April 9, 1866 – Congress Overrides President Andrew Johnson’s Veto of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866

On this date in history, the House of Representatives overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 with near unanimous Republican support, 122 to 41.

The bill was introduced by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, and mandated that “all persons born in the United States,” with the exception of American Indians and children born to foreign diplomats, were “hereby declared to be citizens of the United States.” The legislation granted all citizens the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.”

Lyman Trumbull, United States Senator from Illinois

Lyman Trumbull, United States Senator from Illinois

Ironically, as historian Eric Foner noted in his 2015 book Gateway to Freedom:

Lyman Trumbull, now chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, used the infamous 1850 statute [Fugitive Slave Act] as a model for the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which revolutionized American jurisprudence by establishing the principle of birthright citizenship and extending to black Americans many of the rights previously enjoyed exclusively by whites. To do so, Trumbull drew on the Fugitive Slave Act’s enforcement mechanisms and civil and criminal penalties, and the way it super-imposed federal power on state law in order to establish a national responsibility for securing constitutionally protected rights. ‘The act that was passed that time for the purposes of punishing persons who should aid Negroes to freedom,’ Trumbull declared, ‘is now to be applied . . . to the punishment of those who shall undertake to keep them in slavery.’” (p. 224)

President Andrew Johnson disagreed with the level of federal intervention implied by the legislation, calling it “another step, or rather a stride, toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national Government” in his veto message. Specifically, he wrote:

In all our history, in all our experience as a people living under Federal and State law, no such system as that contemplated by the details of this bill has ever before been proposed or adopted. They establish for the security of the colored race safeguards which go indefinitely beyond any that the General Government has ever provided for the white race. In fact, the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored against the white race. They interfere with the municipal legislation of the States; with relations existing exclusively between a State and its citizens, or between inhabitants of the same State; an absorption and assumption of power by the General Government which, if acquiesced in, must sap and destroy our federative system of limited power, and break down the barriers which preserve the rights of the States. It is another step, or rather stride, towards centralization and the concentration of all legislative powers in the National Government.”

In other words, “state sovereignty” wasn’t Johnson’s only problem with the bill; he condemned it as “reverse discrimination” in favor of these people just released from slavery with no homes or resources, in addition to what he considered federal inference in relations between “capital and labor.” You can read his veto remarks here.

President Andrew Johnson

President Andrew Johnson


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