Civil Rights Act of 1866

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Summary and Analysis

In the wake of the American Civil War, politicians were divided into two camps: the progressive Republicans, who pushed for greater civil rights, and the conservative Democrats, who sought to sustain the status quo. By 1866, the Republicans had secured two major legislative victories. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863, effectively freed all American slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment, passed in 1864, formally prohibited slavery. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 serves as an additional pillar to strengthen the Thirteenth Amendment. The act defines American citizenship and clarifies that all American citizens are equal before the law. Paired with the Civil Rights Act, the Thirteenth Amendment unequivocally bestows freedom and full rights to all black Americans, including former slaves. With the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to arrive in 1868 and 1870, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 is one of a series of powerfully progressive laws passed in the Reconstruction Era. Although President Andrew Johnson vetoed the act, Congress responded by overriding his veto with a landslide vote on April 6, 1866.

Summary of the Civil Rights Act of 1866:

  • Section 1 declares that all natural-born Americans are citizens, regardless of their former status as slaves. The section grants the full rights of American citizenship to those citizens.
  • Section 2 prohibits any person from depriving another citizen of rights and freedoms. The section specifically bans the deprivation of an American “by reason of his color or race.”
  • Section 3 outlines the creation of a court system designed to oversee civil rights trials. This section seeks to interlace the state court systems with the federal court system, thereby producing standards for adjudicating civil rights cases.
  • Section 4 proposes the creation of a nationally organized law-enforcement coalition. Like the courts proposed in Section 3, these coalitions are intended to enforce civil rights across the nation.
  • Section 5 brings the United States Marshal Service in line with the aims of the Civil Rights Act, commanding all marshals to accept and pursue warrants related to the enforcement of civil rights.
  • Section 6 prohibits anyone from blocking or hindering the enforcement of civil rights. This measure encompasses state governments and agencies, enforcing the interests of the federal government over those of the states.
  • Section 7 ensures that all government officials involved in the proper enforcement and adjudication of civil rights cases are compensated with fair pay, as well as bonus payments.
  • Section 8 grants the president the power to step in and oversee the enforcement and adjudication of all civil rights cases.
  • Section 9 grants the president the ability to mobilize the armed forces to enforce the other sections of the Civil Rights Act.
  • Section 10 allows the Supreme Court to resolve any civil rights cases when necessary.

President Johnson’s Veto:

In response to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, President Andrew Johnson issued a veto two weeks later. Johnson’s veto of the progressive act was predictable, given his conservative views. A presidential veto temporarily halts a piece of legislature and requires a two-thirds majority vote from Congress in order to pass the law. The following represent Johnson’s arguments against the Civil Rights Act:

  • Johnson’s chief complaint against the Civil Rights Act is that it confers an excessive amount of power to the Federal government, thereby eclipsing the powers and rights of the states. Johnson returns to this point throughout his veto. The protection of states’ rights and the fear of a powerful central government were the most defining traits of the Democratic party in Johnson’s time, and so his veto exposits the typical view of his party. Several of Johnson’s arguments fall under the umbrella of this broad argument about states’ rights.
  • Johnson claims that it is unfair to pass laws that encompass the Southern states at a time when the eleven ex-Confederate states were...

(The entire section is 1,115 words.)