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Great Moments in White Victimization: Johnson Vetoes the Civil Rights Act of 1866

March 27, 2008, 12:52 pm

Johnson

On this day in 1866, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation that moderates in Congress had drafted to combat the notorious Black Codes. According to Eric Foner, the Civil Rights Act of 1866:

defined all persons born in the United States (except Indians) as national citizens and spelled out rights they were to enjoy equally without regard to race — making contracts, bringing lawsuits, and enjoying the benefit of ‘all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property…’ In constitutional terms, the Civil Rights Bill represented the first attempt to give meaning to the Thirteenth Amendment, to define in legislative terms the essense of freedom.

In his Veto Message (pdf), Johnson articulated a classic states’ rights argunment on the question of the federal government’s limited rights and responsbilities:

Hitherto every subject embraced in the enumeration of rights contained in this bill has been considered as exclusively belonging to the States. They all relate to the internal police and economy of the respective States. They are matters which in each State concern the domestic condition of its people,varying in each according to its own peculiar circumstances and the safety and well-being of its own citizens…If it be granted that Congress can repeal all State laws discriminating between whites and blacks in the subjects covered by this bill, why, it may be asked, may not Congress repeal in the same way all State laws discriminating between the two races on the subjects of suffrage and office? If Congress can declare by law who shall hold lands, who shall testify, who shall have capacity to make a contract in a State, then Congress can by law also declare who, without regard to color or race, shall have the right to sit as a juror or as a judge, to hold any office, and, finally, to vote ‘in every State and Territory of the United States.’

Um, yeah dude, that was kind of the point of the law. Way to keep up.

Johnson also rejected Congress’s new definition of freedom. Eleven states, he warned, had no represenation at the time, and therefore could not weigh in on the matter of whether the freed people should become citizens at all.

Beyond that, he expressed grave concerns for the rights of white people:

In all our history, in all our experience as 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 infinitely 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 and against the white race. They interfere with the municipal legislation of the States, with the 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 powers and break down the barriers which preserve the rights of the States. It is another step, or rather stride, toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative powers in the National Government. The tendency of the bill must be to resuscitate the spirit of rebellion and to arrest the progress of those influences which are more closely drawing around the States the bonds of union and peace….

Johnson, in other words, got way ahead of the current debate on affirmative action. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to note that the certain elements of the right today reach back to the postbellum era for their arguments against affirmative action. Nobody ever said that Andrew Johnson wasn’t a visionary reactionary.

In the end, Congress overrode Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act (perhaps the third veto override to that point in the nation’s history?). And because of Johnson’s ongoing intransigence in the face of Reconstruction, Congress ultimately impeached him, another case of federal authorities keeping the white man down.

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