1866 Civil Rights Act

The Civil Rights Act (1866) was passed by Congress on 9th April 1866 over the veto of President Andrew Johnson. The act declared that all persons born in the United States were now citizens, without regard to race, color, or previous condition. As citizens they could make and enforce contracts, sue and be sued, give evidence in court, and inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property. Persons who denied these rights to former slaves were guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction faced a fine not exceeding $1,000, or imprisonment not exceeding one year, or both. The activities of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan undermined the workings of this act and it failed to guarantee the civil rights of African Americans.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Frederick Douglass, speech at the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia during the American Civil War (4th December, 1863)

I am one of those who believe that it is the mission of this war to free every slave in the United States. I am one of those who believe that we should consent to no peace which shall not be an Abolition peace. I am, moreover, one of those who believe that the work of the American Anti-Slavery Society will not have been completed until the black man of the South, and the black men of the North, shall have been admitted, fully and completely, into the body politic of America. I look upon slavery as going the way of all the earth. It is the mission of the war to put it down.

I know it will be said that I ask you to make the black man a voter in the South. It is said that the coloured man is ignorant, and therefore he shall not vote. In saying this, you lay down a rule for the black man that you apply to no other class of your citizens. If he knows enough to be hanged, he knows enough to vote. If he knows an honest man from a thief, he knows much more than some of our white voters. If he knows enough to take up arms in defence of this Government and bare his breast to the storm of rebel artillery, he knows enough to vote.

All I ask, however, in regard to the blacks, is that whatever rule you adopt, whether of intelligence or wealth, as the condition of voting for whites, you shall apply it equally to the black man. Do that, and I am satisfied, and eternal justice is satisfied; liberty, fraternity, equality, are satisfied, and the country will move on harmoniously.

(2) Abraham Lincoln, speech in Washington (11th April, 1865)

It is unsatisfactory to some to know that the elective franchise is not given to the coloured man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on intelligent coloured men, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.

(3) Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, letter to Abraham Lincoln in response to his speech made in Washington two days earlier (13th April, 1865)

Once I should have been, if not satisfied, partially, at least, contented with suffrage for the intelligent and those who have been soldiers; now I am convinced that universal suffrage is demanded by sound policy and impartial justice. I shall return to Washington in a day or two, and perhaps it will not be disagreeable to you to have the whole subject talked over.

(4) Carl Schurz, letter to Charles Sumner (13th November, 1865)

The most difficult of the pending questions are intimately connected with the status of the negro in Southern society, it is obvious that a correct solution can be more easily obtained if he has a voice in the matter. In the right to vote he would find the best permanent protection against oppressive class legislation, as well as against individual persecution.

A voter is a man of influence; small as that influence may be in the single individual, it becomes larger when that individual belongs to a numerous class of voters who are ready to make common cause with him for the protection of his rights. Such an individual is an object of interest to the political parties that desire to have the benefit of his ballot.

(5) Andrew Johnson, letter to Benjamin B. French, the commissioner of public buildings (8th February, 1866)

Everyone would, and must admit, that the white race was superior to the black, and that while we ought to do our best to bring them up to our present level, that, in doing so, we should, at the same time raise our own intellectual status so that the relative position of the two races would be the same.

(6) On 27th March, 1866, Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill that had been passed by Congress.

The bill in effect proposes a discrimination against large numbers of intelligent, worthy, and patriotic foreigners, and in favor of the Negro, to whom, after long years of bondage, the avenues to freedom and intelligence have just now been suddenly opened. He must, of necessity, from his previous unfortunate condition of servitude, be less informed as to the nature and character of our institutions than he who, coming from abroad, has to some extent at least, familiarized himself with the principles of a government to which he voluntarily entrusts "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

(7) Lyman Trumbull led the attack on Andrew Johnson after he vetoed the Civil Rights Bill in March, 1866.

The bill neither confers nor abridges the rights of anyone but simply declares that in civil rights there shall be equality among all classes of citizens and that all alike shall be subject to the same punishment. Each state, so that it does not abridge the great fundamental rights belonging, under the Constitution, to all citizens, may grant or withold such civil rights as it pleases; all that is required is that, in this respect, its laws shall be impartial. And yet this is the bill now returned with the President's objections.

Whatever may have been the opinion of the President at one time as to "good faith requiring the security of the freemen in their liberty and their property," it is now manifest from the character of his objections to this bill that he will approve no measures that will accomplish the object.