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Monday, August 13, 2012

A Not-Crazy Comparison Between Freedmen and Illegal Immigrants

By "not-crazy," I mean not what this guy is saying. Last week, I promised to link my interest in the postbellum origins of our anti-discrimination laws to the enforcement of those laws, and other workplace rights, in our modern economy.

To recap, it was to protect the freed slaves' right to freely contract that Congress passed the nation's first Civil Rights Act, less than a year after the end of the Civil War, and hard on the heels of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which stamped out slavery and involuntary servitude everywhere the US Constitution reached, except for prison. The forebears of modern conservatism who lived in that era argued that law could rightfully only be used to proscribe the infringement of individual liberties, not to prescribe any particular condition like freedom.

But for the Northerners charged with keeping order in the South, like the Freedmen's Bureau agents, military men all, whose responsibility was nothing less than the well-being of the newly-freed slaves, it seemed plainly insufficient liberty for freedmen to simply be told that they could not be enslaved again.

There are many striking illustrations of this dynamic in the fantastic primary-source archive Freedom, A Documentary History of Emancipation. One is a military order issued sixteen days after Lee's surrender, and eleven days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, by the Union commander of Charleston, South Carolina (location of Fort Sumter, and well-ravaged by the war). The first thing ordered is that all slaves are free and "henceforth they must depend upon their own exertions for their support." The second thing ordered is that "equitable contracts in writing will be made" for their work.

The former freedom meant nothing without the latter, you see. If that sounds familiar, it was a similar philosophy that drove the New Deal, among other things.

If they were to survive and eke out a living on their own, the Freedmen needed the Bureau that was named for them to intervene when they could not get a fair shake from their former owners. They enjoyed only partial access to full equality of contract rights, depending entirely on the willingness of local whites (some of whom had recently owned them) to recognize this new legal status, or the resolve and ability of the nearest Bureau agent to convince them otherwise when they did not.

Today, all labor markets (including our own) still contain a sizeable number of informal, illegal, or otherwise illegitimate workers, to whom the same workplace protections as everyone else ostensibly apply, but whose actual, lived experiences of these protections depend greatly on the priorities of those with the ability to intercede on their behalf.

The workers' centers of today are the heirs of the Freedman's Bureau, providing the same types of interventions where they can for undocumented workers. We are vehemently divided about the value of doing such work on behalf of undocumented workers in much the same way that Americans were over the Bureau, in its time.

It has ever been thus where land, labor, race, and law intersect with migration. In my next post, I will briefly stop picking on this country, to instead provide an illustration from my parents' birthplace, India, where you only need to substitute "caste" and "religion" for race to watch similar dynamics in play, in far more stark terms.

Posted by Raja Raghunath on August 13, 2012 at 10:54 AM | Permalink


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Fair enough -- was not meaning to suggest that you were unaware of this history, but the subject has been on my mind since I just completed a review of Downs's book, and it's enough to make one's blood boil.

Posted by: Daniel S. Goldberg | Aug 15, 2012 9:47:52 AM

Your point is well taken, and I'd also like to add that the works of Laura Edwards, Eric Foner, and Amy Dru Stanley (some of which I cite to in my posts) hardly gloss over the complexities of the Freedman's Bureau, and also offer some insight into the larger issues in play then. I guess I should also say that I didn't intend any negative comparison with the workers' centers of today.

Posted by: Raja Raghunath | Aug 15, 2012 12:45:09 AM

It's not exactly on point, but painting the Freedmen's Bureau as the inveterate defender of freedpeople's rights seems to gloss over much of the Bureau's often callous and racialized behavior with regard to the basic subsistence and health needs of the Freedpeople. The result was untold suffering and death, as Jim Downs points out in his book "Sick from Freedom."

This does not contradict the post, of course, but it does greatly complicate a picture of the Freedmen's Bureau standing up for freedpeople's needs, since large components of the bureaucracy were busy trying at once to exploit freedpeople's labor and abandoning them to the devastating health consequences of disruption, deprivation, and disease, to borrow Simon Szreter's formulation.

Posted by: Daniel S. Goldberg | Aug 13, 2012 11:05:00 PM

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