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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

the liberty of the freedmen is in danger. The Senator read this section over at length,
and then repeated again particular clauses and phrases, striving to interpret them for
slavery.  I will not read it at length; nor will I dwell on the first part of the section.
Suffice it to say that, so far as it describes the lands which are to be taken for occupa-
tion, it follows substantially the text of the order from the War Department, by which
"all houses, tenements, lands and plantations, except such as may be required for
military purposes, which have been or may be deserted and abandoned by insurgents
within the lines of military occupation," are placed under the supervision and control
of the supervising, special agents of the Treasury Department.  Under this order the
Secretary of the Treasury has been acting for more than a year; doing with these
lands precisely what the Senator so vehemently condemns.  The present bill, so far as
concerns the power of the Commissioner over the lands, has done little more than
reduce the order of the War Department to the text of a statute, thus giving to it a
certain legality which it does not now possess.
  But passing from the lands which are to be occupied under the bill, the Senator next
pictures the terrible fate of the freedmen laboring on these lands in pursuance of care-
ful contracts.  There seemed to be no limit to the Senator's anxiety lest they should
be bound in slavery.  I welcome his generous anxiety.  But I pray that he will not
allow it to mislead his judgment or prevent him from seeing the case in its true char-
acter.  Surely he must have been unduly excited, or he could not have found danger
in these words:
  "In case no proper lessees can be found, then to cause the same to be cultivated or occupied by the freed-
men, on such terms, in either case, and under such regulations, as the commissioner may determine."
  "What a frightful power!" exclaimed the Senator.  But why?  Here is no power
or control over the freedmen, but simply over the lands, which the officers are to cause
to be cultivated or occupied.  These officers are the representatives of the Government
of the United States, to which these lands belong for the time being, and, in determin-
ing the terms and regulations under which they are to be cultivated or occupied, they
do no more than is done by the Senator with regard to the lands which he is so happy
as to own.  The Senator determines the terms and regulations under which his lands
shall be leased or cultivated; does he not?  And he would be surprised if any person
called in question his rights in this regard; especially would he be surprised if any
person undertook to infer that the freedom of laborers upon his lands could be com-
promised by any terms or regulations which he might choose to adopt.  But there is
no power which he might exercise over his own lands that may not now be exercised
by the Government.  In each case, the laborer must be treated as a freeman    The
Senator seems to imagine that there is a power or control over the freedman, which is
conferred by these words.  Here is the mistake of the Senator.  The power and control
are over the lands, not over the freedmen.  There is not a word in the clause which
can be tortured into any such idea. I challenge the Senator to point it out.
  Thus far I have considered this clause, which according to the Senator is so terribly
pregnant, without alluding to the express limitation which follows in the same section.
Even without this limitation it is clear and blameless.  But the committee, in order to
make assurance doubly sure, and to set up an absolute impediment against any abuse,
have added the following proviso:
  "Provided, That no freedmen shall be held to service in any State above-mentioned otherwise than accord-
ing to voluntary contract reduced to writing, and certified by the assistant commissionsr or local superin-
tendent; nor shall any such contract be for a longer period than twelve months."
  And yet in the face of this proviso the Senator sees danger.  Nobody can be found
on this land except in pursuance of voluntary contract, which must be reduced to
writing and certified by an officer of the Government.  Nor is this all.  The contract
is not to be for a term beyond twelve months; so that, by no excuse, and by no exer-
cise of power, can the freedman be put even under a shadow of control beyond this
brief term.  He is in all respects a freeman laboring on land according to careful con-
tract for a limited period.  And yet the Senator calls this beneficent arrangement
slavery, and then, changing the name, he calls it peonage. Sir, the Senator has an
imperfect conception of that peonage which is indefinite service, or that slavery which
is service for endless generations, if he undertakes to liken an employment in pursu-


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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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