After Slavery: Educator Resources

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4. Rufus Saxton's Letter to Northern Planter Edward S. Philbrick

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Three: Land and Labor in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

When Saxton expressed concerns that the sea island plantations would end up in the hands of northern "speculators and capitalists," it was men like Edward S. Philbrick that he had in mind. The son of a prominent Boston abolitionist, Philbrick was a successful engineer with a family when he joined "Gideon's Band," a group of northern missionaries who came south in March 1862 to assist the liberated slaves of Port Royal and put into effect the free labor ideals that he and others had long believed would transform the South. This letter is an early example of the conflict at the heart of the Republican party, one that revolved around competing visions of the kind of society that would replace slavery, producing sharp tensions that would eventually doom Reconstruction.

On the one hand, Republicans were committed to freeing the slaves and helping them join the nation as economically and politically independent citizens, yet on the other hand, men like Philbrick were staunch supporters of the rights of property and champions of the growth of big business.

Rufus Saxton's Letter to Northern Planter Edward S. Philbrick

[June 15, 1864]

The immediate possession of the land without purchase is the indefeasible right of the negro, and I am less able to perceive the pertinence of allowing the withholding of it from him a fraud and wrong. Neither do I believe that a 'purely commercial basis' is the proper starting point of an enterprise designed, even ultimately, for the benefit and elevation of the negro. But I do not propose to discuss that scheme here and now, but only to notice the specification of particulars, on why you think my letter has done you injustice.

... It gives me great pleasure to say that I have now no doubt that you intend justice to the negro, and will use the lands you have obtained for what you believe to be in his best interests. At the same time, I must dissent most emphatically from your views of what justice and his best interests demand from us. Your policy being accepted as the general policy for the administration of the lands, the field of speculation will be open to all indiscriminately. What protection do you propose for the negro against white men of another character and unhonorable purposes?

What chance has he to get land out of the clutches of the human vulture, who care for him only as they can gorge themselves upon his flesh? If you had seen the hungry swarms gathered here at the land sales in February, I think your views concerning the exclusion of whites would be somewhat modified. The white man has made the negro what he is. The experience at [Port Royal] and elsewhere is far from demonstrating that white men indiscriminately are waiting to do him justice, and may be safely permitted to govern his affairs. What you call 'special privileges to the negroes to the exclusion of whites,' seems to me to be vital to the safety and hope of advancement of the negro,-the plainest justice and the wisest policy.

Source: Rufus Saxton to E. S. Philbrick, Rufus B. and S. Willard Saxton Papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.


Questions to Consider

  1. What can you infer from the letter about Philbrick's assumptions regarding freedpeople's right to land in the Port Royal area?

  2. How did granting "special privileges to the negroes to the exclusion of the whites" contravene important aspects of Republican party values? Why is Saxton concerned about "the field of speculation being open to all indiscriminately"?

  3. Which white men does Saxton have in mind when he claims that "the white man has made the negro what he is"? What in his view is the responsibility of the federal government in relations between freedpeople and whites?

  4. Why is Saxton critical of the 'land sales'?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Three