Civil Rights Act of 1866 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act, Congress overrode his veto, and the new law joined the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution as the first federal legislation to enhance the rights of former slaves.

Summary of Event

At the end of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) lay the long road of Reconstruction. Reconstruction;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] As early as 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had expressed a plan for Reconstruction after the Civil War. These plans required a loyalty oath and acceptance of emancipation from southern states desiring readmission to the union. It was not until after Lincoln’s assassination that Reconstruction began in earnest. Civil Rights Act of 1866 African Americans;and civil rights legislation[Civil rights legislation] Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Civil Rights Act of 1866[Civil Rights Act of 1866] [kw]Civil Rights Act of 1866 (Apr. 9, 1866) [kw]Act of 1866, Civil Rights (Apr. 9, 1866) Civil Rights Act of 1866 African Americans;and civil rights legislation[Civil rights legislation] Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Civil Rights Act of 1866[Civil Rights Act of 1866] [g]United States;Apr. 9, 1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866[3920] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 9, 1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866[3920] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 9, 1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866[3920] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 9, 1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866[3920] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 9, 1866: Civil Rights Act of 1866[3920] Stevens, ThaddeusCivil Rights Act of 1866 Sumner, CharlesCivil Rights Act of 1866

Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States, was vice president at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865. He inherited the problems of rebuilding the country after a lengthy civil war Reconstruction;and Andrew Johnson[Johnson] , which had ended in April, 1865. Johnson believed that the responsibility for developing Reconstruction policy should be handled by the president. Johnson’s Reconstruction policy provided for a loyalty oath by citizens of states seeking readmission, revocation of the act of secession, abolition of slavery, and repudiation of the Confederate war debt. Several states—including Arkansas, Arkansas;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Louisiana, Louisiana;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] and Tennessee Tennessee;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] —were readmitted in early 1865 without congressional approval. By the end of 1865, all states had been readmitted except Texas Texas;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] . This Reconstruction plan, however, failed to address the issues associated with the former slaves and their rights.

Congress believed that a debt was owed to the former slaves. In 1865, it created the Freedmen’s Bureau Freedmen’s Bureau[Freedmens Bureau] as a temporary assistance program to address some of this debt. Food, medicine, schools, and land were made available to freedmen. Early in 1866, Congress passed a new Freedmen’s Bureau Act and the first federal Civil Rights Act. Both were vetoed by President Johnson, because he feared that the legislation would extend to people of other races. He asked, “Was it sound to make all these colored peoples citizens?” Congress succeeded in quickly overturning these vetoes. J. W. Forney reported that the Senate, prodded by the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner Sumner, CharlesCivil Rights Act of 1866 , agreed to pass the vetoed legislation with a two-thirds majority on April 6, 1866. The House of Representatives, similarly led by Thaddeus Stevens Stevens, ThaddeusCivil Rights Act of 1866 , followed suit on April 9, 1866, the anniversary of the Confederacy’s surrender.

During this same time, less positive events were affecting the free blacks. The year 1866 brought the founding of the Ku Klux Klan Ku Klux Klan;formation of . African Americans were subjected to killings, beatings, and torture. This often occurred to keep them out of the political arena, which offered opportunities for power. Perhaps more detrimental to African Americans was the institutionalized racism of the black codes. Also known as black laws, black codes were legal enactments developed to regulate the actions and behaviors of freedmen in the South. These codes allowed legal marriage Marriage;and black codes[Black codes] between African Americans, limited rights to testify in court, and limited rights to sue others.

Citizens outside the galleries of the U.S. House of Representatives celebrating the House’s passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1866.

(Library of Congress)

The black codes also supervised the movements of African Americans in the South, restricted the assembly of unsupervised groups of black people, forbade intermarriage between people of color and whites, banned African Americans from carrying weapons, restricted African American children to apprenticeships that were nearly slavery, and forced black people into employment contracts that carried criminal penalties if abandoned. Violation of these codes often resulted in stiffer criminal punishment for African Americans than similar violations did for whites. Southern politicians reinstated by Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policy were responsible for passage of these codes. It was in this environment that Congress found it necessary to develop legislation to combat the antiblack sentiment.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first federal law to protect the civil rights of African Americans. Section 1 of this provision established the right of citizenship Citizenship, U.S.;and African Americans[African Americans] to all persons born in the United States, without regard to previous servitude. As citizens, African Americans were granted the right to enter into and enforce contracts; inherit, lease, sell, hold, and convey property; give evidence in courts; benefit equally from all laws and ordinances; and be subject to punishments that were the same as given to whites for similar crimes.

Section 2 provided for misdemeanor penalties for anyone who deprived another of the rights afforded in section 1. Additional sections dealt with those who were granted the authority to prosecute and enforce this legislation. In order to ensure that this legislation would be enforced, Congress further established acts that were referred to as enforcement acts. Additionally, Congress drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to protect the freedmen’s status.

Historically, the U.S. Constitution had been the source of civil liberties for citizens of the United States. The first eight amendments to the Constitution provided for a variety of freedoms. The First Amendment granted the freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly, as well as the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances. The Second, Third, and Fourth Amendments provided for a federal militia, the right to own private property, and the right to be protected from unreasonable seizures and searches of private property. The Fifth Amendment provided for the right of due process, ensured that one need not present evidence against oneself, and prevented double jeopardy in court (that is, one cannot be tried for the same offense twice). The Sixth through Eighth Amendments provide for further fair and equitable treatment by the judicial system. The purpose of various civil rights acts has been to extend these rights to all people, particularly those groups for whom these rights were originally withheld, and provide for their enforcement.


In addition to its role in Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 set an important precedent for the enactment and protection of civil rights by statute rather than through the Constitution. Several civil rights acts have been passed in the United States since 1866. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 made it a crime to deny equal protection under the law through duress or force. Civil rights legislation passed in 1875, which guaranteed black people the right to use public accommodations, was ruled unconstitutional eight years after it was passed. This continued a downhill turn in the rights of African Americans, eventually leading to the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) . This was the rule until 1954, when the Supreme Court determined that separate but equal was inherently unequal, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. It was not until 1964, and again in 1968, that any additional civil rights legislation was enacted at the national level. The 1964 and 1968 acts prohibited discrimination in employment, in use of public accommodations such as hotels, and in housing and real estate.

When President Andrew Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation aimed at granting rights to freed blacks, he began a two-year campaign that would end with an impeachment trial. Congressmen became increasingly concerned with Johnson’s apparent plan to subvert and sabotage Reconstruction. His appointment of former Confederate leaders who had not vowed allegiance to the union, his lack of tact in dealing with those with whom he disagreed, his efforts to circumvent Congress and extend presidential powers, and his veto of important civil rights legislation resulted in a special meeting of the House of Representatives on March 2, 1867. Two measures were passed at this special session. One deprived Johnson of his responsibilities as commander in chief of the military; the second deprived him of the right to remove those with whom he disagreed from their cabinet positions. Finally, a resolution was passed to impeach Johnson for alleged violations of these measures. The senate failed to convict Johnson by one vote. However, Johnson was more compliant in the Reconstruction process after this trial.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abernathy, M. Glenn. Civil Liberties Under the Constitution. 5th ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989. Discusses the Bill of Rights and the historical relevance of civil rights legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Asch, Sidney H. Civil Rights and Responsibilities Under the Constitution. New York: Arco, 1968. Analysis of amendments, such as the right-to-vote amendment, in light of ethical questions of the day.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bardolph, Richard, ed. The Civil Rights Record: Black Americans and the Law, 1849-1870. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970. Presents legal documentation of the African American move toward legal equality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blaustein, Albert P., and Robert L. Zangrando, eds. Civil Rights and the American Negro: A Documentary History. New York: Trident Press, 1968. Discusses the civil rights legislation that has been passed specifically in relation to the end of slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chalmers, David M. Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan. 3d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987. A historical and political examination of the Ku Klux Klan. Lends validity to the discussion of the civil rights and emancipation legislation of the post-Civil War era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Explores the progress of African Americans through slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and the early 1960’s Civil Rights movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKissack, Patricia, and Frederick McKissack. The Civil Rights Movement in America, from 1865-Present. 2d ed. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1991. A discussion of the progress in civil rights since the end of the Civil War and slavery in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trefousse, Hans Louis. Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999. Focuses on the reasons why the Congress was unable to convict Johnson, the consequences of this acquittal, and the relationship of impeachment to the failure of Reconstruction. Trefousse argues that Johnson knowingly risked impeachment so he could thwart Reconstruction and maintain white supremacy in the South.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weinstein, Allen, and Frank Otto Gatell. Freedom and Crisis: An American History. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1978. Volume 2, chapter 24 discusses the dramatic events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson’s impeachment trial, and congressional Reconstruction.

Ohio Enacts the First Black Codes

Dred Scott v. Sandford

U.S. Civil War

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Reconstruction of the South

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Birth of the Ku Klux Klan

Fourteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Civil Rights Cases

Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters

Plessy v. Ferguson

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Andrew Johnson; Abraham Lincoln; Thaddeus Stevens; Charles Sumner. Civil Rights Act of 1866 African Americans;and civil rights legislation[Civil rights legislation] Johnson, Andrew [p]Johnson, Andrew;and Civil Rights Act of 1866[Civil Rights Act of 1866]

Categories: History