Introduction

President Ulysses S. Grant accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1868 with the famous, ambiguous statement, “Let us have peace.” After his victory, he pursued the goals of conciliating Southern whites and protecting the rights of the freed slaves. His first acts were conciliatory, urging Congress to recognize the new state governments in Southern states – Virginia, Mississippi and Texas – that had not been freed from military supervision under the Reconstruction Acts. The recognition, Grant argued in his First Annual Message, would “close the work of reconstruction.” Southerners seemed to reciprocate, beginning what was called a “new departure” of accepting the conclusions of the war and seeming to turn to other domestic issues like transportation.

Yet all was not well under these new governments and freedman rights were still insecure. The passage of the 15th Amendment pointed to a new way to protect the rights of freed slaves. They could protect their own rights through the ballot box: their sheer numbers would force the whites to pay attention to their interests. However, these self-governing states were not zealous in protecting the voting and civil rights of freed slaves and union men. In fact, states were so lax in protecting those rights that they allowed domestic crimes against freed slaves and union men to go unpunished and even uninvestigated. During this period, the Ku Klux Klan and kindred organizations terrorized blacks and other loyal citizens in many parts of the South (See Executive Documents on the State of Freedmen). About one-tenth of the blacks who had been members of the constitutional conventions organized under the Reconstruction Acts in 1867-1868 were murdered in the succeeding years, for instance. Republicans in Congress, with the blessing of Grant, sought to protect citizens in the South from acts of violence and intimidation through empowering the national government to protect civil rights and especially voting rights directly. The result was a series of Enforcement Acts (also known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts), which tried to identify the various ways in which criminal conspiracies threatened loyal citizens or threatened the public peace and the enforcement of the law. Such conspiratorial actions were made illegal and the President and courts allowed investigate, prosecute and try individuals for the illegal actions under this act. As the Klan changed the scope of its operations, the law and its scope expanded to capture more illegal activity. The scope of that activity can be gauged through tracing the development of these acts.


Source: Statutes at Large, Forty First Congress, Second Session, May 31, 1870, 140–46, https://goo.gl/Yuvqn8; Statutes at Large, Forty Second Congress, First Session, April 20, 1871, 13–15, https://goo.gl/gWhrko.


The Enforcement Act, 1870

An Act to enforce the Right of Citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of the Union, and for other Purposes

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all citizens of the United States who are . . . qualified by law to vote at any election by the people in any State, Territory, district, county, city, parish, township . . . shall be entitled and allowed to vote at all such elections without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; any constitution, law, custom, usage, or regulation of any State . . . to the contrary notwithstanding.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That if by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of any State, or the laws of any Territory, any act is or shall be required to be done as a prerequisite or qualification for voting, and by such constitution or laws persons or officers are or shall be charged with the performance of duties in furnishing to citizens an opportunity to perform such prerequisite, or to become qualified to vote, it shall be the duty of every such person and officer to give to all citizens of the United States the same and equal opportunity to perform such prerequisite, and to become qualified to vote without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; and if any such person or officer shall refuse or knowingly omit to give full effect to this section, he shall, for every such offence, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby. . . and shall also, for every such offence, be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not less than five hundred dollars, or be imprisoned not less than one month and not more than one year, or both, at the discretion of the court.

. . .

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That if any person, by force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means, shall hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, or shall combine and confederate with others to hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, any citizen from doing any act required to be done to qualify him to vote or from voting at any election as aforesaid, such person shall for every such offence forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby . . . and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not less than five hundred dollars, or be imprisoned not less than one month and not more than one year, or both, at the discretion of the court.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That if any person shall prevent, hinder, control, or intimidate, or shall attempt to prevent, hinder, control, or intimidate, any person from exercising or in exercising by the right of suffrage, to whom right of suffrage is secured or guaranteed by the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, by means of bribery, threats, or threats of depriving such person of employment or occupation, or of ejecting such person from rented house, lands, or other property, or by threats of refusing to renew leases or contracts for labor, or by threats of violence to himself or family, such person so offending shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not less than five hundred dollars, or be imprisoned not less than one month and not more than one year, or both. . . .

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That if two or more persons shall band or conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway, or upon the premises of another, with intent to violate any provision of this act, or to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United Sates, or because of his having exercised the same, such persons shall be held guilty of felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be fined or imprisoned, or both, . . .[and] shall. . . be thereafter ineligible to, and disabled from holding, any office or place of honor, profit, or trust crested by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

. . .

SEC. 8. And be it further enacted, That the district courts of the United States, within their respective districts, shall have, exclusively of the courts of the several States, cognizance of all crimes and offences committed against the provisions of this act. . .

SEC. 9. And be it further enacted, That the district attorneys, marshals, and deputy marshals of the United States. . . , and every other officer who may be specially empowered by the President of the United States, shall be, and they are hereby, specially authorized and required, at the expense of the United States, to institute proceedings against all and every person who shall violate the provisions of this act, and cause him or them to be arrested and imprisoned, or bailed, as the case may be, for trial before such court of the United States or territorial court as has cognizance of the offense. . . .

SEC. 10. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all marshals and deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued under the provisions of this act, when to them directed; and should any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant or other process when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars, to the use of the person deprived of the rights conferred by this act. And the better to enable the said commissioners to execute their duties faithfully . . . , they are hereby authorized and empowered, within their districts . . . , to appoint . . . any one or more suitable persons, from time to time, to execute all such warrants and other process as may be issued by them in the lawful performance of their respective duties, and the persons so appointed to execute any warrant or process as aforesaid shall have authority to summon and call to their aid the bystanders or posse comitatus[1] of the proper county, or such portion of the land or naval forces of the United States, or of the militia, as may be necessary to the performance of the duty with which they are charged . . . .

SEC. 11. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willfully obstruct, hinder, or prevent any officer or other person charged with the execution of any warrant or process issued under the provisions of this act, . . . or [who] shall rescue or attempt to rescue such person from the custody of the officer or other person or persons, or . . . [who] shall aid, abet, or assist any persons so arrested as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from the custody of the officer or the other person legally authorized as aforesaid, or shall harbor or conceal any person for whose arrest a warrant or process shall have been issued as aforesaid . . . shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, or imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both . . . .

. . .

SEC. 13. And be it further enacted, That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to employ such part of the land or naval forces of the United States, or the militia, as shall be necessary to aid in the execution of judicial process issued under this act.

. . .

SEC. 15. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall hereafter knowingly accept or hold any office under the United States, or any State to which he is ineligible under the third section of the fourteenth article of amendment of the Constitution of the United States,[2] or who shall attempt to hold or exercise the duties of any such office, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor against the United States, and, upon conviction thereof before the circuit or district court of the United States, shall be imprisoned not more than one year, or fined not exceeding one thousand dollars, or both. . .

. . . .

The Second Enforcement Act, 1871

An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other Purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State, shall subject . . . any person . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution of the United States, any such law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of the State to the contrary notwithstanding, [that person shall] be liable to the party injured in, any action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress; such proceeding to be prosecuted in the several district or circuit courts of the United States . . . under the provisions of [The Enforcement Act of 1870]. . .

SEC. 2. That if two or more persons within any State or Territory of the United States shall conspire together to overthrow, or to put down . . . the government of the United States, or to levy war against the United States, or to oppose by force the authority of the government of the United States, or by force, intimidation, or threat to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, or by force, intimidation, or threat to prevent any person from accepting or holding any office or trust or place of confidence under the United States, or from discharging the duties hereof, or by force, intimidation, or threat to induce any officer of the United States to leave any State, district, or place where his duties as such officer might lawfully be performed, or to injure him in his person or property on account of his lawful discharge of the duties of his office, or to injure his person while engaged in the lawful discharge of the duties of his office, or to injure his property so as to molest, interrupt, hinder, or impede him in the discharge of his official duty, or by force, intimidation, or threat to deter any party or witness in any court of the United States from attending such court, or from testifying in any matter pending in such court fully, freely, and truthfully, or to injure any such party or witness in his person or property on account of his having so attended or testified, or by force, intimidation, or threat to influence the verdict, presentment, or indictment, of any juror or grand juror in any court of the United States, or to injure such juror in his person or property on account of any verdict, presentment, or indictment lawfully assented to by him, or on account of his being or having been such juror, or shall conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway or upon the premises of another for the purpose, either directly or indirectly, of depriving any person or any class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges or immunities under the laws, or for the purpose of preventing or hindering the constituted authorities of any State from giving or securing to all persons within such State the equal protection of the laws, or shall conspire together for the purpose of in any manner impeding, hindering, obstructing, or defeating the due course of justice in any State or Territory, with intent to deny to any citizen of the United States the due and equal protection of the laws, or to injure any person in his person or his property for lawfully enforcing the right of any person or class of persons to the equal protection of the laws, or by force, intimidation, or threat to prevent any citizen of the United States lawfully entitled to vote from giving his support or advocacy in a lawful manner towards or in favor of the election of any lawfully qualified person as an elector of President or Vice-President of the United States, or as a member of the Congress of the United States, or to injure any such citizen in his person or property on account of such support or advocacy, each and every person so offending shall be deemed guilty of a high crime, and, upon conviction thereof in any district or circuit court of the United States . . . having jurisdiction of similar offences, shall be punished by a fine not less than five hundred nor more than five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment, with or without hard labor, as the court may determine, for a period of not less than six months nor more than six years, as the court may determine, or by both such fine and imprisonment as the court shall determine. . . .

SEC. 3. That in all cases where insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combinations, or conspiracies in any State shall so obstruct or hinder the execution of the laws thereof, and of the United States, as to deprive any portion or class of the people of such State of any of the rights, privileges, or immunities, or protection, named in the Constitution and secured by this act, and the constituted authorities of such State shall either be unable to protect, or shall, from any cause, fail in or refuse protection of the people in such rights, such facts shall be deemed a denial by such State of the equal protection of the laws to which they are entitled under the Constitution of the United States; and in all such cases, . . . it shall be lawful for the President, and it shall be his duty to take such measures . . . as he may deem necessary for the suppression of such insurrection, domestic violence, or combinations . . . .

SEC. 4. That whenever in any State or part of a state the unlawful combinations named in the preceding section of this act shall be organized and armed and so numerous and powerful as to be able, by violence to either overthrow or set at defiance the constituted authorities of such State, and of the United States within such State, or when the constituted authorities are in complicity with, or shall connive at the unlawful purposes of, such powerful and armed combinations; . . . it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, when in his judgment the public safety shall require it, to suspend the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus, to the end that such rebellion may be overthrown. . . .

SEC. 5. That no person shall be a grand or petit juror in any court of the United States . . . who shall, in the judgment of the court, be in complicity with any such combination or conspiracy. . . .

SEC. 6. That any person or persons, having knowledge that any of the wrongs conspired to be done and mentioned in the second section this act are about to be committed, and having power to prevent or aid in preventing the same, shall neglect or refuse so to do, and such wrongful act shall be committed, such person or persons injured shall be liable to the person injured, or to his legal representatives, . . . for all damages caused by any such wrongful act . . . ; and such damages may be recovered in an action on the case in the proper circuit court of the United States . . . .

Study Questions

A. What actions are made illegal under the Acts? What powers are given to the national government to enforce the acts? What kinds of actions would prompt the national government into action under these acts?

B. What kinds of threats do states and state actions and inaction pose to the execution of the 15th Amendment? How does this Enforcement Act compare to the Civil Rights Act? Which rights does each focus on, and what processes does each set up to protect these rights? Which act is more extensive in its attempt to protect freedmen? Which abridges state power the most? How might the different emphases and mechanisms for enforcement be explained by events that happened between the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871?

Footnotes

  1. Posse Commitatus is the common law term for the authority of a county sheriff to conscript citizens to assist in carrying out legal duties.
  2. This section excluded those who had broken an oath of office and joined a rebellion against the United States from holding office again.