Race, Welfare and a Wound That Won't Heal

Eric Foner's 1988 book "Reconstruction" is, sadly, as relevant today as it ever was.

Ex-slaves in Virginia in the mid-1860s.

Photographer: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From Obamacare and education standards to labor protections and immigration law, conservatives often talk about federal social policies as if they were being imposed at gunpoint. So it's a good time to read Eric Foner's 1988 book "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877" -- a reminder that, during a brief period in U.S. history that presaged current debates, that's just what happened.

As the Civil War was coming to a close, Congress, faced with about 4 million newly freed slaves, created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Run by Union General Oliver Otis Howard and staffed by army personnel, what became known as the Freedmen's Bureau was charged with, as Foner writes, "introducing a workable system of free labor in the South, establishing schools for freedmen, providing aid to the destitute, aged, ill, and insane, adjudicating disputes among blacks and between the races, and attempting to secure for blacks and white Unionists equal justice from the state and local governments established during Presidential Reconstruction."

Fulfilling that mission meant that bureau agents had to assume some roles the federal government now plays. Seventy years before the creation of the National Labor Relations Board, agents reviewed contracts between plantation owners and blacks, revoking provisions they saw as unfair and demanding wages be paid, impounding harvests if necessary. Foner recounts one agent in North Carolina lecturing a planter on how to treat his workers. The head of the agency in Georgia even implemented a minimum wage.

The Freedmen's Bureau also helped oversee a network of public schools, courts, and even hospitals and clinics "providing medical care and drugs at a nominal cost or free of charge." According to Foner, during early Reconstruction the bureau treated about half a million freed slaves, 100 years before the passage of Medicaid created a right to health insurance for the poor.

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None of this endeared the bureau to its opponents. "Most Southern whites resented the Bureau as a symbol of Confederate defeat," Foner writes, "and a barrier to the authority reminiscent of slavery that planters hoped to impose upon the freedmen." Even its supporters were conflicted: In a precursor to modern debates over welfare programs, Howard himself worried that public help for the poor was "abnormal to our system of government." "A man can scarcely be called free," Foner quotes a bureau official as saying, "who is the recipient of public charity."

President Andrew Johnson used similar arguments in 1866 when he vetoed a bill that would have made the bureau permanent. He warned that federal aid would hurt the "character" and "prospects" of freedmen, and that at any rate, the government could scarcely afford it. Foner writes:

In appealing to fiscal conservatism, raising the specter of an immense federal bureaucracy trampling upon citizens' rights, and insisting self-help, not dependence upon outside assistance, offered the surest road to economic advancement, Johnson voiced themes that to this day have sustained opposition to federal intervention on behalf of blacks. 

"Reconstruction" remains relevant today not just as a demonstration of how racism once influenced public policy, but also as a reminder that given U.S. history, the argument over the proper role of government in regulating the economy and providing basic services can never just be about how to maximize the public good. Even if the Freedmen's Bureau has receded from the public memory, the clash it embodied remains as meaningful and divisive as ever.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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