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Nation-Building and Affirmative Action in 19th Century America

03/21/2011 01:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why all Americans should learn about the Freedmen's Bureau

In February 1865, shortly before the Civil War ended, Congress established "a bureau of refugees, freedmen and abandoned lands."

The great African American scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois described the "herculean task" delegated to this agency as nothing less than "the social uplifting of four million slaves to an assured and self-sustaining place in the body politic."

Had this been a time of peace and prosperity the bureau would still have faced monumental challenges. As it was the South lay in ruins; hunger was widespread; southern whites were determined to resist emancipation by any means; and there was absolutely no precedent for a multi-racial society on the scale being contemplated.

In 1866, perhaps more out of a desire to punish the Confederates, than to help the Freedmen, the necessary Congressional votes were found to expand the bureau. It became the de facto government of the entire unreconstructed South.

The Freedmen's Bureau survived for only four years, but during that time the range of its functions far exceeded that of the federal government itself. The bureau exercised legislative, executive and judicial powers. It made laws and enforced them, set and collected taxes, kept records, helped establish the institution of marriage among the freed slaves, and assisted in the writing of contracts between black employees and white employers.

In the bureau's courts of law, freedmen could sue whites -- and win. The bureau ran hospitals, distributed food, and paid pensions to many of the black Southerners who had served in the Union army. And it established schools.

At the end of a recent unit on the Freedmen's Bureau, my students agreed that the nation clearly had a responsibility to help the former slaves. They also concurred with Du Bois' qualified judgment about the bureau -- that, "even with imperfect agents and questionable methods, the work accomplished was not undeserving of commendation."

At the same time, the majority of the class concluded that the bureau's reach far exceeded the limits of legitimate constitutional authority. There was no separation of powers; there were no checks and balances. And even if that could be justified in wartime, almost all the bureau's work was done after the Confederacy's surrender had been signed.

As a society, what do we do when we know a cause is just but that constitutional principles are being compromised in support of it? How far should we go to protect the minority from the majority? And how much responsibility do we have to right past wrongs?

The story of the Freedmen's Bureau is an American one. It was a radical attempt at social engineering by a fundamentally conservative people. The majority of the Southerners (the whites) hated everything the bureau stood for. The agency combined an affirmative-action program with an experiment in nation-building, and it was imposed, essentially at gun point, on a deeply divided and hostile population. In the end, the bureau's activities may have deepened the racial divide.

The last decade of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the persistence of domestic debates over "reparations," "quotas" and "reverse discrimination" make the Freedmen's Bureau a part of our history we cannot afford to forget.

At the turn of the 20th century, Du Bois wrote of the bureau: "To-day, when new and vaster problems are destined to strain every fibre of the national mind and soul, would it not be well to count this legacy honestly and carefully?"