The idea for land redistribution for former slaves had been tossed about by abolitionists long before it was implemented with the agreement worked out in Savannah between the U.S. government and 20 Black preachers (see last week’s story “The origin of a revolutionary idea: 40 acres and a mule”). There were several proposals brought forward, especially by what were then known as the Radical Republicans.
In fact, before Sherman and the preachers agreed to a deal giving freedmen 40 acres in an area encompassing the coastlines of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens made an appeal for land redistribution in Congress.
In a Sept. 6, 1865 speech, Stevens outlined a plan to confiscate 394 million acres owned by the wealthiest 70,000 people in the South. Of that amount, 40 million acres would be allotted to the one million adult Black men at 40 acres each, along with $100 for equipment and livestock.
“On its success, in my judgment, depends not only the happiness and respectability of the colored race, but their very existence,” Stevens said. “Homesteads to them are far more valuable than the immediate right of suffrage, though both is their due.”
Yet another idea for reparations for freedmen suggested that, as a condition of receiving pardons, southerners whose net worth exceeded $20,000 and were not recipients of an automatic pardon as a result of Johnson’s amnesty proclamation would give to each head of family of their former slaves from five to 10 acres of land.
The freedmen would receive full title to the land with the stipulation that the land could not be sold during the lifetime of the “grantee.”
President Andrew Johnson chose not to adopt this recommendation. However, this proposal may have been the inspiration for Thaddeus Stevens’ confiscation plan. Just and well thought out, had it been approved Stevens’ proposal may have provided a more equal distribution of wealth.
The primary points of Stevens’ “confiscation plan” according to Oubre are as follows:
- The government would confiscatethe property of all former slaveholders who owned more than 200 acres of land.
- The property seized would have been allocated to the freedmen in lots of 40 acres.
- The remaining land would be sold and the monies would be used to remunerate loyalists whose property had been seized destroyed or damaged as a result of the war.
- Any remaining funds would be utilized to augment the pensions of Union soldiers and to pay the national debt.
Yet another proposal suggested that the government transport the freedmen west and colonize them along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad. It was argued that to do so would prove beneficial for the railroad as well as the freedmen.
The freedmen would have their land. The railroad would have both an accessible labor force and someone to protect the trains from Indian attack. Additionally, adopting this particular proposal would bode well for the government, permitting it to keep its promise to provide land for the freedmen.
Simultaneously, according to Carl Schurz and John Sprage, “this plan would serve to remove some of the ‘surplus’ Black [people] from the South.”
The American Missionary Association requested, to no avail, that President Johnson reserve the land promised to the freedmen. If that was not a suitable option, they further petitioned that the freedmen be provided with transportation to homestead lands in the west and provided with rations enough to sustain them until crops could be yielded.
Concerned with the burgeoning African American population in Virginia, Orlando Brown proposed, that some 10,000 African American soldiers stationed in Texas might be provided with a land bounty in Texas if they remained there and sent for their families. A similar proposal was made by Sergeant S.H. Smothers, an African American soldier from Indiana serving with the 25th Army Corps in Texas.
But President Johnson seemed determined to make sure that freedmen received no land. He mercilessly vetoed any proposal having to do with providing land to the freedmen that reached his desk.
Finally, Congress overrode his veto and passed a bill to extend the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau. However, it contained no provision for granting land to the freedmen, other than to provide them access to the Southern Homestead Act at the standard rates of purchase.
Research for this article was gleaned from “Black Reconstruction,” W.E.B. DuBois; “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,” Eric Foner; and “The Truth Behind 40 Acres and a Mule,” Henry Louis Gates.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.