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Civil Rights Act of 1866

April 9, 1866

Enacted by Congress over President Andrew Johnson's veto, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 aimed to counter Black Codes enacted by Southern states by validating the citizenship of former slaves and endowing them with specific, federally-guaranteed, civil rights

The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States of America, became law on December 18, 1866, 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 failed to attain the ordinary civil liberties of whites.

On January 5, 1866, Illinois United States 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. Two weeks later, on March 27, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation. Part of Johnson's veto message mirrored objections of several of the bill's legislative opponents. They argued that Congress did not have authority to enact the proposal because the constitutional power to protect or extend the civil rights of individuals was vested in the states, not the federal government. Constitutional objections aside, Congress voted to override Johnson's veto, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was enacted 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 and imposed penalties and punishments on officials for failing to enforce the law.

Due to concerns about constitutional challenges to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the measure was superseded in 1868 by the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which duplicated much of the original act's intent.

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 in regard to their political rights to vote or hold office. The measures also ignored the topic of social rights related to equal access to public accommodations. African-Americans were to another century of racial bigotry before additional federal legislation legally rectified those shortcomings.

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