December 14, 1865: Proposed civil rights law

Henry Wilson
Henry Wilson of Massachusetts


The 13th amendment now being ratified, senators debate a proposal to make the freedom of black Americans meaningful by providing protection for their rights. It doesn’t get far.


Mr. WILSON, of Massachusetts, (Union,) called up a bill to maintain the freedom of the inhabitants of the States declared to be in insurrection and rebellion by the proclamation of the President, of the 1st of July, 1862. It declares all laws heretofore in force, or held valid in the insurrectionary States, whereby any inequality of civil rights and immunities exists among the inhabitants of these States, on account of race or color, are null and void.

Mr. WILSON explained the nature of the bill. He said the proclamation of the President of the 22d of September, 1863, declaring emancipation, pledges the faith of the Government of the United States to maintain the freedom of the persons declared to be free. This was repealed in the proclamation of the 1st of January. It was, therefore, the duty of the government to maintain the civil rights and immunities of these freedmen. The most cold-blooded atrocities were being perpetrated upon these freedmen, and it was the duty of Congress to interfere at once. Whatever differences of opinion there might be on the subject of negro suffrage, there ought to be none in regard to the duty of making good the guarantees of the government.

Mr. JOHNSON, of Maryland, (Dem.,) said there were serious legal objections to the bill under consideration. It did not name any bills or laws, but all laws of a certain character. Besides it only repealed all laws already made. But, if the Southern States are in the Union, they have a right to make police laws for the future. He had never believed that the Southern States were out of the Union, and he was glad to see in President JOHNSON’s Message, which was one of the ablest ever issued, a concurrence in this view. The people of the Southern States were now as anxious to return as they once were to leave the Union. He believed there was as much philanthropy in the South as in the North, and he was sorry to see the impression sought to be created, that the people of the South were barbarous.

Mr. COWAN, of Pennsylvania, (Union,) did not believe the bill would accomplish what its author desired. He thought as amendment to the Constitution was the only way to reach the matter, and he believed such an amendment would pass in Congress within a month.

Mr. WILSON referred to certain laws passed in the Southern States since the abolition of slavery, which, he said, subjected the freedmen to a worse bondage than slavery itself. The condition of the freedmen of the South was worse to-day than it was on the day of LEE’s surrender.

Mr. SHERMAN, of Ohio, (Union,) sympathized with the objects of the bill. He believed it to be the duty of Congress to secure freedom to the emancipated slaves; but he believed such legislation ought to be postponed until the proclamation of the Secretary of State, announcing the adoption of the Constitutional Amendment by the requisite number of States. Congress had the power, he said, under the second section of the Amendment, to make provision for the freedom of the blacks, and there was another section of the Constitution under which it could be done; that section which gives to the citizens of one State all the rights of the citizens of the several States. The bill before the Senate did not define the civil rights which the negroes ought to have, but stated them in general terms. In his judgment Congress ought to impose the conditions upon which the Southern States should be received back into the Union, and they ought to be in the form of amendments to the constitution. Action on the bill before the Senate ought to be deferred until the report of the committee of fifteen provided for by the concurrent resolution passed yesterday.

Mr. SAULSBURY, of Deleware, (Dem.,) said that when the Constitutional Amendment was before the Senate, no Senators claimed the right under the second section to give to the government the powers of a consolidated government.

Mr. TRUMBULL, of Illinois, (Union,) thought the bill was premature in the sense stated by Mr. SHERMAN. There was yet no official information of the passage of the Constitutional Amendment, and until the adoption of that amendment there might be some doubt as to the power of Congress to do what was proposed. After the adoption of the amendment there could be no doubt as to the power of Congress. If the second section did not confer this power upon Congress, he would ask the Senator from Delaware for what purpose it was intended.

Mr. SAULSBURY — I do not know what it meant. I had nothing to do with it; but I would ask the honorable Senator whether, when it was before this body for adoption, he avowed in his advocacy of it that it was meant for such purpose as now claimed?

Mr. TRUMBULL — Mr. President, I never understood it in any other way.

Mr. SAULSBURY — Did you state it so at the time?

Mr. TRUMBULL — I do not know that I stated so. I might as well have explained that the clause which declares that slavery shall not exist, meant that slavery shall not exist. I could make it no clearer. I reported it from the Judiciary Committee, for the very purpose of conferring upon Congress the authority to see that the first clause was carried out in good faith.

Mr. SAULSBURY said he did not see how gentlemen holding that the Southern States are not in the Union can regard the Constitutional Amendment as adopted. It required three-fourths of the States to adopt the amendment, and that number could not be obtained without counting the Southern States.

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