Guns & Patriots

Republicans passed the first Civil Rights Act, in 1866

Thanks to Republicans beginning to appreciate the heritage of our Grand Old Party, it has become better known that Republicans in Congress supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act much more than did the Democrats. Indeed, the legislator most responsible for breaking the Democrat filibuster was a Republican senator, Everett Dirksen.

And now, the question that should be before us: How did that landmark legislation come to be?  The answer to that is a source of pride for all Republicans today.

The origin of the 1964 Civil Rights Act can be traced back to the Reconstruction era. That was when the Republican Party enacted the first civil rights act ever, the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Never heard of it? Democrat history professors would rather you didn’t. With that law, Republicans took a big step toward making Abraham Lincoln’s vision for “a new birth of freedom” a reality.

Ominously, the assassination of the Great Emancipator had left the presidency to his Democrat vice president, Andrew Johnson.  Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-IL), co-author of the 13th Amendment banning slavery, also wrote the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Republican support was nearly unanimous, while Democrats were unanimously opposed.  This would be the first time Congress overrode a presidential veto of a significant bill.

The law conferred U.S. citizenship on all African-Americans, according them “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Despite Democrat objections, Republicans made sure African-Americans had the right to own property, engage in business, sign contracts and file lawsuits.

Andrew Johnson refused to enforce this law in the southern states, so it had little effect there. However, many racially discriminatory laws in the North were repealed or struck down as a result.

Sixty-four of eighty Democrats in the House of Representatives had voted against the 13th Amendment. And so, Republicans feared that once the southern states were back in the Union, a Democrat majority along with a racist Democrat in the White House might undo all they had accomplished for African-Americans. What if they repealed the new Civil Rights Act?

To keep that law safe from a future Democrat Congress, Republicans enshrined its precepts in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment. Another point of pride for the GOP is that Republicans voted unanimously for the 14th Amendment, while Democrats voted unanimously against it.

Republicans followed this success with several more civil rights acts during the Ulysses Grant administration, including one that effectively outlawed the Ku Klux Klan. The next step was the brainchild of one of our party’s greatest heroes, Senator Charles Sumner. He wrote the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which anticipated the 1964 Civil Rights Act with its ban on racial discrimination in public accommodations. He had been pushing for the bill for years. On his deathbed, he told a former Attorney General: “You must take care of the civil rights bill – my bill, the civil rights bill – don’t let it fail.”

Though the law came a decade too late to have much of an impact in the Democrat-controlled South, many discriminatory practices in northern states were eliminated. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1883. The majority opinion declaring that 14th Amendment guarantees did not extend to acts by private citizens and businesses was the reason the 1964 Civil Rights Act would have to be based more tenuously on the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate commerce.

Nine decades would pass before the Republican Party was able to enact further civil rights legislation. President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the 1957 Civil Rights Act, whose author was a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Enforcement was improved by the GOP’s 1960 Civil Rights Act.

Three years later, Republican congressmen introduced a bill guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations. The Kennedy administration countered with a weaker version of this bill, which then became the basis for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Sadly, it was Democrat defiance of the civil rights movement that postponed so much progress, from 1866 until 1964. To quote my own book, “The more we Republicans know about the history of our party, the more the Democrats will worry about the future of theirs.”

This article is adapted from Back to Basics for the Republican Party, Michael Zak’s history of the GOP from the Republican point of view. See for more information.

Sign Up
  • Terry Barnes

    Republicans promised equal opportunity. Democrats promised to “protect” them from the evil Republicans. How has this gotten all twisted around?

  • Stogie Chomper

    The Democrats “the Party of Slavery?”  Nonsense.  Slavery was an institution in America before there was a Democrat Party, and of the original 13 colonies, 12 were slave states.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and several (if not most) of the other Founding Fathers were slave owners or slave merchants.  Maybe you should say the United States is “the country of slavery,” it would make as much sense.  

    What program did the Republican Party have for ending slavery?  They had none.  Ending it would have entailed compensation paid to slave owners and relocation of the large masses of black people into the territories and into other states, where they could make a living.  The early Republicans had no such plans, and in fact, would have strenuously opposed such plans, had they existed.The early Republican Party was largely anti-black, and opposed slavery in the new territories because it wanted to keep blacks out.  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his book “The Disuniting of America,” describes how history is distorted for modern political purposes, effectively making history a weapon.  You are, like Ann Coulter, doing that here.  It is intellectually dishonest.By the way, I am a lifelong Republican because it, in its present incarnation, the better of the two choices.  But I have no fantasies about it always being the Party of Freedom.

  • Michael Zak

    You’re a victim of history books written by Democrats. By the 1850s, the economic issues that divided Democrats from Whigs had been supplanted by the slavery question, yes or no. Democrats said yes while Whigs did not take a stand. Failure to take a stand on the issue of the day is why the Whig Party died. Filling the void, opponents of the slave system came together as the Republican Party.

  • Stogie Chomper

    The history books were actually written by the winners of the war, as is usually the case.  No, you are the victim of “feel-good” but false history.  False history serves no one well; it is just propaganda.  You haven’t answered my main point, i.e. that the Republicans had NO plan or program for ending slavery peacefully.  In fact, they were never for abolishing slavery in the slave states, they were merely for keeping it out of the new territories — not for moral reasons, mind you, but for economic and racist ones.

  • Michael Zak

    SC, the pro-Confederate, “lost cause” spin of most history books on the Reconstruction era is pro-Democrat spin, as the Confederates were Democrats.

    Republicans opposed the Democrat law permitting slavery in the territories because they did not want the slave system in the territories, which entailed not just slavery but economic stagnation and a police state.

    Once the Confederates shot cannons at a U.S. fort, Republicans came to see that slavery, as the cause of the rebellion, had to be eliminated, first in the rebellious areas and then nationwide.

  • Stogie Chomper

    Most Civil War histories have a pro-South spin?  As a life member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, I know that is decidedly untrue.  The Confederates fired cannon at a Confederate fort, illegally occupied by a hostile, foreign power, the USA.  They were not “in rebellion,” a really obnoxious term that suggests obeisance and subordination to the federal government is a requirement, as if the fed were a king with a divine right to rule.  No one has a right to rule without the consent of the governed, and Lincoln had lost that right and any claim to legitimacy as a president.

    Talk about police states, Lincoln had one — arresting and imprisoning thousands without charges or trial, shutting down hundreds of newspapers.  Lincoln was a despot; how any conservative can admire the man is the height of absurdity.  He was a big government statist, a tax and spend liberal with a contempt for the constitution.Your comment on the territories shows that you are simply making up facts as you go along.  The cause of the War for Southern Independence was Lincoln’s invasion, not slavery.  And once you disprove the slavery myth, the Northern myth, with all of its phony righteousness and counterfeit morality, goes right down the toilet of history with it. 

  • FlaJim

    You’re quite correct on all counts.  Lincoln simply didn’t like the concept of slavery but never advocated full citizenship rights for blacks whom he considered inferior. 

    The major reason for passage of the various civil rights acts following the War of Northern Aggression was that the Radical Republicans wanted to punish and humiliate the South.  In addition to the Union losing 80% of its revenue after the South seceded, the war had been very costly and revenge was the aim of the Radical Republicans, not civil rights.

    In addition, few know that the Confederate Constitution mandated the end of slavery within six years of its ratification.  Already, many in slave states had come to realize that they got better results from their slaves when paid for their efforts and that slavery was becoming far too expensive in terms of housing, feeding, and clothing them while little worthwhile work was actually accomplished.

    Getting back to civil rights legislation, those mostly country club Republicans in the 60s had no real interest in ‘helping’ blacks.  They wanted, once again, to put Southerners in their place.  And look at the mess they created:  affirmative action and the destruction of the nuclear black family being only two.

    It’s apparent Mr Zak doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

  • vanderfk

    It’s a new kind of slavery, in case you haven’t noticed.