Andrew Johnson and the veto of the Civil Rights Bill

Andrew Johnson returned his veto of the Civil Rights Bill to Congress with his stated objections.

His first concern revolved around Federal decisions being made for the as-yet unrepresented Southern states:

"The right of Federal citizenship thus to be conferred on the several excepted races...is now for the first time proposed to be given by law...the grave question presents itself whether, when eleven of the thirty-six States are unrepresented in Congress at the present time, it is sound policy to make our entire colored population and all other excepted classes citizens of the United States."

He was also concerned that Congress planned to bring certain criminal and civil cases under the jurisdiction of Federal instead of State laws. He wondered:

"The question here naturally arises, from what source Congress derives the power to transfer to Federal tribunals certain classes of cases embraced in this section...This section of the bill undoubtedly comprehends cases and authorizes the exercise of powers that are not, by the Constitution, within the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States. To transfer them to those courts would be an exercise of authority well calculated to excite distrust and alarm on the part of all the States, for the bill applies alike to all of them - as well to those that have not been engaged in the rebellion..."

The Bill allowed commissioners selected by the court to appoint people to execute warrants and other processes. He worried that "this extraordinary power is to be conferred upon agents irresponsible to the Government and to the people, to whose number the discretion of the commissioners is the only limit..."

In his concluding thoughts, Johnson wrote:

"The white race and the black race of the South have hitherto lived together under the relations of master and slave - capital owning labor. Now, suddenly, that relation is changed, and as to ownership capital and labor are divorced. They stand now each master of itself. In this new relation, one being necessary to the other, there will be a new adjustment, which both are deeply interested in making harmonious. Each has equal power in settling the terms, and if left to the laws that regulate capital and labor it is confidently believed that they will satisfactorily work out the problem...

This bill frustrates that adjustment. It intervenes between capital and labor and attempts to settle questions of political economy through the agency of numerous officials whose interest it will be to foment discord between the two races..."

If these caveats were taken into consideration, Johnson continued:

"I will cheerfully cooperate with Congress in any measure that may be necessary for the protection of the civil rights of the freedmen, as well as those of all other classes of persons throughout the United States, by judicial process, under equal and impartial laws, in conformity with the provisions of the Federal Constitution."

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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