On April 20, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant, shown with Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson and presidential advisor General Horace Porter in this Frank Leslie’s Illustrated print, signed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which enforced the 14th Amendment by guaranteeing all citizens of the United States the rights afforded by the Constitution and providing legal protection under the law.
On this date, 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.” 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.
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.#WarAmendments