Congress and Civil Rights

Reconstructing the South became a divisive issue in national politics, pitting President Johnson against the Republican majority in Congress. Eventually, Congress implemented its own plan of Reconstruction, based on federal action protecting the rights of the former slaves.

Federal laws and two further Constitutional Amendments established the principle of equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race.

The Freedmen's Bureau by Alfred R. Waud, July 25, 1868, Reproduced from Harper's Weekly

When Congress assembled in December 1865, Radical Republicans called for the overthrow of the governments established under President Johnson's Reconstruction policy and the establishment of new ones with black men as well as white allowed to vote. Moderate Republicans, still hoping to work with the president, rejected this plan.

Following their lead, Congress adopted two bills, one extending the life of the Freedmen's Bureau, the second, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, guaranteeing blacks' equality before the law, short of the suffrage.

Find out more about the Freedman's Bureau

Johnson's veto of these measures moved many moderates into the radical camp, and inaugurated a bitter conflict over control of Reconstruction policy, which culminated in 1868 when he was nearly removed from office by impeachment.

In 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act over Johnson's veto, and proceeded to approve the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbade states to deprive any citizen of the "equal protection of the laws," the first Constitutional guarantee of the principle of equal civil rights regardless of race.

Read the 14th Amendment
Read the Civil Rights Bill of 1866
Read the 15th Amendment

This was a major change in the federal system, establishing the national government as the arbiter of citizens' rights, and empowering it to overturn discriminatory measures adopted by state governments.

The Civil Rights Bill was the first major law in American history to be passed over a presidential veto.

Joint Resolution Proposing the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, December 7, 1868. Old Military and Civil Records (NWCTB), National Archives

In 1870, the last of the Reconstruction-era Constitutional Amendments was ratified -- the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from abridging the right to vote because of race.

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he Meaning of Freedom: Black and White Responses to Slavery From Free Labor to Slave Labor Rights and Power: The Politics of Reconstruction The Ending of Reconstruction Epilogue: The Unfinished Revolution Resources Credits for this Exhibit Introduction