This article is written by Kishita Gupta, a graduate of the Unitedworld School of Law, Karnavati University, Gandhinagar. The article discusses the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which is very important legislation in the history of America.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


Did you know that before 1866, slavery was widely practiced in the United States, which is said to have started in 1619, when a group of 20 enslaved Africans were brought to America against their will? However, in 1865, the USA saw a rise in the ‘civil war’ where people started to demand their basic rights and the abolition of slavery. The First Civil Rights Act, now known as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, was enacted into law on April 9, 1866. The Act served as the nation’s first, albeit incomplete, a step towards granting black Americans civic and social equality during the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War. The Act was also endorsed by the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the US Constitution. In this article, the author will be discussing all the aspects related to the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

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The introductory background of the Act

The thirteenth amendment’s adoption did not provide all of the outcomes that its supporters had hoped for. Although slavery and involuntary servitude were outlawed, racial equality for black people was not. Thus, discussion of a proposed law with Section II of the Thirteenth Amendment as its foundation quickly started in Congress. The following are some of the parts of the discussions that led to the enactment of the Act.

The Senate debate

January 30 

On January 30th, 1866, significant events took place. On this date’s Senate debate, the consensualists objected to the citizenship of the freedmen, which was proposed by Senator Trumbull. He proposed that people of African lineage who are born in the United States are just as many citizens as people of American descent. Due to differences in opinions in the slaveholding states, he later proposed that all people who were born in the United States should be considered citizens. Furthermore, on this date, the question of Indian citizenship was raised for the first time. On January 31st, the best solution regarding the question of Indian citizenship was found to be excluded “Indians not taxed”. 

February 1

The Senate again prioritised Indian citizenship on February 1. Debate, in particular, focused on protecting the phrase “Indians not taxed” against a fresh effort to limit the exclusion of Indians who were “subject to tribal authority.” At the end of the day, “Indians not taxed” was passed decisively by the Senate. Meaningful Senate debate on the civil rights bill had all but ended by the time the phrase “Indians not taxed” was added, and only lengthy closing statements about the entire measure for posterity were discussed on February 2. 

The House debate

On March 1, 1866, the House’s floor debates got underway. The House’s discussion of the citizenship clause in the measure focused solely on how it would affect freedmen’s citizenship; it did not address the subject of Indian citizenship. Similar to the Senate, the differences between House Republicans and Democrats were based on how they felt about the choice between the Dred Scott (1857) case – inspired consensualist vision and the common law approach to citizenship. 

In the Dred Scott decision, also known as Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court decided (7-2) on March 6, 1857, that a slave named Dred Scott was not automatically entitled to his freedom because he had lived in a free state or territory (where slavery was outlawed). Additionally, it ruled that the Missouri Compromise (1820), which had declared free all lands west of Missouri and north of latitude 36°30′, was unconstitutional and that African Americans were not and could never be citizens of the United States. The judgment fueled the sectional debate and brought the nation one step closer to civil war. Scott v. Sandford is frequently cited as the Supreme Court’s worst decision in the field of constitutional law.

On the one hand, Republican representatives argued that, according to a common law definition of citizenship, the freedmen were already citizens. Democrats countered that Dred Scott was right to rule that black people were not citizens but “merely African subjects of the US government.”

According to this perspective, citizenship was determined by the political community’s acceptance or rejection of a person’s membership, not by territorial birth. Despite these objections, the House passed the Civil Rights Act on March 13th, including its citizenship clause; two days later, the Senate unanimously agreed with the House’s revisions. On March 27, President Johnson vetoed the Bill, making it a law on April 9th, 1866.

Provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866

The Civil Rights Act of 1866’s first line unambiguously defines its goal: to safeguard all Americans’ civil rights while also providing all of the tools (to furnish) by which such protection will be put into effect (i.e., “the means of their vindication”). African Americans were freed from slavery after the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment. However, because slavery had permeated every sphere of society, the former Confederate states implemented ‘black codes’ that were harsh and discriminatory. The Republican Congress actively looked for methods to support African Americans in response to such practices. One of them is this action.

Section 1 of the Act

Section 1 of the Act is primarily known as the citizen provision as it gave citizenship rights to all persons born in the United States who are not subject to any foreign power, however excluding the Indians not taxed. Section 1 further gave everyone the same rights as white people to sue, be parties, give evidence, inherit, buy, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, as well as to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, was modified by the Civil Rights Act of 1870, divided into two sections by the revised statutes of 1875, and is still in effect today as Sections 1981 and 1982 of Title 42, United States Code

This legislation had the ability to overturn the ‘black codes’ of the South, but it also served as a forerunner to the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which explicitly defines citizenship for all Americans, regardless of colour. Several pieces of American law from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the Fourteenth Amendment and Article I of the Constitution, contain the phrase “except Indians not taxed.” The phrase is frustratingly never defined in these legal papers. Throughout much of the 19th century, the expression was also used in federal guidelines for taking censuses; it was only explicitly defined in the later statutes. The phrase, ‘Indians not taxed’ is meant to mean Indians living on reservations under the care of government agents, wandering alone, or in bands, over unsettled regions of the country. The clause’s objective is to eliminate Native Americans from the official tally of American voters, notably those who follow their own rules and customs.

In contrast to the diverse definitions of citizenship provided by the states, the first Section of the Act specifies that the citizenship awarded to African Americans is valid “in every state and territory of the United States.” The precise rights that American citizens have are listed in the final lines of the first Section, along with the penalties for infringement. Although giving such a long list may seem repetitive, the Republican Congress was up against tenacious opposition from Democratic and Southern legislators, as well as President Johnson, who aggressively sought ways to prevent the granting of civil rights to African Americans.

Section 2 of the Act

Section 2 of the Act starts with the phrase “under color of any law”. The term ‘color’ is used in legal contexts to denote ‘apparent authority’ and carries a negative connotation that suggests a pretext for unlawful activity. In order to denote individuals who would violate the rights of the American people, including former slaves, the phrase “under color of any law” is used.

This Section prohibits any sort of restriction that someone may impose in order to deprive the citizens of the USA of their rights guaranteed or protected by the Act. A ‘misdemeanor’ in the legal sense is a crime that does not result in the confiscation of property, unlike other crimes like felonies, which are more serious. For this reason, Section 2 specifies that a misdemeanor carries a maximum fine of $1,000 or a maximum sentence of one year in jail as per the discretion of the court.

Criminalizing civil rights offenses that were done in violation of the law or custom was a clever approach to get around four significant barriers to the federal court’s ability to enforce civil rights. 

  1. The first challenge was figuring out how to criminalize human rights infractions without taking over the state and local governments’ regular police duties. By limiting the criminal violations of civil rights at the federal level which are those committed under the color of law or tradition, the authors of the Act explicitly wanted to preserve state jurisdiction over ordinary offences.
  2. The expense of enforcing civil rights through civil action in federal courts was a second barrier to efficient civil rights enforcement. For those poor freedmen who needed civil remedies the most, this expense would have effectively rendered them useless. Because the government would pay for this protection and because criminal fines had a stronger deterrent impact than civil damages, the framers thought that criminal remedies were more effective than civil ones. These opinions were conveyed by the bill’s authors when they voted against an amendment to the Civil Rights Act that would have replaced Section Two’s criminal penalties with civil remedies.
  3. The third barrier to effective civil rights enforcement was sovereign immunity laws, which prevented federal courts from going after state officials who were a significant source of the violations, especially state judges who failed to administer justice impartially because they were immune from civil lawsuits. Federal courts were able to hold state officers accountable for their wrongdoings when civil lawsuits were unable to do so because criminal sanctions skirted the norms of sovereign immunity.

Therefore, by including state officials as prospective defendants in addition to private individuals, Section Two constitutes an increase in federal sanctions for civil rights breaches. This was the most efficient means the framers saw to overturn discriminatory state laws and legal procedures, short of creating a federal venue to hear civil rights claims directly. They felt so strongly about upholding the civil rights of the American people that they took this action despite the fact that it was a notable infringement of federal comity.

Section 3 of the Act

Beyond the criminal penalties offered in section two, section three of the Civil Rights Act includes jurisdictional provisions. The primary role of Section 3 is that it gives the US courts the power to determine and take appropriate legal action when a violation of Section 1 takes place, creating a single judicial body to supervise civil rights trials in the US. Cases that violate the laws outlined in other portions of the Civil Rights Act as well as the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill of 1865 would be the subjects of these trials. This is an ambitious goal because it aims to coordinate and supervise state court systems’ operations so that they work in harmony with the federal court system. This is a prime example of one of the Republican Party’s founding ideals in Congress during the Reconstruction era: to conceive and build a stronger federal government at the levels of legislation, administration, and adjudication.

There are two definitions of the term ‘cognizance’ that are relevant to this paragraph. First of all, it is to be knowledgeable, aware, or familiar as determined by observation, information, or perception. Second, the term ‘cognizance’ in legal contexts refers to the process of hearing and adjudicating legal cases. The fact that Congress included this word highlights the necessity for district courts to not only be made aware of any Civil Rights Act infractions but also to reserve the right to take legal action against offenses.

The concept of a circuit of courts to which judges from London would annually travel in order to hear and decide issues involving rural areas is where the circuit court system in the United States originated in medieval English law. Both the federal and state levels of courts in the United States have circuit systems. The Civil Rights Act enlists the assistance of the circuit courts in addition to the more regional district courts in order to broaden its judicial application.

The Freedmen’s Bureau is now included in the purview of Section 3 of this Act deals with notifying the legal system of violations involving civil rights. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1866 to assist former slaves and African-American Civil War refugees as they made their way through the postwar South. The goals of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Act were similar in that they both aimed to enhance the rights and welfare of African Americans. Therefore, it follows that violations of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill would also be violations of the Civil Rights Act.

The Latin for “thou shalt get the body” is ‘habeas corpus,’ which is a legal term. It relates to legal proceedings in which the judge requests to see the defendant in person and requires that person to appear in person in court.

The processes for defending rights guaranteed by Section 1 were outlined in Section 3 of the Act, which is spread throughout the United States Code. It still exists in part as civil rights removal laws and as part of Title 42’s Section 1988. These statutory reorganisations are not unrelated to the judicial interpretation of the 1866 statute. The 1866 Act’s remanents, which were all uprooted from their roots, are open to many more interpretations than the original clause.

Section 4 of the Act

A similar objective to that of Section 3 is advanced in Section 4. Section 4 aims to establish a nationally unified law-enforcement coalition, whereas Section 3 created the foundation for a federally unified judicial system to handle civil rights offences as it gives powers to the United States’ district attorneys, marshals, and deputy marshals; commissioners appointed by its circuit and territorial courts; officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau; and any other official to whom the President of the United States may delegate special authority for the purpose of arresting, imprisoning, or releasing people in violation of its laws. The authors of this Act aim to broaden its jurisdiction over all states and regulate how it is applied by law enforcement personnel at all levels, including federal, state, and local, in a move reminiscent of the so-called Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction era.

The word ‘marshal’ has several meanings, but in this context, it refers to a public servant whose duties are administrative and judicial, including serving writs, levying and collecting fines, and other elements of federal law enforcement. The United States Marshals Service was established in 1789, during George Washington’s administration. As an agency of the federal government, the US Marshals are answerable to both the executive and judicial departments.

Section 5 of the Act

This Section gave the power to marshals and deputy marshals to execute warrants that were issued under the Act. It also penalises these marshalls with fines or imprisonment if they refuse to execute the warrants whenever required by them under the law.  

This Section creates financial incentives for federal marshals to enforce the Civil Rights Act’s laws. However, the statute threatens to charge marshals $1,000, which would be roughly $15,000 as of 2022 after accounting for inflation, rather than paying them for correctly executing warrants. The Civil Rights Act was seen as an extension of the duties of the marshals because they are employed by the executive and judicial branches; similarly to the military officers supporting the Freedmen’s Bureau, the additional salary was not included.

The Latin phrase “posse comitatus” means “the power of the county.” Posse comitatus refers to a group of citizens who are requested to help a sheriff maintain order, carry out a rescue operation, or capture a criminal. Although it has its roots in English law, the word ‘potential companions’ can be directly translated from Latin. It is the origin of the commonly used colloquial word “posse” in the Western United States. The phrase is used in this context to give local law enforcement the authority to assemble local militias and civilian troops in order to execute the Civil Rights Act.

Section 6 of the Act

Anyone who impeded the Civil Rights Act’s enforcement could be charged with a crime under Section 6. No one is allowed to prevent the Civil Rights Act’s implementation, according to Section 6. This statute, which applies to all Americans regardless of any state laws that might conflict with it, is an assertion of federal authority. The restriction takes the form of a threatening misdemeanour charge, which carries a maximum penalty of $1,000 and six months in jail.

Section 7 of the Act

Section 7 of the Act is a provision which includes pledging to provide adequate money to law enforcement officials involved in instances involving the implementation of the Civil Rights Act in order to assure the successful and full execution of all warrants linked to that enforcement. The Act provides for the payment of all expenses related thereto, in addition to the five-dollar bonus provided to commissioners for each case. This presence lends credence to the idea that Republican lawmakers wished to remove all impediments to the Civil Rights Act’s enforcement.

Section 8 of the Act

The Civil Rights Statute is directly enforced and decided upon by the executive branch under the precedents set forth in Section 8 of the Act. In order to speed up the delivery of justice in civil rights matters, the President is specifically given the authority to direct the focus and actions of judges, marshals, and district attorneys in any district of the country.

Section 9 of the Act

In accordance with Section 9 of the Act, the President was given the power to “use such part of the land or naval forces of the United States or of the militia, as shall be required to prevent the violation and enforce the due execution of this Act.” In order to implement the Civil Rights Act and stop offenses against it, Section 9 gives the president the authority to use any US military force. The legislative branch has granted the executive branch a large degree of privilege through Sections 8 and 9. President Andrew Johnson opposed and vetoed the Act, and even specifically questioned the powers granted to the president in Section 9, despite the degree of presidential control specified in the statute.

Section 10 of the Act

All legal issues arising in any case under the Act may be finally appealed to the US Supreme Court under Section 10.

The thirteenth amendment and incidents of slavery

By the time of the War of Independence from England, slavery had become common practise across the English Colonies and was taken for granted throughout the new world. Due to the climate and agricultural system found south of the Mason-Dixon Line by the 1830s, slavery had become primarily a Southern institution. However, the abolitionist movement, which sought to better the condition of black people and abolish slavery, emerged in the 1830s. This course of action appeared sensible in the North, but in the South, a civil war was necessary to end slavery.

The abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States and anywhere else under its jurisdiction was made possible by the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which was passed immediately after the Civil War. The amendment’s Section II granted Congress the authority to implement Section I through suitable legislation.

There has been some debate over whether the so-called “incidents of slavery” are also outlawed by the thirteenth amendment, in addition to slavery and involuntary servitude per se. And if slavery is condemned, the bothersome question of what exactly constitutes these “incidents of slavery” then becomes a problem. In Civil Rights cases (1883), Justice Harlan mentioned the freedom to contract, litigate, be a party to a suit, give testimony, inherit, buy, rent, and sell the property as examples of slavery. Even though some commentators have limited the meaning of incidents of slavery to slavery per se and involuntary servitude, Justice Harlan’s definition seems to express the fundamental intent of the Congress that enacted the thirteenth amendment as well as the interpretation of the Supreme Court following the Civil War.

The fourteenth amendment and citizenship

The House Joint Resolution recommending the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was delivered to the states on June 16, 1866. The 14th Amendment was officially ratified by the necessary 28 of the required 37 states on July 28, 1868, and it became part of the supreme law of the land.

The 14th Amendment made it clear that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States” were entitled to citizenship, freeing those who had previously been held as slaves.

“No state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction, the equal protection of the laws,” was another equally significant clause. Both the federal government and state governments are now subject to the right to a fair trial and equal protection under the law.

For the 14th Amendment to have the intended impact, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was required. Even though they were born on American territory, almost 4 million men, women, and children were without a way to become citizens when the South surrendered. They received ‘personhood’ thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This personhood took the shape of citizenship in the United States. Being a citizen of the federal government is distinct from being an American citizen. The first sentence of the 14th Amendment reads, “All individuals born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to its jurisdiction, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they live.” These Federal citizens were already under ‘its’ jurisdiction when the 14th Amendment was passed, but they were ‘born again’ as citizens of the United States of America and under ‘its’ authority as noted by Joseph Story J.

This lengthy justification is required to demonstrate how the Civil Rights Act of 1866, while a congressional act, and the 14th Amendment, a valid amendment to the US Constitution, are inextricably linked to producing the desired initial impact.

The Supreme Court’s view on the Act of 1866

In determining the original intent of the 1866 statute, cases determined in the years immediately after its passage are especially crucial. The amended laws of 1874 would deprive the Act’s descendants of any similarity to the original regulation. And a lot of the 1866 Act would be unnecessary if courts were used to applying the fourteenth amendment. The majority of scepticism over the Act’s constitutionality was also dispelled with the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The majority of judges were prepared to defend the Act prior to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment since Congress had the authority to forbid slavery under the Thirteenth Amendment. But at least the legislation was deemed unconstitutional by Kentucky’s highest court in Bowlin v. Commonwealth (1867). Some forms of racial discrimination that the legislation’s terms arguably embraced were not prohibited by other courts, who did so by interpreting the act differently. For instance, courts disagreed on whether states could continue to forbid marriages between whites and blacks in their stated readings of the Act. Not until the Supreme Court did not deem the Fourteenth Amendment to forbid anti-miscegenation legislation in the case of Loving v. Virginia (1967), such marriages were considered unlawful and Section 1 was not applied here.

The 1866 Act’s effect on state laws preventing blacks from testifying against whites was also disputed by state courts. While in Kelley v. State (1869), the Supreme Court of Arkansas ruling found the legislation to authorize such evidence to be valid, the Kentucky Court in Blyew v. United States (1871) ruled Congress’s attempt to do so to be unconstitutional. Because Chinese witnesses had testified at the mulatto’s trial and state law forbade them from testifying against white males, the California Supreme Court used the 1866 Act’s evidentiary provision to dismiss an indictment against the man in People v. Washington (1869). However, People v. Washington was overturned by People v. Brady (1870), a year later, with two of the majority justices replaced by new justices. This decision found that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was unconstitutional and that the Fourteenth Amendment did not grant the Chinese a right to testify.

The significance of Section 1 decreased after the 1870s. The state legislation requiring racial discrimination in regions covered by Section 1, which it most successfully opposed, could also be directly challenged under the Fourteenth Amendment. There was only one significant area to which Section 1 might be applied, private discrimination. The most heinous rules of the Black Codes had been undermined by Section 1 and the Fourteenth Amendment.

There was some debate as to whether Section 1 of the Act could be applied to private discrimination when the Civil Rights Cases (1883)United States v. Harris (1883), and United States v. Cruikshank (1876) limited Congress’s power to legislate against private racial discrimination under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court’s statements in Virginia v. Rives (1880) and Corrigan v. Buckley (1926) suggested that the 1866 Act did not apply to private conduct. It was contrary to an early lower federal court opinion in United States v. Morris (1903), which suggested the 1866 Act’s applicability to private discrimination. In Virginia v. Rives, the Court went on to splice the Civil Rights Act of 1866 with its state action interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Even while the Court acknowledged that the statute had already been in place when the amendment was certified, it said it had been reenacted “upon the first section of that amendment.”

West Virginia’s racial discriminatory law and its companion decision, Strauder v. West Virginia (1880), led to a conflict in the Court’s philosophy. According to the Court’s interpretation of Section three of the Civil Rights Act, cases where state law prohibited blacks from serving on grand and petit juries might be transferred to federal court.

Section 1 was given new life in the case of Hurd v. Hodge (1948), which was a companion case to Shelley v. Kraemer (1948). The Court used Section 1 to forbid racially restrictive covenants from being enforced in District of Columbia courts. The Supreme Court decided in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co. (1968) that Congress intended the 1866 statute to forbid private discrimination and that Congress had the constitutional authority to do so under the Thirteenth Amendment.

The remnants of the 1866 Act were turned from antiquated artefacts into federal laws that broadly forbade private racial discrimination in the sale or lease of all housing, schools, employment, and nearly all other contracts as a result of the cases Jones, Johnson v. Railway Express Co. (1974), and Runyon v. Mccrary (1976). The newly identified coverage of the 1866 statute exceeds that of contemporary civil rights laws in several ways. General Building Constructors Association, Inc. v. Pennsylvania (1982), which held that responsibility under the 1866 legislation cannot be imposed without proof of intentional discrimination, restricted the 1866 Act’s application.

Remnants of Section 3 provide that actions arising under state law but removed to a federal court shall be tried in Federal Court in accordance with state law. However, in Robertson v. Wegmann (1978), the Court misinterpreted the provision of the 1866 statute mandating this outcome to hold that matters originating under federal law must be decided under state law. In Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, Inc. (1969), damages for Section 1 rights violations were authorized, and in Tomanio v. Board of Regents (1980), state statutes of limitations were required to be used in federal civil rights actions. Both instances made use of the same remnant, Section 1988.

Shortcomings of the 1866 Act and how it was filled

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 left a lot to be desired, despite being unquestionably a step in the right direction on the long path from slavery to complete equality. The Act ensured that everyone’s civil rights, including the ability to sue, enter into and execute contracts, and acquire, transfer, and inherit real and personal property, would be protected, regardless of race or color. However, it did not safeguard their social rights, which would guarantee equal access to public accommodations, or their political rights, such as the ability to vote and hold public office. Since it didn’t even touch on the subject of voting rights, making voting rights for women a distant dream. This gap was only filled almost a century later with the introduction of the Voting Rights Act, 1965.

Racist terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) were created in 1866 as well and quickly grew to encompass practically all southern states. This mainly hindered the 1866 Civil Rights Act from being enacted more quickly to protect black people’s civil rights. The Act forbade racial discrimination in employment and housing, but it did not include government consequences for violations, leaving it up to individual victims to pursue legal action.

The Introduction of the 1875 Act and subsequent Acts

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was an attempt by Congress to address the problems with the 1866 Act. The 1875 Act, also known as the “Enforcement Act,” forbade the exclusion of black people from jury service and gave all citizens, including black people, equal access to public transit and lodging.

However, eight years later, in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875’s provisions governing public accommodations were unconstitutional and that Congress did not have the authority to regulate such matters under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Consequently, although being ‘free’ citizens of the United States under the law, black people continued to experience unregulated discrimination in practically all spheres of society, the economy, and politics. The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that racial segregation in accommodations was permitted as long as they were of similar quality and that the states had the authority to establish laws enforcing it.

The legislative and executive branches avoided discussing civil rights for nearly a century as a result of the Plessy ruling’s broad scope, enabling black people to endure the injustices of Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal” public schools.

Many racial discrimination victims had no other options since they couldn’t afford legal counsel. But since the 1950s, when more extensive civil rights legislation was passed, more legal remedies have been made possible as a result of Supreme Court decisions based on the original Civil Rights Act of 1866, such as the famous rulings in Jones v. Mayer Co. (1968) and Sullivan v. Little Hunting Park, Inc. in the late 1960s.

The Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 were revived by civil rights movements that extended across the country in the 1950s and 1960s. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all integrated portions of the 1866 and 1875 Civil Rights Acts, were all passed as important parts of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” campaign.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 continues to be a source of legal precedent for the Supreme Court today as discrimination cases on issues like affirmative action, voting rights, reproductive rights, and same-sex marriage continue to surface.


Congress intended to enforce civil rights regardless of who committed the violation, a private person, a state official, or a state statute, according to the historical backdrop of this legislation, the legal theories upon which it was founded, and its fundamental provisions. The Civil Rights Act’s unclear breadth is the result of later erroneous interpretations of the legislation’s legislative history based on contemporary principles that don’t apply when establishing the framers’ intentions. It is concluded that by giving restrictive meanings to federal civil rights statutes that were neither intended nor even taken into consideration by their framers, the Supreme Court significantly limited the implementation of civil rights in the nineteenth century. Contrasting sharply with its prior protection of slave owners’ property rights in their slaves under the runaway slave clause is the Court’s interpretation of federal guarantees of civil rights.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key features of the Civil Rights Act of 1866?

Being the first civil rights law in the country, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 is noteworthy. According to the Act, everyone born in the country was granted the fundamental rights of citizenship “in every state and territory in the United States,” regardless of their race, color, or prior condition of slavery or involuntary servitude. The law additionally stipulates that each of these people has the following particular rights:

  • Right to create and carry out contracts.
  • Right to suit, be parties and offer evidence in the court of law
  • Real and personal property can be inherited, bought, leased, sold, held, and transferred.
  • Right to the full and equal benefit of all laws and processes for the security of person and property, as enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, and penalties, and to none other.
  • The statute further stipulated that offenders be found guilty and punished.

Who introduced the Civil Rights Act of 1866?

On January 5, 1866, Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-Illinois) introduced the bill in the Senate. The bill was passed by the Senate 33–12 on February 2, 1866. The United States House of Representatives passed the bill on March 13, 1866, by a vote of 111-38, with 34 members abstaining.

What developments took place after the Civil Rights Act’s introduction?

Political rights, such as the right to vote and the ability to hold public office, were not covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The right to vote was given to all citizens of the United States by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which was enacted in February 1870, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Fifteenth Amendment nevertheless “had little influence for almost a century because states imposed poll fees, literacy tests, and other limitations that prevented African Americans from voting,” according to the National Constitution Center. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were two later pieces of legislation enacted in the 20th century to address this issue.  

Which incident in history led to the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1866?

After other historical occurrences, including the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the Reconstruction Era, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed during a period of change in American history.

Why is the Civil Rights Act of 1866 important in the history of America?

 The First Civil Rights Act, now known as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, was enacted into law on April 9, 1866. The Act served as the nation’s first, albeit incomplete, step towards granting black Americans civic and social equality during the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War. The Act was also endorsed by the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments to the US Constitution. 

What was the purpose of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1866?

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which went into effect on April 9, 1866, was the first federal statute in the United States to define US citizenship and to declare that all citizens were entitled to the same legal protections. In the years following the American Civil War, it was primarily meant to safeguard the civil rights of African-Americans.

Differentiate between the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875.

In contrast to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 provided citizenship to people born in the United States. More riots and protests occurred in the years before 1964, necessitating changes.


  1. John R. Allison, The Resurrection of the Civil Rights Act of 1866: Its Effect upon Modern Legislation and Current Litigation, 23 BAYLOR L. REV. 277 (1971). 
  2. Alfred Avins, The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Civil Rights Bill of 1966, and the Right to Buy Property, 40 S. CAL. L. REV. 274 (1967). 
  3. Florence Wagman Roisman, The Impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 on Racially Discriminatory Donative Transfers, 53 ALA. L. REV. 463 (2002). 
  4. Mark Shawhan, By Virtue of Being Born Here: Birthright Citizenship and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 15 HARV. LATINO L. REV. 1 (2012). 
  5. John Hope Franklin, The Civil Rights Act of 1866 Revisited, 41 Hastings L.J. 1135 (1990). 
  6. Racial Discrimination and the Civil Rights Act of 1866
  7. Civil Rights Act of 1866 – Ballotpedia
  8. Enforcement Provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866: A Legislative History in Light of Runyon v. McCrary, The

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