President Andrew Johnson's Civil Rights Bill Veto (1866)

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Emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment provided former slaves with freedom, but no laws protected them from the quasi-slavery of the Black Codes and similar state legislation. In an attempt to offer freedmen equal protection under the law and freedom in seeking employment, Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866. The Bill bound state governments to obey a federal law ensuring that freedmen be conferred full citizenship in the United States. Congress aimed it at the Southern states, but the Civil Rights Bill actually undermined discriminatory laws in many Northern states as well. Moderate and Radical Republicans in Congress formed a coalition championing the Bill, along with the establishment of a Freedmen's Bureau, as pillars of Reconstruction.

President Andrew Johnson exercised his right to veto the Civil Rights Bill, however, temporarily derailing the transition toward Radical Reconstruction. In so doing, Johnson ended all hope of cooperation between Congress and himself. The President sank into political isolation, wielding little authority outside of his negative power to veto. Johnson's veto message denounced the Bill as unconstitutionally subordinating state law to federal law, while confounding what he saw as a positive redefinition of interracial economic and social relationships already taking place in the South. He deemed the bill "fraught with evil," and in decidedly racist language derided freedmen as unfit to receive and exercise the rights of American citizenship.

By striking down what New York Senator Henry J. Raymond lauded as "one of the most important bills ever presented to this House for its action," Johnson rang the death knell of his political career. To add further insult to the President's injury, Congress rammed the Bill through with the necessary majority anyway, marking the first time a major piece of legislation passed over a veto in American history.

Paul S.Bartels,
Villanova University

See also Citizenship ; Civil Rights Act of 1866 ; Reconstruction .

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.

SOURCE: Richardson, James D., ed. A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789–1897. Washington: Bureau of National Literature, 1896–1899.

Veto Power of The President

views updated May 17 2018


VETO POWER OF THE PRESIDENT. The writers of the Constitution gave the president the right to veto legislation although that veto can be overridden by the vote of two-thirds of the House and Senate (Article 1, Section 7). The right to veto or to refuse assent to legislation had always been claimed by British kings. However, that right had more or less fallen into desuetude by the late eighteenth century. In the hands of an elected president as opposed to a hereditary monarch, however, the veto power became of great importance.

In fact two types of veto exist. The first is the regular veto in power, through which the president returns the legislation to the Congress unsigned, usually with a message setting out reasons for this action. The second is a quieter, more discreet form of the veto known as the "pocket veto," in which the president fails to sign a bill within the ten days allowed by the Constitution before Congress adjourns. This pocket veto generally attracts less publicity, in part because it does not need to be accompanied by a message from the president giving reasons for the veto. Of the 372 vetoes cast by President Franklin Roosevelt, 263 were pocket vetoes. Exactly half of President Ronald Reagan's vetoes were pocket vetoes. Because so much of the congressional agenda is completed in the last few days of a session, often described as the "rush to adjourn," a pocket veto is more useful than might be supposed.

The power of the regular veto results from the considerable difficulty of overriding it. It is not easy to assemble a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate on a contentious issue. Most vetoes are successful. Of the seventy-eight vetoes cast by President Reagan, for example, only nine were overridden. In his first term President Bill Clinton cast seventeen vetoes, and only one was overridden. Some high profile presidential vetoes have been overridden. President Harry Truman saw his veto of the antiunion Taft-Hartley Act fail in 1947, and President Richard Nixon saw his veto of the War Powers Act fail in 1974. In general, however, a president is able to muster the support of one-third of either the House or the Senate to sustain a veto. The president of course can deploy the usual repertoire of presidential weapons to garner votes to sustain a veto, including persuasion, appeals to support the national interest, threats and promises to campaign or not to campaign against a legislator in future elections, help in fundraising, and "going public."

The presidential veto has a particularly great importance, however, in periods of divided government, when one party controls the White House and the other controls all or part of Congress. Presidents whose party is in a minority in Congress are driven to use the veto frequently. This partly reflects their limited ability to persuade the congressional majority from the other party to follow their wishes. It also reflects the presidents' need to force the congressional majority to bargain with them by making it clear that legislation generally will fail if the president is prepared to veto it. Presidential vetoes are therefore most likely when a president confronts a majority in Congress from the other party. President Gerald Ford, a Republican who was not even elected to the White House and who faced a strong Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate, cast sixty-six vetoes in three years. George H. W. Bush cast forty-six vetoes, whereas Jimmy Carter, whose Democratic Party also controlled Congress, cast only thirty-one.

All presidents expect a much higher level of support from members of their own party in Congress than they receive from legislators of other parties. During periods of divided government, however, if the congressional minority is of the president's party, it has a particularly strong incentive to work to sustain the president's vetoes. Creating the appearance that it is almost hopeless to try to override a presidential veto gives the president's party in Congress more leverage. You may have the votes to force your legislation through Congress, the minority party will claim, but you run a substantial risk that our friend in the White House will veto the bill, and you probably won't have the votes necessary to override. Thus even a member of the president's party in Congress inclined to support the legislation can be persuaded that he or she has an interest in sustaining a veto.

A president who casts a veto must anticipate the need to defend it in the face of controversy. In many cases presidents have defended vetoes as a defense of the national interest against congressional logrolling. Presidents can play to popular perceptions of how American government works by portraying themselves as representing the entire nation and Congress as representing merely special and sectional interests. However, in some instances a veto focuses on the president all the passions of a controversial issue, as when Truman vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act. As with all their powers, presidents must remember to use the veto with discretion.


Mayhew, David R. Divided We Govern. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

Miller, Gary J. "Formal Theory and the Presidency." In Researching the Presidency: Vital Questions, New Approaches. Edited by George Edwards, Jon Kessel, and Bert Rockman. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.

Wayne, Stephen J. The Legislative Presidency. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

Graham K.Wilson

See alsoConstitution of the United States ; President, U.S. ; Separation of Powers .

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