The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, became law On December 18, 1865, when Secretary of State William Seward verified that three-fourths of the states had ratified the proposal to amend the Constitution. Southern states responded to the new amendment by enacting “Black Codes” aimed at oppressing newly emancipated slaves. Left to the caprice of state governments, blacks did not experience the ordinary civil liberties enjoyed by whites.
Civil Rights Act of 1866
Lyman Trumbull’s Proposed Legislation
On January 5, 1866, Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull introduced “A Bill to protect all persons in the United States in their civil rights, and furnish a means for their vindication.” Trumbull proposed to validate the citizenship of former slaves and to endow them with specific, federally guaranteed civil rights. The Senate approved the bill on February 2, and the House followed suit on March 13, 1866.
President Johnson’s Veto
Two weeks later, on March 27, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation. Part of Johnson’s veto message mirrored the objections of several of the bill’s legislative opponents. They argued that Congress did not have the authority to enact the proposal because the U.S. Constitution vested the individual states — not the federal government — with the power to protect or extend the civil rights of citizens.
Congress Overrides Johnson’s Veto
Constitutional objections aside, Congress voted to override Johnson’s veto and enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1866 on April 9, 1866.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 stated that:
That all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens, of every race and color, and without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, . . . shall have the same right in every state and territory in the United States, to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.
The act also established various methods of enforcement by executive and judicial officials. It also prescribed penalties and punishments for officials who did not enforce the law.
Because of concerns about constitutional challenges to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Congress passed, and the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on July 9, 1868. When Secretary of State William Seward verified the ratification results and the Fourteenth Amendment became law on July 28, 1868, it duplicated much of the intent of the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment were huge steps toward achieving racial equality in the United States. Nonetheless, their impact was limited by the specific nature of their language. The laws affirmed that former slaves possessed the same legal rights as whites, but they said nothing regarding their political rights to vote or hold office. The measures also ignored matters of social rights related to equal access to public accommodations. African Americans would experience another century of racial bigotry before additional federal legislation would legally rectify those shortcomings.