What is the Civil Rights Act of 1866?

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  • Written By: Amanda R. Bell
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
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  • Last Modified Date: 19 September 2019
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The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was a piece of legislation passed by the U.S. Congress declaring anyone born in the U.S. to be a citizen and eligible for certain anti-discrimination protections. The law made denying any citizen these rights a misdemeanor, and allowed the federal government to oversee each state's enforcement of the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was one of the first laws passed after the abolishment of slavery to allow those born in the U.S. certain legal rights regardless of the color of their skin.

On April 9, 1866, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, overriding President Andrew Johnson's veto of the bill. The law stated that no matter a person's race or previous enslavement, a person born in the U.S. was provided with the same civil rights as everyone else. The intention of the law was to allow former slaves these rights; it did not provide the same for Native Americans.


The term civil rights, which today typically encompasses legal, political and social rights, encompassed for the purposes of this law only legal rights. These rights included the ability to enter into and uphold contracts, act as a witness in a court of law, start a lawsuit, or have a lawsuit brought against them. It also extended the rights of ownership to anyone born in the U.S. including the ability to sell, own, rent, purchase and inherit real estate, land, or property. The law also required that all citizens be punished for the same crime equally; anyone caught stealing, for example, would be penalized in the same fashion regardless of skin color.

While granting each citizen what was then known as civil rights, the Act did not allow for former slaves to vote in elections and did not extend any social rights. It did, however, set up what was then considered excessive penalties for any person or official denying anyone the specified rights. Going against, failing to report infractions, or failing to uphold this law was considered a misdemeanor and punishable with up to one year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both.

This law required that all local and state governments uphold and enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1866. To ensure this occurred, it gave the federal government and the President himself the power to oversee any cases regarding the law as well as the ability to force a judge or other government official to make rulings on specific cases; the failure to do so resulted in a fine and the possibility of removal from office. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 also allowed the use of military force to aid in enforcement, and the Supreme Court had the final say in any cases.


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Is the civil rights act constitutional?

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