The Debate Regarding the Freedman's Bureau
Historians and political theorists have delineated the concept of equality into two categories: the competitive individualist notion of equality of process and the egalitarian ideal of equality of results. The former is concerned with providing a level playing field for all, while the latter focuses on a just distribution resulting from the process. Richard Ellis, in his book American Political Cultures, challenges the Hartzian thesis that historically Americans favored equality of process over equality of results, making them competitive individualists. Ellis argues that “what is exceptional about America is not that it lacked a results-oriented vision of equality but that those who favored equalizing results believed that equal process was a sufficient condition for realizing equal results” (Ellis 1993: 44). In other words, the egalitarian spirit was not absent from American history, but Americans believed that justice would best be served through competition. Ellis is correct in making this fine distinction, yet it is important to note that historical evidence suggests that some factions clearly emphasized equality of results regardless of equality of process. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois’ recounting of the political debate regarding the Freedman’s Bureau, clearly highlights this ideological difference.
Du Bois poignantly captures the necessity for a legal equalizing measure in his description of the tragedy of slavery and the ragged, conflicted nature of the black consciousness that resulted. He writes, “the facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression . . . our voting is vain” (Du Bois 1997: 51). It was the realization that progress would be painstakingly slow–given the enormous obstacles the ex-slaves faced--that gave way to discussion of a legal equalizer beyond suffrage. One of the legal mechanisms used was the establishment of an agency capable of inculcating African Americans into an obviously prejudicial mainstream society.
This debate became not whether African Americans deserved equality, but rather if suffrage was sufficient, and if not, whether a more extensive organization was needed to introduce the black population to the society that had so savagely decimated its spirit. The initial response to this pressing problem, which Du Bois calls “a hasty bit of legislation, vague and uncertain in outline,” was the compromise of 1865, which created a Freedman’s Bureau “to which was given ‘the supervision and management of all abandoned lands and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen’” (Du Bois 1997: 61). The earlier unwillingness to pass a more detailed bill for such a Bureau and the haste and vagueness of the 1865 legislation suggest that the creation of an extensive Bureau did not enjoy strong support among lawmakers. Indeed, the...