Lincoln announced it.
General Sherman proclaimed it in Special Field Orders 15.
Section 4 of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act established by Congress in March 1865 to help former slaves transition from slavery to freedom authorized the bureau to rent 40 acres of confiscated or abandoned land to freedpeople and loyal white refugees and to give the option to purchase it.
The June 1866 Southern Homestead Act was enacted to give freedpeople first choice of the remaining public lands from five southern states until January 1, 1867.
House Speaker Thaddeus Stevens introduced H.R. 29 that called for 40 acres and a mule to be distributed to former slaves.
40 acres and a mule was a prominent issue in the 1868 election cycle.
But Lincoln was assassinated and President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865 provided presidential pardons and restoration of land to former owners. Following his proclamation, thousands of freedpeople were evicted from land that had been distributed to them through Special Field Orders No. 15. Circular No. 15 or issued by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Why was this policy of 40 acres and a mule so vital to the shift in direction that was necessary for freedpeople? Historical documents state that the idea for 40 acres and a mule came from a meeting between Secretary of War Stanton and twenty prominent and thoughtful black leaders and ministers.
Stanton asked them what they wanted and they stated “40 acres and a mule.” Stanton later stated that “for the first time in the history of this nation, the representatives of the government had gone to these poor debased people to ask them what they wanted for themselves…[I asked] what do you want for your own people following the war?”
The group’s spokesman, minister Garrison Frazier, a slave until 1857 until he purchased his and his wife’s freedom, said, “Land! “The way we can best take care of ourselves… to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
After polling the other leaders in attendance who agreed with Reverend Frazier, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, after President Lincoln approved it.
Now, the details of how land and a mule could have been distributed to the four million ex-slaves are certainly up for debate. It was wartime, however, and as military issues sometimes are, it was expeditiously decided upon. Perhaps a more lasting approach would have been to accomplish the same feat by a means similar to the SBA loan, in which the government could have financially backed by loan a means for all freedpeople to establish themselves after 200 years of economic oppression. Nonetheless, some means had to be given to plant the seeds of economic stability.
If not, then the very ominous prediction made by Senator Stevens would (and did) come true. He stated, “”Withhold from them all their rights and leave them destitute of the means of earning a livelihood, [and they will become] the victims of the hatred or cupidity of the rebels whom they helped to conquer.”
Instead, under the watchful eye of President Andrew Johnson, the former slaves were left without an economic means to escape slavery. They were given the hope for but not the means of living in our Republic as free men.
“The poverty which afflicted them for a generation after Emancipation held them down to the lowest order of society, nominally free but economically enslaved,” wrote Carter G. Woodson in The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s.
In 1865, 90 percent of Southern Americans lived as farmers. The key to African Americans being able to lift themselves out of oppression was oppressively kept from them. Without such a start at the epoch of America’s democratic enlightenment, what would newly freedpeople do to seek a way out of the morass? How would this political decision of abandonment affect the future of our inner cities?