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Force Acts


FORCE ACTS, also known as Force Bills, refers to Congressional legislation enacted during the early 1830s and 1870s, intended to compel Southern compliance with particular federal legislation.

The first Force Actpassed by Congress, at the urging of President Andrew Jackson, on 2 March 1833was designed to compel the state of South Carolina's compliance with a series of federal tariffs, opposed by John C. Calhoun and other leading South Carolinians. Among other things, the legislation stipulated that the president could, if he deemed it necessary, deploy the U.S. Army to force South Carolina to comply with the law.

In reality, Jackson, under the U.S. Constitution, already enjoyed that power. Indeed, by that March, he had already dispatched U.S. military forces to Charleston, with orders to make sure that the tariffs were enforced before visiting cargo ships were allowed to land. The confrontation between Jackson and South Carolina, years in the making, turned on a widespread belief among states rights advocates that many of the economic woes then bedeviling South Carolina arose from protective federal tariffs enacted in 1828 and 1832. Reacting to such fears, Calhoun and other South Carolinians had promulgated a "doctrine of nullification," whichstopping just short of claming the state's right to secede from the Unionmaintained that states enjoyed a right to disobey federal statutes, which they adjudged violated states' rights under the U.S. Constitution. The Force Act of 1833 had, for the most part, a merely symbolic value, for, by the time of its passage, the dispute that gave rise to the legislation had been resolved through compromise. To wit, on the same day that Congress passed the Force Act, it also passed, with Jackson's blessings, a bill modifying the offending tariffs. South Carolina, in a face-saving gesture, was then allowed to "nullify" the Force Actan empty gesture since the controversy had already been resolved.

The term Force Acts also refers to a series of federal statutes, enacted between 1870 and 1875, that sought to secure the compliance of recalcitrant Southerners with various Reconstruction-era reforms. An 1870 Force Bill sought to force compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which reconfirmed various political rights of African Americans. An 1871 bill, designed to protect voting

rights, mandated federally appointed election supervisors. Another 1871 Force Bill, designed to strengthen enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, sought to curtail voter intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups opposed to black enfranchisement. The final Force Bill, passed in 1875just before Republicans lost control of the Congresssought to give African Americans equal access to hotels, trains, and other public facilities. In the end, all four of that era's Force Bills fell victim to the forces of southern white supremacy that gathered resurgent powers during the 1870s. Not until the mid-twentieth century were the rights sought for African Americans in the South by the Force Bills' authors fully secured.


Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863 1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1998.

Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 17761854. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Tom Chaffin

See also Civil Rights Act of 1875 ; Reconstruction ; Tariff .

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