Excerpt from his veto of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 Carried forth on March 27, 1866
The president angers many by vetoing a bill designed to assist African Americans
"The distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race."
Seven months after the slaves were freed by the North's victory in the American Civil War (1861–65), the state of Mississippi passed new laws affecting African American residents. For the first time, African Americans were given rights to buy land, sue and be sued, even marry in state-recognized ceremonies. But the laws did not stop there. Every African American person had to provide written proof of having a "lawful home or employment." Any African Americans caught wandering the streets at night, neglecting their jobs, or even "misspend[ing] what they earn" could be arrested as vagrants (jobless or homeless people) and jailed for up to ten days. African American children whose parents could not provide for them, at least in a judge's determination, could be sent to white families to serve as apprentices (or assistants).
Mississippi was the first state to pass such discriminatory "Black Codes," but other Southern communities would quickly follow suit. The Louisiana towns of Opelousas and Saint Landry Parish required African Americans to get permission from town leaders before preaching to congregations, and barred African Americans from carrying guns or other weapons unless they belonged to the military. In South Carolina, African Americans working as anything other than farmers or servants had to pay an annual tax ranging from $10 to $100, as noted in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. In Florida, disobedience or "disrespect" to an employer was a crime. Local militias, often filled with former Confederate soldiers still in uniform, "frequently terrorized the African American population, ransacking their homes to seize shotguns and other property and abusing those who refused to sign plantation labor contracts."
This was not the outcome the North envisioned at the end of the Civil War. Slavery may have ended, but a new series of Black Codes kept the South's four million African Americans as second-class citizens. Making matters worse, blacks found little justice in the local courts. They could only testify as witnesses in cases involving an African American person, and they were barred from sitting on juries. Leading abolitionist (slavery opponent) James Miller McKim (1810–1874) asked Congress to create a separate military court system for African Americans through the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal agency created to help former slaves start their new lives (see Chapter 4). U.S. senator Lyman Trumbull (1813–1896) of Illinois responded with a bill expanding the Freedmen's Bureau to provide such courts. He also offered a bill outlining equal rights for African Americans.
The latter bill became known as the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The bill declared that everyone born in the United States, with the exception of Native Americans, was a citizen. This would extend citizenship to the African Americans—a response to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said African Americans could not file lawsuits because they were not U.S. citizens. The bill also gave citizens "of every race and color" the right to enter into contracts, buy and sell property, and enjoy "full and equal benefit of all laws … enjoyed by white citizens" (see box). Any person depriving an ex-slave of these rights could be tried in the federal courts (separate from the local court system), and sentenced to up to a year in prison and fined up to $1,000.
Congress passed the bill March 13, 1866, but no one was sure President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), a former slave owner with Southern sympathies, would sign it. A month earlier, Johnson vetoed the expanded Freedmen's Bureau bill, which he thought trampled on local communities' rights by establishing a military court system for African Americans during peacetime. He argued that African Americans already had the ability to take care of themselves and use the existing local courts. He also objected that the bill was passed without input from the newly elected Southern congressmen, whom the Northerners refused to seat until a new Reconstruction policy was created for the South (see Chapter 7). As noted in The Struggle for Equality, Johnson's veto surprised many, including Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax (1823–1885), who bet a friend a box of Cuban cigars that the president would sign the bill.
Johnson started getting criticism from the supporters and opponents of the Civil Rights Bill. Longtime political figure Francis P. Blair Sr. (1791–1876) wrote Johnson a four-page letter complaining that the bill would leave the states unable to "discriminate between Whites & Black," a result he considered "disastrous," according to Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, 1865–1866. Ohio governor Jacob Cox (1828–1900) urged Johnson to sign the bill because the public supported granting the freedmen "the same rights of property and persons, the same remedies for injuries received and the same penalties for wrongs committed, as other men.…"
But Johnson's advisors knew he was leaning against the bill, which he viewed as another federal intrusion on issues belonging to the states. His advisors also knew another unpopular veto could undermine his efforts to bring the Southern states back into the Union as quickly as possible, by allowing his opponents to paint him as unsympathetic to the problems facing African Americans. According to Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, Secretary of State William Seward (1801–1872) sent a note to Johnson the night before the veto was announced: "If you can find a way to intimate [imply] that you are not opposed to the policy of the bill, but only to its detailed provisions, it will be a great improvement and make the support of the veto easier for our friends in Congress." Instead, Johnson sent a strongly worded veto message that even his most loyal supporters would struggle to defend.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Johnson's veto of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866:
- The end of the Civil War had freed the slaves, but Southern states responded by passing Black Codes that required African Americans to have jobs, prevented them from being out at night, and allowed their children to be apprenticed to white families.
- Johnson was a strong supporter of states' rights, and believed local governments should decide for themselves what rights to grant their citizens. After seeing the discriminatory Black Codes adopted in most Southern states after the war, however, Northerners believed the federal government should pass laws to protect African Americans from being mistreated.
- Johnson objected to a previous bill that had been passed without input from the Southern congressmen, whom the Northerners refused to seat until a new Reconstruction plan was approved for the South. The president thought it was unfair for Congress to pass laws affecting the South without hearing from those states.
- A Southerner and former slave owner himself, Johnson did not believe African Americans were entitled to the same rights as whites. Johnson made his case in this passage with an example about interracial marriage, a socially forbidden subject that struck at the heart of whites' worst fears about racial equality.
Excerpt from Johnson's veto of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866
By the first section of the bill all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are declared to be citizens of the United States. This provision comprehends the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called gypsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks.… Every individual of these races born in the United States is by the bill made a citizen.…
The grave question presents itself whether, when eleven of the thirty-six States are unrepresented in Congress at the present time, it is sound policy to make our entire colored population and all other excepted classes citizens of the United States. Four millions of them have just emerged from slavery into freedom. Can it be reasonably supposed that they possess the requisite qualifications to entitle them to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States? Have the people of the several States expressed such a conviction .…? The policy of the Government from its origin to the present time seems to have been that persons who are strangers to and unfamiliar with our institutions and our laws should pass through a certain probation, at the end of which, before attaining the coveted prize, they must give evidence of their fitness to receive and to exercise the rights of citizens as contemplated by the Constitution of the United States. The bill in effect proposes a discrimination against large numbers of intelligent, worthy, and patriotic foreigners [who must wait five years for citizenship], and in favor of the negro [who would automatically get it].…
A perfect equality of the white and colored races is attempted to be fixed by Federal law in every State of the Union over the vast field of State jurisdiction covered by these enumerated rights. In no one of these can any State ever exercise any power of discrimination between the different races. In the exercise of State policy over matters exclusively affecting the people of each State it has frequently been thought expedient to discriminate between the two races. By the statutes of some of the States, Northern as well as Southern, it is enacted, for instance, that no white person shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto .…
I do not say that this bill repeals State laws on the subject of marriage between the two races.… I cite this discrimination, however, as an instance of the State policy as to discrimination, and to inquire whether if Congress can abrogate all State laws of discrimination between the two races in the matter of real estate, of suits, and of contracts generally Congress may not also repeal the State laws as to the contract of marriage between the two races. Hitherto every subject embraced in the enumeration of rights contained in this bill has been considered as exclusively belonging to the States. They all relate to the internal police and economy of the respective States. They are matters which in each State concern the domestic condition of its people, varying in each according to its own peculiar circumstances and the safety and well-being of its own citizens.…
If, in any State which denies to a colored person any one of all those rights, that person should commit a crime against the laws of a State—murder, arson, rape, or any other crime—all protection and punishment through the courts of the State are taken away, and he can only be tried and punished in the Federal courts.… So that over this vast domain of criminal jurisprudence provided by each State for the protection of its own citizens and for the punishment of all persons who violate its criminal laws, Federal law, whenever it can be made to apply, displaces State law.… This section of the bill undoubtedly comprehends cases and authorizes the exercise of powers that are not, by the Constitution, within the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States.…
I do not propose to consider the policy of this bill. To me the details of the bill seem fraught with evil. The white race and the black race of the South have hitherto lived together under the relation of master and slave—capital owning labor. Now, suddenly, that relation is changed, and as to ownership capital and labor are divorced. They stand now each master of itself. In this new relation, one being necessary to the other, there will be a new adjustment, which both are deeply interested in making harmonious .…
This bill frustrates this adjustment. It intervenes between capital and labor and attempts to settle questions of political economy through the agency of numerous officials whose interest it will be to foment discord between the two races, for as the breach widens their employment will continue, and when it is closed their occupation will terminate.
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 infinitely 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 and against the white race. They interfere with the municipal legislation of the States, with the 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 powers and break down the barriers which preserve the rights of the States. It is another step, or rather stride, toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative powers in the National Government. The tendency of the bill must be to resuscitate the spirit of rebellion and to arrest the progress of those influences which are more closely drawing around the States the bonds of union and peace.
What happened next …
Johnson's veto angered most members of Congress. Moderate Republicans who had tried to compromise with the president decided he was a lost cause. U.S. representative Henry L. Dawes (1816–1903) of Massachusetts wrote that Johnson's veto message deprived "every friend he has of the least ground upon which to stand and defend him," according to Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, 1865–1866. Dawes and the other moderates teamed up with the Radical Republicans—the members of Congress who opposed slavery and supported equal rights for African Americans—to create the two-thirds majority needed to overturn Johnson's veto. They succeeded, and the bill became law April 6, 1866.
This newly formed super-majority would remain a powerful force for the rest of Johnson's embattled term. Congress revived Trumbull's expanded Freedmen's Bureau Bill and passed it over Johnson's veto. Congress also pushed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 (see Chapter 10) over the president's veto, carving the South into five military-controlled districts where whites and African Americans would have to work together to build their new state governments. Ultimately a frustrated Congress would impeach (charge with wrongdoing) Johnson for interfering with those Reconstruction plans, although the Senate would come one vote short of removing him from office (see Chapter 11).
In the meantime, Congress would look to make permanent the new safeguards for African Americans. The same protections outlined in the Civil Rights Bill would become part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (see Chapter 9) in 1868. Both measures would lay the groundwork for the Fifteenth Amendment (see Chapter 16) in 1870 granting African American men the right to vote.
Did you know …
- Under many Black Codes, the sheriff could "hire out" arrested African Americans who were unable to pay their fines. The African Americans would have to work for whoever paid off their fines until the debt was repaid. This measure ensured whites would still have a source of cheap labor in the postslavery era.
- Some Northern states during this era excluded African Americans from juries, banned marriages between African Americans and whites, or required separate school facilities for the races—not unlike their neighbors to the South. But Northerners grew concerned over the Southern Black Codes that forced African Americans to work and place their children in apprenticeships. They feared those rules were a step toward recreating the institution of slavery, which the North had fought to end through the Civil War.
- The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 outlawed government-based discrimination, such as different laws or stricter penalties for African Americans. Another Civil Rights Bill in 1875 (see Chapter 18) would go a step further: It banned discrimination in the private sector, requiring hotels, restaurants, theaters, and public transportation systems to treat African Americans the same as whites. The U.S. Supreme Court would later overturn that bill.
Consider the following …
- Why did the Southern states and local governments pass Black Codes after the Civil War?
- Why did Johnson include an example about interracial marriage in his veto message? What was his point?
- Johnson argued that the states should be allowed to decide which rights to grant their residents. Can you think of other rights or privileges today that vary from state to state?
For More Information
Cox, LaWanda, and John H. Cox. Politics, Principle, and Prejudice, 1865–1866: Dilemma of Reconstruction America. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.
McPherson, James M. The Struggle for Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.