Harper's Weekly 03/31/1866


THE CIVIL RIGHTS BILL.

The freedom of a large number of the in-
habitants of the United States, formerly held
as slaves, was recognized and confirmed by the
Emancipation Amendment. But mere eman-
cipation left the whole class in an anomalous
condition, the consequences of which it was
plainly the duty of the United States to remove.
It became necessary to define at once the re-
lation of the freed people to the rest of the pop-
ulation; and Congress has therefore declared
that all persons born in the United States and
not subject to any foreign power, excluding
Indians not taxed, are citizens of the United
States; and such citizens, of every race and
color, and without regard to any previous con-
dition of slavery, shall have entire equality of
civil rights. Any person who shall deprive any
inhabitant of any State or Territory of any right
thus secured is declared guilty of a misdemean-
or, and is punishable by a fine of not more than
a thousand dollars, or by imprisonment for not
more than one year. The various law officers
of the United States, with the officers and agents
of the Freedmen's Bureau, and other officers
who may be authorized by the President, are
charged with the duty of proceeding against all
violators of the law.


This Bill of Rights is necessary, simple, and
precise. It declares who are citizens, it defines
their privileges, and provides for their defense.
It pledges the whole power of the country to
protect the civil rights of every citizen every
where. It does not leave them to the whims
of local communities nor to the prejudices of
caste. It recognizes the right of the supreme
soveriegnty to declare who are its citizens, and
acknowledges the duty of that sovereignty to
defend them; nor can any faithful citizen ob-
ject that his fundamental rights are precisely
defined and maintained by the supreme instead
of a subordinate authority. The constitutional-
ity of the law can not be questioned except
upon the ground of a controlling sovereignty in
the States over the nation, and that is a claim
which is no longer valid.


This bill—which is truly a Magna Charta—
overthrows all hostile legislation of the States
against equality of civil rights. The Black
Codes, which seek to retain as many of the dis-
abilities of slavery as possible, disappear before
this just and beneficent decree. It announces
distinctly to those who would still cling to feu-
dalism in America that feudalism is henceforth
impossible. It tends to speedy pacification by
showing to those who still doubted the national
purpose that all the consequences of emancipa-
tion have been well weighed and fully accept-
ed by the country. It destroys false hopes. It
clears away misunderstandings. It proclaims
that when the United States abolished slavery
they meant what they said, and knew what they
did.


The bill passed both Houses of Congress by
enormous majorities. In the House of Repre-
sentatives the vote was 109 to 38, in the Sen-
ate 33 to 12; and we see no reason to suppose
that the President will dissent. We hope in-
deed that by the time this paper is issued the
bill may have been approved by him and have
become a law. We shall hear of that result
with sincere satisfaction; for when once the
President and Congress agree upon a vital and
fundamental measure like this, a better under-
standing and further agreement will be much
more probable and practicable.


Sensible men in the late disaffected States
will also be glad that a vexatious question is
thus put in the way of settlement. Mr. Ste-
phens,
of Georgia, in his late speech before the
Legislature of that State, spoke very smoothly
of the duty of giving the freedmen fair play.
We have the right to expect his earnest sup-
port of this bill. Governor Orr, of South Car-
olina, and Governor Walker, of Florida, have
shown great good sense in their action respect-
ing the education of the freedmen; and they,
too, will undoubtedly feel and acknowledge the
wisdom of a measure which secures rights that
they do not deny. And all citizens of the
United States who understand that the coun-
try must and ought to be constantly agitated
until the equal rights of every American citizen
before the law are secured by the highest pow-
er in the land, will hail the bill as a measure
of the wisest statesmanship, and an earnest of
the national resolution that nothing which was
really gained by the war shall be lost.



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