The Civil Rights Act of 1866: History and Impact

One step on the long road towards racial equality under the law

Archival newspaper illustration related to the passage of the Civil Rights Bill
An archival illustration from Harper's Weekly about the Civil Rights Bill. MPI / Getty Images

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first law enacted by the United States Congress clearly defining U.S. citizenship and affirming that all citizens are equally protected by the law. The Act represented the first step, albeit an incomplete one, towards civil and social equality for black Americans during the Reconstruction Period that followed the Civil War.

Where the Civil Rights Act of 1866 Succeeded

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 contributed to the integration of blacks into mainstream American society by:

  1. Establishing that “all persons born in the United States” are citizens of the United States;
  2. Specifically defining the rights of American citizenship; and
  3. Making it illegal to deny any person of these rights of citizenship on the basis of their race or color.

Specifically, the 1866 Act stated that “all persons born in the United States” (except for American Indians) were “hereby declared to be citizens of the United States” and that “such citizens of every race and color . . . shall have the same right . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Just two years later, in 1868, these rights were further protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which addressed citizenship and guaranteed all citizens equal protection under the law.

The 1866 Act reversed the 1857 Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, which had held that because of their foreign ancestry, native-born, free African Americans were not U.S. citizens and thus had no rights to sue in American courts.

The Act also sought to override the infamous Black Codes enacted in Southern states, which restricted the freedom of African Americans and allowed racially discriminatory practices such as convict leasing.

After first being passed by Congress in 1865, but vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, Congress again passed the bill re-framing it as a measure to support the Thirteenth Amendment, which had banned slavery throughout the United States.

Although Johnson vetoed it again, the required two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate voted to override the veto and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 became law on April 9, 1866.

In his veto message to Congress, Johnson state that he objected to the federal government’s scope of enforcement implied by the legislation. Always a strong supporter of states’ rights, Johnson called the act “another step, or rather a stride, toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national Government.”

Where the Civil Rights Act of 1866 Fell Short

While certainly a forward step along the long road from slavery to full equality, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 left something to be desired.

The Act guaranteed all citizens, regardless of race or color, protection of their “civil rights,” such as the right to file suit, make and enforce contracts, and to buy, sell, and inherit real and personal property. However, it did not protect their “political rights,” like voting and holding public office, or their “social rights,” ensuring equal access to public accommodations.

This apparently glaring omission was actually the intent of Congress at the time. When he introduced the bill in the House, Rep.

James F. Wilson of Iowa summarized its purpose as follows:

It provides for the equality of citizens of the United States in the enjoyment of "civil rights and immunities." What do these terms mean? Do they mean that in all things civil, social, political, all citizens, without distinction of race or color, shall be equal? By no means can they be so construed. Do they mean that all citizens shall vote in the several States? No; for suffrage is a political right which has been left under the control of the several States, subject to the action of Congress only when it becomes necessary to enforce the guarantee of a republican form of government. Nor do they mean that all citizens shall sit on the juries, or that their children shall attend the same schools. The definition given to the term "civil rights" … is very concise, and is supported by the best authority. It is this: "Civil rights are those which have no relation to the establishment, support, or management of government."

Hoping to avoid President Johnson’s promised veto, Congress deleted the following key provision from the Act: “there shall be no discrimination in civil rights or immunities among the inhabitants of any State or Territory of the United States on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

1875 Brings One Step Forward, Several Steps Back

Congress would attempt to correct this shortcoming with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Sometimes referred to as the “Enforcement Act,” the 1875 Act guaranteed all citizens, including African Americans, equal access to public accommodations and public transportation, and prohibited their exclusion from jury service.

Eight years later, however, the Supreme Court ruled in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883 that public accommodation sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were unconstitutional, declaring that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments did not give Congress the power to regulate the affairs of private individuals and businesses.

As a result, African Americans, though legally “free” U.S. citizens, continued to face uncontrolled discrimination in almost all areas of society, economics, and politics. In 1896, the Supreme Court, with its Plessy v. Ferguson decision, declared that racially-separate accommodations were legal as long as they were equal in quality and that the states had the power to enact laws requiring racial segregation in those accommodations. Due to the range of the Plessy ruling, the legislative and executive branches avoided the issue of civil rights for almost a century, leaving African Americans to suffer the inequities of the Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” public schools.

The Legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1866: Equal at Last

The passions of the civil rights movement that spread across the nation during the 1950s and 1960s rekindled the spirit of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875. Enacted as key elements of the “Great Society” program of President Lyndon Johnson, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the Fair Housing Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 all incorporated provisions of the 1866 and 1875 Civil Rights Acts.

Today, as cases of discrimination continue to crop up in areas like affirmative action, voting rights, reproductive rights, and same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court commonly takes legal precedent from the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Civil Rights Act of 1866 Key Takeaways

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first law passed by the U.S. Congress defining citizenship and affirming the Constitution’s guarantee of “equal protection" under the law.
  • The Act established that “all persons born in the United States” are citizens.
  •  The Act made it illegal to deny any person of the rights of citizenship on the basis of their race or color.
  • The Act failed to protect political or social rights like voting and equal accommodations.
  • President Andrew Johnson twice vetoed the Act, and Congress twice overrode his veto.
  • Today, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 is cited in Supreme Court cases dealing with discrimination.

Sources

  • Foner, Eric. “Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877.” New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
  • Wilson, Theodore Brantner. “The Black Codes of the South.” University: University of Alabama Press, 1965.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. “The Strange Career of Jim Crow.” 3d rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.