Methods: This study utilizes three qualitative methods: historical review, archival methods, and theory construction. The first consists of utilizing secondary literature to motivate and contextualize the present study. The second employs exploratory analysis of primary archival sources from the Freedmen’s Bureau Digital Collection, an archive available through the Smithsonian Institution; and the Oliver Otis Howard Papers, which are housed at Bowdoin College. The third refers to theorization that departs from, but is not restricted to, the empirical evidence generated by the two preceding methodological steps—theorization that challenges not only the orthodox narrative that the U.S. welfare state originated in the 1930s, but the very terms of that narrative, which themselves derive from and condition the hegemony of Western colonial epistemology and historiography.
Results: The secondary literature and archival resources suggest direct pathways from the Freedmen’s Bureau to later formations of the welfare state. Two primary examples of such pathways include precedents set regarding labor contracts between freedpeople and planters (prefiguring the “workfare” ideology) and forced or incentivized marriages among freedpeople (anticipating the linkage of legal marriage with access to rights and benefits), both serving as coercive mechanisms of racial control deployed under the guise of social welfare. This evidence justifies theorizing broader conclusions and implications of reconceiving the U.S. welfare state as beginning with the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Conclusions and Implications: If the inception of the welfare state is marked by the emergence of the first national institution designed to address the most pressing collective social and material crises facing the nation, and the Freedmen’s Bureau was precisely that, then the period between the discontinuation of the Freedmen’s Bureau (1872) and the passage of the Social Security Act (1935) was not an empty historical moment devoid of or antecedent to the formation of the welfare state, but an active, albeit latent, developmental moment foundationally constitutive of the welfare state as it would eventually come to exist in more permanent form. The implication is that during this time the U.S. eschewed a true welfare state—a welfare state that would have squarely addressed the most pressing collective social and material crises facing the nation (i.e., Reconstruction and reparations for slavery)—and moved toward a symbolic welfare state, which erased historical and contemporaneous racial inequity by building a welfare state on a platform of meritocracy incompatible with the enduring legacy of chattel slavery.