The adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution extended civil and legal protections to former slaves and prohibited states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Forces in some states were at work, however, to deny black citizens their legal rights. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, terrorized black citizens for exercising their right to vote, running for public office, and serving on juries
. In response, Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871 (also known as the Force Acts) to end such violence and empower the president to use military force to protect African Americans. Multiple acts were deemed necessary to slow the violence against African Americans in the south.
The First Enforcement Act, passed in May 1870, prohibited groups of people from banding together "or to go in disguise upon the public highways, or upon the premises of another" with the intention of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. Even this legislation did not diminish the harassment of black voters in some areas
. The Second Force Act, which became law in February 1871, placed administration of national elections under the control of the federal government and empowered federal judges and United States marshals to supervise local polling places. The Third Force Act, dated April 1871, empowered the president to use the armed forces to combat those who conspired to deny equal protection of the laws and to suspend habeas corpus, if necessary, to enforce the act. After both chambers of Congress agreed to the conference report on April 20, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law later that day.
In December 1870, Senator Oliver H.P.T. Morton, an Indiana Republican, introduced a resolution requesting the president to communicate any information he had about certain incidents of threatened resistance to the execution of the laws of the United States . After the Senate adopted Morton's resolution, President Ulysses S. Grant submitted several War Department reports relating to events in several southern states. These reports were referred to the Select Committee of the Senate to Investigate the Alleged Outrages in the Southern States, chaired by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts. In the next Congress the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States broadened that mandate.
While these committees were investigating southern attempts to impede Reconstruction, the Senate passed two more Force acts, also known as the Ku Klux Klan acts, designed to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The House approved “An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other Purposes,” also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Act.” Introduced as H.R. 320 on March 28, 1871, by Representative Samuel Shellabarger of Ohio, the bill passed the House on April 6 and returned from the Senate with amendments on April 14. After nearly a week of heated debate in the House and the Senate, the chambers reconciled their differences on April 20 when the House agreed to the conference report on H. R. 320 and the Senate concurred. The Ku Klux Klan Act, the third of a series of increasingly stringent Enforcement Acts, was designed to eliminate extralegal violence and protect the civil and political rights of four million freed slaves.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, defined citizenship and guaranteed due process and equal protection of the law to all. Vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan, however, freely threatened African Americans and their white allies in the South and undermined the Republican Party’s plan for Reconstruction. The bill authorized the President to intervene in the former rebel states that attempted to deny “any person or any class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges or immunities under the laws.” To take action against this newly defined federal crime, the President could suspend habeas corpus, deploy the U.S. military, or use “other means, as he may deem necessary.”
Opponents denounced the bill as an unconstitutional attack on state governments and individual liberty. “All the powers of the Government . . . will be absorbed in the hands of one man,” warned James M. Leach of North Carolina. Administration supporter William E. Lansing of New York rejected the “mischievous doctrine of State sovereignty” and cited the prevalence of “acts of outrage and violence . . . which the States where they occur have either no power or will to prevent.” David P. Lowe of Kansas stressed that the legislation fulfilled the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law. “Let the different classes of our populations feel that the interest and welfare of one is the interest and welfare of all.”
Nearly six months later, in October 1871, Grant used these powers in several South Carolina counties, demonstrating the willingness of the Republican-led federal government to take decisive action to protect the civil and political rights of the freed people during Reconstruction. While the Force acts and the publicity generated by the joint committee temporarily helped put an end to the violence and intimidation, the end of formal Reconstruction in 1877 allowed for a return of largescale disenfranchisement of African Americans.