The abolition of slavery and the establishment of freedom are not the one and the same thing. The emancipated negroes were not yet really freemen. Their chains had indeed been sundered by the sword, but the broken links still hung upon their limbs. The question, "What shall be done with the negro? agitated the whole country. Some were in favour of an immediate recognition of their equal and political rights, and of conceding to them at once all the prerogatives of citizenship. But only a few advocated a policy so radical, and, at the same time, generally considered revolutionary, while many, even of those who really wished well to the negro, doubted his capacity for citizenship, his willingness to labour for his own support, and the possibility of his forming, as a freeman, an integral part of the Republic.
The idea of admitting the freedmen to an equal participation in civil and political rights was not entertained in any part of the South. In most of the States they were not allowed to sit on juries, or even to testify in any case in which white men were parties. They were forbidden to own or bear firearms, and thus were rendered defenceless against assault. Vagrant laws were passed, often relating only to the negro, or, where applicable in terms of both white and black, seldom or never enforced except against the latter.
In some States any court - that is, any local Justice of the Peace - could bind out to a white person any negro under age, without his own consent or that of his parents? The freedmen were subjected to the punishments formerly inflicted upon slaves. Whipping especially, when in some States disfranchised the party subjected to it, and rendered him for ever infamous before the law, was made the penalty for the most trifling misdemeanor.
These legal disabilities were not the only obstacles placed in the path of the freed people. Their attempts at education provoked the most intense and bitter hostility, as evincing a desire to render themselves equal to the whites. Their churches and schoolhouses were in many places destroyed by mobs. In parts of the country remote from observation, the violence and cruelty engendered by slavery found free scope for exercise upon the defenceless negro. In a single district, in a single month, forty-nine cases of violence, ranging from assault and battery to murder, in which whites were the aggressors and blacks the sufferers, were reported.
General Howard issued his first order defining the general policy of the Bureau on the 19th day of May 1865, at once appointed his Assistant Commissioners, and entered upon the work assigned to him. In this work he was greatly embarrassed by the lack of any governmental appropriations for his Bureau, by the opposition in the South to any measures looking towards the elevation of the freed people, and by the very widespread distrust in the North of their capacity for improvement.
What is to be the effect of emancipation upon the industry of the community at large, upon the amount of production, upon the intelligence and morals of the people, upon commerce, trade, manufactures, agriculture and population, can as yet be only a matter of conjecture; and yet such and so marked even in these respects have been the results already, that probably few, if any, of the intelligent portion of the Southern people would desire to see slavery re-established. Wherever the planter has honestly and intelligently accommodated himself to the system of free-labour, freedom has reaped a larger harvest than ever was garnered by slavery.
But the effect upon the freed people is no longer a matter of question. They have refuted slavery's accusation of idleness and incapacity. They have not only worked faithfully and well under white employers, but, when facilities have been accorded them, have proved themselves capable of independent and even self-organized labour. They are not generally extravagant or wasteful. The church and the schoolhouse are alike crowded with eager, expectant people, the rapidity of whose development under these fostering influences has amazed both foes and friends, and contributed more, perhaps, than any other cause to mitigate the prejudice which survived slavery, and make the work of enfranchisement complete.