Acts of Congress

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Congressional Act Appointing Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1832)


By the 1820s, with the push to eliminate independent Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River, the foundations were being laid for U.S. Indian policy through the century and beyond. One of the major developments in this policy came about in a little noticed action by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun (1782–1850). Without obtaining authorization from Congress, in 1824 he established an Office of Indian Affairs. In practice, the War Department already had been handling most dealings with the Indian tribes. The army, after all, was the one branch of the government most likely to be in direct contact with them.

For eight years Congress took no action; but in 1832, when it appointed a Commissioner of Indian Affairs, it left the office within the War Department. This meant that U.S. Indian policy would henceforth speak with one voice. Beyond that, formalizing the office sent the message, whether intentionally or not, that Congress wanted dealings with the Indians to be conducted under the auspices of the department set up to deal with the nation's enemies. Although in 1849 the Bureau of Indian Affairs was moved to the Department of the Interior, the policy direction was already established.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That the President shall appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, a commissioner of Indian affairs, who shall, under the direction of the Secretary of War, and agreeably to such regulations as the President may, from time to time, prescribe, have the direction and management of all Indian affairs, and of all matters arising out of Indian relations, and shall receive a salary of three thousand dollars per annum.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of War shall arrange or appoint to the said office the number of clerks necessary therefor, so as not to increase the number now employed; and such sum as is necessary to pay the salary of said commissioner for the year one thousand eight hundred and thirty-two, shall be, and the same hereby is, appropriated out of any money in the treasury.

Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That all accounts and vouchers for claims and disbursements connected with Indian affairs, shall be transmitted to the said commissioner for administrative examination, and by him passed to the proper accounting officer of the Treasury Department for settlement; and all letters and packages to and from the said commissioner, touching the business of his office, shall be free of postage.

Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That no ardent spirits shall be hereafter introduced, under any pretence, into the Indian country.

Sec. 5. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of War shall, under the direction of the President, cause to be discontinued the services of such agents, sub-agents, interpreters, and mechanics, as may, from time to time, become unnecessary, in consequence of the emigration of the Indians, or other causes.

Homestead Act (1862)


The idea that the government should provide land titles directly to Western settlers dated to the early 1850s. Before that time, settlers often negotiated at a disadvantage with wealthy speculators who held title to their homesteads. In 1851, the state of Illinois and the federal government pioneered a new arrangement: the national authorities transferred thousands of acres of federal lands to the state government; in return, the state agreed to build a railroad through the grant areas, promote settlement along the line, and eventually transfer land titles directly to the emigrants as they established homesteads.

The Illinois land grant was a huge success and inspired enthusiasts of westward expansion to consider conferring federal land directly on the settlers themselves. Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 with its doctrine of "popular sovereignty" gave a new incentive to Northern advocates of such a homestead law, for they saw it as a way to speed the flow of free-state emigrants to the West in order to defeat proslavery forces in territorial elections. By the 1860 presidential campaign, creation of an effective Homestead Act had become an integral part of the Republican party's program to confine slavery to the states where it already existed. Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and the Republicans won the election, but soon after their victory, the nation was plunged into Civil War and diverted attention from the territories. Even so, they did not forget their pledge. In May 1862, Republican leaders in Congress summoned support to pass the Homestead Act.

The law changed federal policy in two important ways. First, it curbed the activities of land speculators by limiting the acreage which an individual citizen could purchase. Second, it permitted settlers to gain title to their homesteads directly from the government for a token fee. However, the act did not apply to those who had "borne arms against the Government" or "given aid and comfort to its enemies"; in other words, slaveholding citizens of the rebellious Confederacy were forever denied the opportunity claim Western land under the terms of the law. By subsidizing Northern settlers with grants of essentially free land and barring Confederate citizens and sympathizers from benefitting by its generous terms, the Homestead Act helped accelerate the flow of free-state citizens into the West and doomed the Southern dream of an empire for slavery in the American plains.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands, upon which said person may have filed a preemption claim, or which may, at the time the application is made, be subject to preemption at one dollar and twenty-five cents, or less, per acre; or eighty acres or less of such unappropriated lands, at two dollars and fifty cents per acre, to be located in a body, in conformity to the legal subdivisions of the public lands, and after the same shall have been surveyed: Provided, That any person owning and residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate one hundred and sixty acres.

Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies, and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation, and not either directly or indirectly for the use or benefit of any other person or persons whomsoever; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified: Provided, however, That no certificate shall be given or patent issued therefor until the expiration of five years from the date of such entry; and if, at the expiration of such time, or at any time within two years thereafter, the person making such entry; or, if he be dead, his widow; or in case of her death, his heirs or devisee; or in case of a widow making such entry, her heirs or devisee; in case of her death; shall prove by two credible witnesses that he, she, or they have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding, the time of filing the affidavit aforesaid, and shall make affidavit that no part of said land has been alienated, and that he has borne true allegiance to the Government of the United States; then, in such case, he, she, or they, if at that time a citizen of the United States, shall be entitled to a patent, as in other cases provided for by law: And provided, further, That in case of the death of both father and mother, leaving an infant child, or children, under twenty-one years of age, the right and fee shall enure to the benefit of said infant child or children; and the executor, administrator, or guardian may, at any time within two years after the death of the surviving parent, and in accordance with the laws of the State in which such children for the time being have their domicil, sell said land for the benefit of said infants, but for no other purpose; and the purchaser shall acquire the absolute title by the purchase, and be entitled to a patent from the United States, on payment of the office fees and sum of money herein specified.

Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That the register of the land office shall note all such applications on the tract books and plats of his office, and keep a register of all such entries, and make return thereof to the General Land Office, together with the proof upon which they have been founded.

Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefor.

Sec. 5. And be it further enacted, That if, at any time after the filing of the affidavit, as required in the second section of this act, and before the expiration of the five years aforesaid, it shall be proven, after due notice to the settler, to the satisfaction of the register of the land office, that the person having filed such affidavit shall have actually changed his or her residence, or abandoned the said land for more than six months at any time, then and in that event the land so entered shall revert to the government.

Sec. 6. And be it further enacted, That no individual shall be permitted to acquire title to more than one quarter section under the provisions of this act; and that the Commissioner of the General Land Office is hereby required to prepare and issue such rules and regulations, consistent with this act, as shall be necessary and proper to carry its provisions into effect; and that the registers and receivers of the several land offices shall be entitled to receive the same compensation for any lands entered under the provisions of this act that they are now entitled to receive when the same quantity of land is entered with money, one half to be paid by the person making the application at the time of so doing, and the other half on the issue of the certificate by the person to whom it may be issued; but this shall not be construed to enlarge the maximum of compensation now prescribed by law for any register or receiver: Provided, That nothing contained in this act shall be so construed as to impair or interfere in any manner whatever with existing preemption rights: And provided, further, That all persons who may have filed their applications for a preemption right prior to the passage of this act, shall be entitled to all privileges of this act: Provided, further, That no person who has served, or may hereafter serve, for a period of not less than fourteen days in the army or navy of the United States, either regular or volunteer, under the laws thereof, during the existence of an actual war, domestic or foreign, shall be deprived of the benefits of this act on account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years.

Sec. 7. And be it further enacted, That the fifth section of the act entitled "An act in addition to an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes," approved the third of March, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, shall extend to all oaths, affirmations, and affidavits, required or authorized by this act.

Sec. 8. And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent any person who has availed him or herself of the benefits of the first section of this act, from paying the minimum price, or the price to which the same may have graduated, for the quantity of land so entered at any time before the expiration of the five years, and obtaining a patent therefor from the government, as in other cases provided by law, on making proof of settlement and cultivation as provided by existing laws granting preemption rights.

Approved, May 20, 1862.

Thirteenth Amendment (1865)


The Thirteenth Amendment was one of the three amendments passed in the wake of the Civil War (1861–1865) to end slavery and, it was hoped, its effects. Passed by the Senate in 1864, as the war was drawing to an end, the amendment was blocked in the House of Representatives. In 1865, however, it managed to secure enough votes to win passage in both houses of Congress. The states ratified it the same year.

Section 1 of the amendment prohibits slavery or "involuntary servitude" anywhere in the United States. The meaning of the section is mostly unambiguous: it ended the system of enslaving African Americans, especially in the South, that had been among the principal causes of the war. By also prohibiting involuntary servitude, it has been suggested, Congress sought to give itself authority for determining the nature of freedom, and what constitutes slavery beyond the most obvious forms of it.

Section 2 was almost as far-reaching as Section 1, for it says that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." This was the first time that an amendment had specifically given the federal government authority to act against the power of the states to promote some higher good in the national interest.

For many years after it was passed, the Thirteenth Amendment was rarely cited in Supreme Court decisions. In 1883, in United States v. Harris, the Court ruled that it did not apply to cases of personal racial discrimination, and because the Fourteenth Amendment has since been used to argue many such cases, the Thirteenth Amendment lay more or less dormant. It had ended slavery, and that was that.

However, in 1986 the amendment reemerged in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., in which the Court used it to declare unconstitutional a case of private racial discrimination in a property matter. The plaintiff, Jones, said the defendants had refused to sell him a home because he was black. In basing his case on the Thirteenth Amendment, instead of the Fourteenth, Jones and his attorneys opened up a new avenue for combating racial discrimination under the Constitution.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Civil Rights Bill Veto (1866)


In 1866 President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) vetoed a civil rights bill that sought to define national citizenship, a move that would resolve a persistently ambiguous legal principle in American politics. The bill eliminated racial distinctions on citizenship confirmed by the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and established nativity (birth within the territory of the United States) as the main criteria for citizenship. Although it stopped short of giving freedmen the right to vote, it gave them the tools to make contracts and to protect themselves from extreme economic exploitation.

Johnson's veto message struck chords that were themes throughout his unsuccessful presidency. He objected to deciding such fundamental questions with inadequate input from the Southern states. He also questioned what he considered an unwarranted elevation of African-Americans from their position as defined by the Dred Scott case. To dramatize his concerns, he raised the perennial issue for opponents of racial equality—the threat of racial intermarriage—and hinted that the extension of citizenship to blacks somehow worked to the disadvantage of whites. Finally, he expressed concerns about the "centralization and concentration" of powers of the federal government. By eliminating the possibility of a middle course of compromise, Johnson gambled and lost. The Republicans' success in enacting the Civil Rights Act over his veto gave them the confidence to proceed on their own plans, without any further cooperation from the president.

By the first section of the bill all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are declared to be citizens of the United States. This provision comprehends the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called gypsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks…. Every individual of these races born in the United States is by the bill made a citizen….

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. Four millions of them have just emerged from slavery into freedom. Can it be reasonably supposed that they possess the requisite qualifications to entitle them to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States? Have the people of the several States expressed such a conviction? … The policy of the Government from its origin to the present time seems to have been that persons who are strangers to and unfamiliar with our institutions and our laws should pass through a certain probation, at the end of which, before attaining the coveted prize, they must give evidence of their fitness to receive and to exercise the rights of citizens as contemplated by the Constitution of the United States. The bill in effect proposes a discrimination against large numbers of intelligent, worthy, and patriotic foreigners, and in favor of the negro….

A perfect equality of the white and colored races is attempted to be fixed by Federal law in every State of the Union over the vast field of State jurisdiction covered by these enumerated rights. In no one of these can any State ever exercise any power of discrimination between the different races. In the exercise of State policy over matters exclusively affecting the people of each State it has frequently been thought expedient to discriminate between the two races. By the statutes of some of the States, Northern as well as Southern, it is enacted, for instance, that no white person shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto….

I do not say that this bill repeals State laws on the subject of marriage between the two races…. I cite this discrimination, however, as an instance of the State policy as to discrimination, and to inquire whether if Congress can abrogate all State laws of discrimination between the two races in the matter of real estate, of suits, and of contracts generally Congress may not also repeal the State laws as to the contract of marriage between the two races. 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, in any State which denies to a colored person any one of all those rights, that person should commit a crime against the laws of a State—murder, arson, rape, or any other crime—all protection and punishment through the courts of the State are taken away, and he can only be tried and punished in the Federal courts…. So that over this vast domain of criminal jurisprudence provided by each State for the protection of its own citizens and for the punishment of all persons who violate its criminal laws, Federal law, whenever it can be made to apply, displaces State law…. 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….

I do not propose to consider the policy of this bill. To me the details of the bill seem fraught with evil. The white race and the black race of the South have hitherto lived together under the relation 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….

This bill frustrates this 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, for as the breach widens their employment will continue, and when it is closed their occupation will terminate.

In all our history, in all our experience as a 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.

Fourteenth Amendment (1868)


The Fourteenth Amendment, proposed by Congress in 1866 and ratified by the states in 1868, was a reaction against efforts by the southern states to impose restrictions on the civil liberties of freed blacks in the aftermath of the Civil War (1861–1865). The Thirteenth Amendment had ended slavery, but in many places across the South there had been little change in the status of African Americans. In fact, a range of Black Codes had been put in place to restrict many of their civil rights—their right to vote, to own property, to testify in court, travel, speak, make contracts, and more.

Besides denying blacks their civil rights, such laws posed a political risk to Republicans in the North. Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution had counted slaves as three-fifths of a free person for purposes of representation in Congress. Suddenly, the full population of the South counted, so the number of southern congressmen was going to increase. But if blacks could not vote in the South, then whites would elect Democrats, who would outnumber the northern Republicans in Congress. For this reason as well as genuine distaste for what was happening (and, not incidentally, a desire to punish the southern former slaveowners), Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment.

The amendment has five sections. Section 1 defines, for the first time, national citizenship: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." It also prohibits the states from making laws that deny U.S. citizens their lawful "privileges or immunities," deny them the "equal protection of the laws," or deprive them of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

Sections 2 prescribes a punishment for states that in any way limit the right to vote of "male inhabitants … twenty-one years of age." Any such states would have their representation in Congress reduced.

Sections 3 and 4 deal with the status and effects of former rebels. By the terms of the amendment, no former officer of the Confederacy would be entitled to serve in the U.S. government unless Congress decides otherwise by a two-thirds vote. Nor, the amendment says, would the United States assume the public debt of the former Confederacy.

Section 5 gives Congress power to enforce the amendment by "appropriate legislation."

The amendment, and particularly the first section, had farreaching implications for the future of constitutional interpretations. Never before had the Constitution been thrust so directly into the affairs of the states. Never before had a concept of national citizenship been expressed in the Constitution.

At first, however, the Supreme Court saw things differently. When the Court was first called upon to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment in 1873, in the Slaughter-House Cases, the issue in question had nothing to do with African Americans or former slaves. Instead, a group of butchers in New Orleans, Louisiana, claimed they had been unjustly deprived of their property by a law creating a monopoly in the butcher business in that city. The Court ruled against the butchers, stating that the amendment had never been intended to apply to any such situation. By a number of other decisions, notably Bradwell v. Illinois (1873), Minor v. Happersett (1875), the Civil Rights Cases (1883), and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court continued to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment narrowly, saying either that it did not apply to nonracial cases or that it did not apply to individuals but only to states. In the last of those, Plessy, the Court even upheld a state law mandating segregation on railway cars, saying that such a law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's "equal-protection clause."

Gradually, however, the Court began interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment differently, so that today it is one of the cornerstones—with the Bill of Rights—guaranteeing Americans' civil liberties. In Gitlow v. New York (1925), the Court stated that the Fourteenth Amendment's equal-protection clause prevented states from denying citizens their First Amendment freedom of speech. One by one, and at an accelerating pace, the Court applied other aspects of the Bill of Rights to the states by citing the federal government's authority to act under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Many of the major cases of the 20th century have involved "incorporating" the protections of the Constitution (and particularly the Bill of Rights) into the Fourteenth Amendment. These include Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which outlawed restrictive housing covenants; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson; and Roe v. Wade (1973), which made abortion legal in all the states.

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Fifteenth Amendment (1870)


The Fifteenth Amendment was meant to guarantee the vote to African-American men, many of whom had been denied it despite the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The later amendment, ratified in 1870, states that the right of citizens to vote could not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude"—including former slave status.

This was by no means an uncontroversial amendment, even in the North, where property qualifications for voters had been continued for blacks even as they had been gradually eliminated for whites over the first half of the 19th century. The immediate motivation for the amendment was that in the election of 1868, the Republican candidate, Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), won only about 52 percent of the vote. In fact, his margin of victory in the popular vote was decided by support from southern black voters. To ensure that those votes would not be denied to future Republican candidates, the Republican-controlled Congress proposed the Fifteenth Amendment. (The Republican party was very popular with former slaves; it was the party of Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1865, remembered as the Great Emancipator.)

The effect of the Fifteenth Amendment, however, was something less than its supporters had counted on. In a number of cases, the Supreme Court interpreted it narrowly, saying, for example, that it did not apply to poll taxes and literacy tests that were designed to keep blacks from voting. Later, when the Court became more interested in promoting civil rights, it turned to the Fourteenth Amendment with much more frequency than it did the Fifteenth.

However, almost a century after the amendment was ratified, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on authority granted in the Fifteenth Amendment. This legislation dramatically extended the federal authority to protect voting rights of minorities, and thus achieved the effect intended by the Fifteenth Amendment.

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Ku Klux Klan Act (1871)


Despite their large majorities, Republican governments held power precariously during the early years of Southern Reconstruction. Factionalism within the party, movements to restore the voting power of former Confederates, and, most ominously, the widespread use of political violence by such groups as the Ku Klux Klan all jeopardized the stability of these biracial governments.

President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) tolerated Conservative victories when a clear majority of legal voters favored the party of white supremacy. He made a strong commitment, however, to eliminating the open and organized violence that became common in the South between 1868 and 1871. The Ku Klux Klan—a vigilante group that turned to political violence after the introduction of Radical Reconstruction—typified white terrorism of the period. Claiming to represent the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, its members donned white robes and masks and directed their violence primarily at black voters and politicians. After barely two years of Reconstruction the Klan's effectiveness threatened to return white Southern Conservatives to power even in areas where there was a clear Republican majority.

Grant successfully lobbied Congress for a means of using federal force to combat the Klan's violent intimidation of voters. The resulting act sought to assure the provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which guaranteed the "equal protection of the laws" and the right to vote. Under direction of U.S. Attorney General Amos Akerman, a white Republican from Alabama, the newly created Department of Justice prosecuted Klan members in several Southern states and even declared martial law in a Klan stronghold South Carolina. By 1872, the Grant administration had won its war on the Klan, which disappeared until its reappearance in the 20th century.

Republicans had difficulty continuing their program of swift, successful responses to white political violence. In 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal enforcement powers extended only to violations by the states, not the misdeeds of individuals. The Court agreed with Conservatives that the punishment of individual criminals, even those who violated another's federal civil rights, should be punished by the state judicial systems. This ruling discouraged further national action to reduce white vigilantism and, as Northern opinion grew impatient with Southern issues, whites again turned to violent means in battling the fragile Reconstruction governments.

Be it enacted …

Sec. 2. That if two or more persons within any State or Territory of the United States … 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 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 supreme court of any Territory of the United States having jurisdiction of similar offenses 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 may 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 will 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, by the employment of the militia or the land and naval forces of the United States, or of either, or by other means, 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: Provided, … That the President shall first have made proclamation, as now provided by law, commanding such insurgents to disperse: And Provided also, That the provisions of this section shall not be in force after the end of the next regular session of Congress.