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Bridge from Slavery to Freedom: Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, on the Bill to Establish a Bureau of Freedmen, in the Senate of the U.S., June 13 and 15, 1864

but in the present case they are all placed under the observation of their superiors.
Superintendents will be observed by the Assistant Commissioner, who will be observed
by the Commissioner; and all will be under the observation of the Secretary of the
Treasury, who himself is under the observation of the President; and I need not add
that the whole will be subject to the oversight of a humane and enlightened people,
awakening daily to a sense of obligation which cannot be postponed.
  I am not wrong, then, when I say that the Senator did injustice to the bill in his
criticism on its structure and the machinery which it establishes.  But this was the
smallest part of his injustice.  He went further, and, following the Senator from West
Virginia, asserted that it gave the Commissioner unlimited power and control, so as to
hand the unhappy freedman over to slavery under another name.  I looked at the
Senator to see if he were really serious as he made this strange accusation against a
measure conceived in a sentiment of humanity and equity, and, by positive provisions,
guarding every freedman against the very outrage which the Senator professes to fear.
He seemed to be serious, as he repeated the accusation.  But as he had erred with re-
gard to the restraints upon the Assistant Commissioners, so he erred in the graver
impeachment which he launched.
  The Senator began this impeachment by saying that the bill, according to its defini-
tion of freedmen, was applicable to all who were "once slaves," and that even Robert
Small, the patriot slave who navigated the Planter out of Charleston and gave it to us,
would come under its provisions.  Very well.  Suppose he does.  Can he suffer from
it?  Does he lose anything by it?  Can anybody under this bill exercise any power or
control over Robert Small?  The Senator forgets that the bill assumes that all are free,
and in every respect entitled to all the privileges of freemen; that they are invested
with every right which the Senator himself possesses, and, if these rights are violated,
they may look for a remedy to any court of justice precisely as he could.  None of
these rights are infringed by the present bill.  On the contrary, the officers under it
are charged to see that the freedmen are secure in their rights, so that Robert Small
himself, if the occasion required, might find aid and protection under it. The bill gives
no power to take away or limit existing rights; but it provides additional means for
their safeguard, that emancipation may be perfect, so far as possible.
  I do not like to take time, especially when I consider that in opening this matter to
the Senate I explained the character of the bill and its necessity.  I do not pretend
that it is perfect; but I beg to assure the Senate that it is the result of the careful
deliberations of the committee. If Senators are disposed to criticise it, or to offer
amendments with a view to its improvement, let them do so.  But I trust that they
will not allow themselves to be carried into any general hostility to the measure,
founded on a misconception of its real character.  I might remind them again of the
large numbers of freedmen--free, thank God!  by the legislative and executive acts of
the United States--but not yet introduced into the new condition appointed for them--
unemployed, suffering, starving, and, with a voice of agony, calling for relief. I might
remind them of the inability of private charity, or any effort organized by private in-
dividuals, to meet all the exigencies of this unprecedented case, although the gener-
osity of our people is overflowing.  And I might dwell on the obligation of the nation,
reaching everywhere with its hundred arms, to do what inferior charity must fail to do;
and I might especially show that it is not enough to strike down the slave-master,
but that you must go further, and lift up the slave.  But I forbear. I content myself
now with reminding you that, if you oppose legislation to help the freedmen in their
rough passage from slavery to freedom, you hand over this unhappy people-unhappy
for long generations, and not yet conducted into the full enjoyment of freedom--to a
condition which I dread to contemplate.  They look about and find no home.  They seek
occupation, but it is not within their reach.  They ask for protection, sometimes
against their former task-masters and sometimes against other selfish men.  If they
are not supplied in some way by the Government, I know not where to look for them.
Surely, sir, you will not hesitate to provide, so far as you can, carefully and wisely,
the proper means to secure employment for these freedmen during the transition from
one condition to another, and, above all, to throw over them everywhere the aegis of
Constitution and law.   And such, permit me to say, was the single object of the
present bill, which has been so cordially misrepresentsd by the Senator from West
Virginia, and so unjustly misrepresented by my friends from Iowa.


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Bridge from Slavery to Freedom: Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, on the Bill to Establish a Bureau of Freedmen, in the Senate of the U.S., June 13 and 15, 1864


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