THE ORIGINS OF CIVIL RIGHTS

With the South unrepresented, Republicans enjoyed an overwhelming majority in Congress. But the party was internally divided. Most Republicans were moderates, not Radicals. Moderates believed that Johnson’s plan was flawed, but they desired to work with the president to modify it. They feared that neither northern nor southern whites would accept black suffrage. Moderates and Radicals joined in refusing to seat the southerners recently elected to Congress, but moderates broke with the Radicals by leaving the Johnson governments in place.

President Andrew Johnson, in an 1868 lithograph by Currier and Ives. Because of Johnson’s stubborn opposition to the congressional Reconstruction policy, one disgruntled citizen drew a crown on his head with the words, “I am King.”

Early in 1866, Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois proposed two bills, reflecting the moderates’ belief that Johnson’s pohcy required modification. The first extended the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had originally been established for only one year. The second, the Civil Rights Bill, was described by one congressman as “one of the most important bills ever presented to the House for its action.” It defined all persons born in the United States as citizens and spelled out rights they were to enjoy without regard to race. Equality before the law was central to the measure—no longer could states enact laws like the Black Codes discriminating between white and black citizens. So were free labor values. According to the law, no state could deprive any citizen of the right to make contracts, bring lawsuits, or enjoy equal protection of one’s person and property. These, said Trumbull, were the “fundamental rights belonging to every man as a free man.” The bill made no mention of the right to vote for blacks. In constitutional terms, the Civil Rights Bill represented the first attempt to give concrete meaning to the Thirteenth Amendment, which had abolished slavery, to define in law the essence of freedom.

To the surprise of Congress, Johnson vetoed both bills. Both, he said, would centralize power in the national government and deprive the states of the authority to regulate their own affairs. Moreover, he argued, blacks did not deserve the rights of citizenship. By acting to secure their rights, Congress was discriminating “against the white race.” The vetoes made a breach between the president and nearly the entire Republican Party inevitable. Congress failed by a single vote to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to override the veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill (although later in 1866, it did extend the Bureau’s life to 1870). But in April 1866, the Civil Rights Bill became the first major law in American history to be passed over a presidential veto.

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