’s second vote in favor of the bill, 30-18, was short of the two-thirds majority necessary to override the presidential veto.  On February 23, a new Freedmen’s Bureau Bill was introduced by Congressman James Wilson of Iowa and referred to the Joint Committee on Reconstruction. 

In reaction to Johnson’s veto, editor Curtis argued in the March 3, 1866 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published February 21) that the situation in the postwar South demanded federal legislation and oversight as authorized by the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill.  He pointed out that the president’s own actions, including approval of the nullification of Virginia’s Black Code by its provisional governor, General Alfred Terry, recognized that “the condition of the country is exceptional” and, therefore, required special-case legislation.  Although Curtis differed with the president over the veto, the editor continued into the summer to believe they were working toward the same goal.  In the April 14, 1866 issue (published April 4), Thomas Nast’s double-page of caricatures of people in the news included President Johnson kicking the Freedmen’s Bureau down the White House steps.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  January 27, 1866, p. 50, c. 2-3
editorial, “A Long Step Forward”

2)  February 10, 1866, p. 83, c. 4
“Domestic Intelligence” column

3)  February 24, 1866, p. 115, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

4)  March 10, 1866, p. 147, c. 3
“Domestic Intelligence” column

5)  March 3, 1866, p. 130, c. 2
editorial, “The Veto Message”

6)  April 14, 1866, p. 232
cartoon, Andrew Johnson (left-center)

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Freedmen's Bureau Bill // Civil Rights Bill






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