On May 31, 1870—142 years ago today—Congress passed the first of four Acts designed to protect the constitutional rights provided for under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
The Force Act of 1870 designated criminal penalties to those who interfered with the right to vote, whether through intimidation, threats, or other measures. The Act read, in part:
[I]f any person, by force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means, shall hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, or shall combine and confederate with others to hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, any citizen from doing any act required to be done to qualify him to vote or from voting at any election as aforesaid, such person shall for every such offence forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby, to be recovered by an action on the state, with full costs, and such allowance for counsel fees as the court shall deem just, and shall also for ever such offence be guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined not less than five hundred dollars, or be imprisoned not less than one more and not more than one year, or both, at the discretion of the court.
Enacted only five years after the Civil War, the legislation represented an important acknowledgement of the rights and protections due to all citizens, regardless of color. Over the next few years, three more acts would follow. This legislation allowed many thousands of freedmen to register to vote and to be elected to governmental offices.
African Americans soon saw these rights taken away, as Reconstruction gave way to a long period of disfranchisement, characterized by poll taxes, literacy tests, and other such discriminatory measures. Although it would be years before African Americans would once again enjoy protection of their voting rights (see the 24th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act), the Force Acts foreshadowed advancements to come.
To read excerpts from the 1870 and 1871 Force Acts, click here.
For the Encyclopedia Britannica’s summary, click here.
For more about voting rights, click here.
For a comprehensive list of civil rights legislation, click here.
For a chronological view of Reconstruction-era policies, click here.
To learn about voting rights in ensuing decades, check out J. Morgan Kousser’s Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction (UNC Press, 1999) and Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman’s Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965-1990 (Princeton University Press, 1994).
To learn about disfranchisement, check out Michael Perman’s Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (UNC Press, 2001).