The Enforcement Act Of 1871

President Ulysses S. Grant had been receiving numerous reports of widespread racial threats and violence happening in the Deep South, especially in South Carolina. These troubling events led the President to request a third Enforcement Act.

The official title of the law describes its purpose. “An Act to Enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and for other Purposes”.  It was also known, at the time, as the Force Act of 1871, the Ku Klux Klan Act, Third Enforcement Act, Third Ku Klux Klan Act, and the Civil Rights Act1871-03 of 1871.

The first of the Enforcement Acts was passed in 1870.  Basically, its thrust was to enforce the right to vote.  In effect, it banned the use of bribery, force, or terrorism to prevent people from voting because of their race. It’s legal purpose was, to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.

The second of the Enforcement Acts was passed in 1871 to expand upon the first Act.  The new law permitted federal oversight of local and state elections at the request of any group of people living in a town of more than 20,000 inhabitants.  The second Act provided more severe fines but retained similar prison sentences for violators of the law.

Meantime, the threats and violence continued in the Deep South.  Black citizens were discouraged from voting because of the continued threats by terrorists, including the Klan.  This is the main reason that President Grant requested the third Act from Congress.  The idea was to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment which basically stated that all people born in the United States were citizens and legally deserved full and equal benefit of all laws.  The Act excluded Native Americans.

Four basic principles were enshrined in the text of the Fourteenth Amendment.  1. Federal and State citizenship for all people, regardless of race, born or naturalized in the U.S.A. was reaffirmed.  2. No State is allowed to abridge any privilages and immunities of citizens.  3. No person was allowed to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.  4.  No person could be denied equal protection of the laws.

1871-02The backlash against the newly freed slaves had become chronic and entrenched.  There was still difficulty in finding gainful work, and, worst of all, the enactment of so called “Black Codes”.  The States of the former Confederacy passed new laws to regulate black people.  The main defining aspect of Black Codes was a strict vagrancy law.  These laws permitted local law enforcement to arbitrarily arrest freedpeople and sentence them to involuntary labor.  Also, there were still pockets of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups committing violence against blacks and their sympathizers.

Efforts to halt the backlash were ineffective or nonexistant.  State and local politicians turned a blind eye to the violence, and some even took part in the unlawful behavior.   The few officials who attempted to address the problems usually faced intense opposition.  For instance, after North Carolina governor William Holden sent out the state militia against the Ku Klux Klan in 1870, he was impeached the following year.

As a solution to the impasse, Massachusetts Representative Benjamin Franklin Butler introduced the Third Enforcement Act. This would give the federal government the legal right to enforce the law whenever Constitutional rights were violated by the States.  The new Act also enabled individuals with the right to file 1871-01lawsuits against State politicians who practiced illegal discrimination. The law was signed into law on April 20, 1871 by President Grant.

Very soon, the State of South Carolina formally requested Federal troops to re-enforce the state militia.  In another case, a race riot had broken out in Meridian Mississippi. A black state representative had been heckled out of the courthouse.  The man had to seek refuge in a forest in an effort to save himself from hooligans.

Because of the provisions of the three Enforcement Acts, the Federal Government was able to begin to address civil rights issues in the nation.  Additionally, the Ku Klux Klan had finally been outlawed and disbanded until it was reorganized in the 1920s.

The Grant Administration actively used the Enforcement Acts to punish persecutors of African Americans.  After Grant left office, President Rutherford B. Hayes dismantled the Reconstruction movement.  Hence, the Enforcement Acts were disregarded and very few cases under the laws were tried for almost a century.

In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened the Acts.  The Court overruled many oppressive state laws, provided legal remedies when state laws were inadequate, and re-enforced inadequate state remedies.  In 1983, a new section was passed by Congress that added monetary damages available to people whose constitutional rights had been violated under a State’s authority. The new section expanded areas of enforcement to Constitutional provisions, federal statutes, and prohibitions based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion.

The Third Enforcement Act is again being cited by some individuals and groups who are worried about increased instances of racially motivated police brutality and discrimination by some local governments of officials.


The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the writer of this post developed his interest in politics during his childhood in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in History, Politics, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Enforcement Act Of 1871

  1. Frances Osborn Robb says:

    I’m curious as to the source of the photograph of the person in the KKK disguise (the 1st photo in your blog). Can you help?


  2. Pingback: Democrats Fail to Retard Progress | History of the Democratic Party

  3. Audra Hampton says:

    Where is that Newspaper clipping from?

  4. swabby429 says:

    The other source is here:

  5. ekurie says:

    What gets me is no one ever mentions that the KKK were Democrats, and those who opposed abolition of slavery were democrats, thus the entire south is vilified. And Gov. Holden was Republican.
    Interesting article though! Thank you, also for visiting my blog.

    • swabby429 says:

      Until the 20th century, the democrats were the conservative party. The newly formed Republican party had the fresh ideas. The ideologies of the two parties flipped prior to the second World War. The last gasp of the conservative Democrats happened when the Dixiecrats vanished when Ronald Reagan spoke their language.

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