Post Civil War Federal Civil Rights Acts – Criminal Provisions

After the Civil War, Congress significantly expanded the scope of federal criminal jurisdiction. For the first time Congress sought to extend the federal criminal law to a variety of subjects previously within the scope of the state’s general police powers. Although the Supreme Court’s decisions rendered much of the post-civil war civil rights legislation ineffective, the Court upheld the bulk of this new federal legislation, which was intended to complement existing state criminal law.

The most immediate consequence of the Civil War was the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which, respectively, abolished slavery and forbade the states from denying the right to vote or the privileges and immunities of federal citizenship to any citizen. Each amendment gave Congress enforcement authority, and Congress implemented them by passing a series of civil rights statutes between 1866 and 1875. The Reconstruction legislation, however, not only implemented the new prohibitions against unconstitutional state action, but also purported to extend federal jurisdiction to reach private conduct clearly within the realm of the states’ traditional police powers. The Court promptly nullified many of the key provisions of the legislation, holding that the civil rights amendments had given Congress no new authority to criminalize the acts of one private citizen against another, and the provisions that were not invalidated or repealed remained “a dead letter on the statute book” for more than sixty years. Not until the middle of the next century did decisions such as United States v. Guest, 383 U.S. 745 (1966), signal a greater willingness to uphold portions of the Reconstruction legislation prohibiting private conspiracies to interfere with rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The most important post Civil War development in the criminal arena was the enactment of the first federal criminal penalties for the misuse of facilities under federal control in a manner that caused injury to private individuals, not to the government itself. The first significant step in this direction was the adoption of criminal penalties for the misuse of the federal postal system or facilities pto effectuate fraudulent schemes or to distribute lottery circulars and obscene publications.

Next Congress adopted penalties for misconduct involving the use of interstate facilities, such as railroads, which are subject to federal regulation under the commerce clause. The scope of the earliest provisions was very narrow. For example, the interstate transportation of explosives and of cattle with contagious diseases was made criminal. Some of the later provisions were broader. The Sherman Act of 1890 outlawed attempts to monopolize and conspiracies to restrain interstate commerce. The Interstate Commerce Commission Act of 1887 was particularly significant because it set the pattern for subsequent legislation that established a federal regulatory framework for an administrative agency, and a comprehensive scheme of civil and criminal sanctions.


Inside Post Civil War Federal Civil Rights Acts – Criminal Provisions