After the Civil War ended the rather shortlived era of Reconstruction came about which saw
Union troops occupying former rebel states to ensure that blacks had equal rights and a large rise in the number of black politicians on both the local, state, and national levels. While this was good for black people, there was a dark undercurrent as Reconstruction “exacerbated sectional and political tensions and economic recovery problems.” Due to the Civil War, the entire South was engulfed in economic troubles as with physical slavery abolished; plantation owners now had to pay wages to their workers. Yet the implementation of a wage system was problematic as “the South’s quasifeudal plantation system was not wellsuited for a modern, free labor force.” In addition to this, former slaves were quite reluctant to work in the fields for subsistencelevel wages.
Having a wage labor economy was near futile as economically speaking; the entire South was in shambles, especially with regards to currency as “Circulating currency was in short supply,” the Confederate currency was useless, “the banking system was practically destroyed and, crucially, planters, farmers and landowners could not borrow money to pay freedmen to work their land for them.” Planters were left in economic ruins as few were able to use their now ruined land as collateral for loans. Poor harvests only exacerbated the problems as planters found themselves unable to attain sufficient crops to gain enough money to hire wage laborers. Yet, the most important factor in this was that “freedpeople had altogether higher aspirations than being simply wage laborers on large centrally organized plantations.”
To address this problem, Congress established the Freedman’s Bureau, whose purpose it was to aid former slaves and refugees and to handle abandoned land. They were also given the task of supervising labor contracts. Initially, Congress envisioned “that the Bureau would undertake the role of umpire in ensuring that the contracts reflected the free interplay of market forces” and gave Commissioner Major General Oliver Howard, explicit instructions as to what contracts and contractual terms could not be dictated by the Bureau.
Yet, this did not solve the South’s labor problem as both planter and freedmen “had little initial idea of what the optimal labor arrangements would be. They had to be discovered by a process of experimentation.” The experimentation began when former slaves begrudgingly entered into labor contracts with planters who still expected them to work in ways quite similar to what they had experienced under slavery. Most planters still believed that blacks needed supervision, Whitelaw Reid noted that most Southerners held the belief that “’niggers wouldn’t do more ‘n half as much, now that the lash was no longer behind them.” To this end, in the