The Civil Rights Act of 1866

The Civil Rights Act of 1866

The Civil Rights Act of 1866
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 South Carolina congressman Robert B. Elliott delivering his famous speech in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in the House of Representatives on January 6, 1874.

Lyman Trumbull (1813–1896), Andrew Johnson (1808–1875)

“Without difference of race or color, or previous state of slavery or involuntary servitude,” the Civil Rights Act of 1866 declared all people born in the United States to be citizens. Although President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill, the 39th United States Congress overrode his veto, and the bill became law. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first civil rights statute in the United States.

Background

Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, President Andrew Johnson took a moderate approach to Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War. Former Confederate states were expected to preserve abolition, vow devotion to the United States, and pay their war debts in order to re-enter the Union.

Fewer limitations were imposed, allowing southern governments to draft and implement a series of so-called “black codes.” These rules were “designed to limit the activities of freed blacks and maintain their availability as a work force.” Although these rules provided certain freedoms, they primarily denied black residents equal legal protection. These rules, in particular, limited black residents’ property, contract, and labor rights. Republicans in Congress rejected Johnson’s Reconstruction plan and sought a different method because they “believed the federal government had a responsibility in establishing a multiracial society in the postwar South.”

Legislative history

On January 5, 1866, Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-Illinois) introduced the measure in the United States Senate. The measure was approved by the Senate 33-12 on February 2, 1866. The United States House of Representatives adopted the Act on March 13, 1866, by a vote of 111-38, with 34 members voting nay. In favor of the bill, Representative William Lawrence (R-Ohio), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said:

There are certain absolute rights which pertain to every citizen, which are inherent, and of which a State cannot constitutionally deprive him. But not only are those rights inherent and indestructible, but the means whereby they may be possessed and enjoyed are equally so. … Every citizen, therefore, has the absolute right to live, the right of personal security, personal liberty, and the right to acquire and enjoy property. These are rights of citizenship. As necessary incidents of these rights there are others, as the right to make and enforce contracts, to purchase, hold, and enjoy property, and to share the benefit of laws for the security of person and property.

President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act on March 27, 1866. In his veto statement, Johnson wrote the following:

In all our history, in all our experience as a people living under Federal and State law, no such system as that contemplated by the details of this bill has ever before been proposed or adopted. They establish for the security of the colored race safeguards which go indefinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race. In fact, the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race. They interfere with the municipal legislation of the States; with relations existing exclusively between a State and its citizens, or between inhabitants of the same State; an absorption and assumption of power by the General Government which, if acquiesced in, must sap and destroy our federative system of limited power, and break down the barriers which preserve the rights of the States.

President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act on March 27, 1866. In his veto statement, Johnson wrote the following: The Senate voted 33-15 on April 6, 1866, to overturn Johnson’s veto. On April 9, 1866, the House passed the bill by a vote of 122-41, with 21 MPs voting nay. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was enacted as a result.

Key features

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 is famous for being the first civil rights statute in the United States. The legislation stated that everyone born in the United States, regardless of race, color, or “prior condition of slavery or involuntary servitude,” was entitled to fundamental citizenship rights “in every state and territory in the United States.” The law further stated that all of these people were entitled to the following special rights:

  • “to make and enforce contracts”
  • “to sue, be parties, and give evidence” in court
  • “to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property”
  • “to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties, and to none other”

Individuals who violated the law might be found guilty and punished by the law.

Later developments

Political rights, such as the ability to vote and hold public office, were not addressed in the 1866 Civil Rights Act. The United States Constitution’s Fifteenth Amendment, enacted in February 1870, granted the right to vote to all residents of the United States, regardless of “race, color, or previous state of servitude.” Despite this, the Fifteenth Amendment “had little influence for over a century because states imposed poll fees, literacy tests, and other limitations that barred African Americans from voting,” according to the National Constitution Center. Following that, in the twentieth century, legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were enacted to address the problem.

SEE ALSO:

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863);

The Abolition of Slavery (1865);

Prohibion of Racial Voter Discrimination (1869);

The Civil Rights Cases (1883);

Plessy v. Ferguson: Separate but Equal (1896);

The Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sources:

The Civil Rights Act of 1866

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)

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