Key Facts & Summary:
- The Enforcement Acts were measures for ascertaining the protection of the African-American civil rights after the ratification of the Thirteen, Fourteen and Fifteenth Amendments.
Background to the Acts
Upon the conclusion of the Civil War, Congress ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The African-Americans were guaranteed freedom, civil rights, and suffrage as US citizens. This ensured non-discrimination of blacks “on account of race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.”
However, there was violent opposition from the white southerners with forces such as the Ku Klux Klan which terrorised black Americans when exercising their civic responsibilities such as the right to vote, serving on juries or running for public office.
Primarily, the Acts were criminal codes that enabled the intervention of the federal government in instances where the states directly or indirectly did not act to protect the rights of the African Americans. The Acts sought to end the violence and empower President Ulysses S. Grant to use military force to protect African Americans.
The Enforcement Acts
In May 1870, Congress passed the first Enforcement Act, that Act prohibited people from assembling ‘or get into disguise along the public highways, or in the premises of another with the intention of violating citizens’ constitutional rights.’ Further, the Act outlined the penalties for those interfering with citizens’ right to vote; provided that cases pertaining, congressional elections were under the jurisdiction of the federal court and outlawed conspiracies to safeguard fair voting.
In December 1870, Indiana Republican Senate Oliver H.P.T Morton introduced a resolution requesting the President to convey information concerning incidents of resistance against the execution of US laws. The Senate adopted Morton’s recommendation, and President Ulysses subsequently passed reports on related events in the southern states. The Select Committee of the Senate, chaired by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts received and investigated the reports.
The reports led to the enactment of the second measure passed in February 1871. The second measure amended the first in providing for federal supervisors who would observe and intervene in a congressional election in towns with more than 20,000 inhabitants. This amendment reduced the role of federal courts during the polls.
In April 1871, Congress passed the third and last measure, known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. This measure outlawed terrorist conspiracies of the new group of racist vigilantes known as the Ku Klux Klan. It further enabled the President to suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus in the regions prone to terrorist conspiracies.
Impact of the Acts
For the most part, the Acts were only useful in undermining the power of the Ku Klux Klan but not the violent resistance to African American participating in the ballot. Further, the cases of the United States v. Reese et al. and United States v. Cruikshank challenged the constitutionality of the measures. The court held that voting rights are best regulated by state authority and not federal intervention. In 1890, Senate Henry Cabot of Maine initiated an amendment that would strengthen the enforcement Acts, but the Senate rejected his proposals.