At the end of 1865, Congress created the Joint Committee on Reconstruction to deal with the states which had been part of the Confederate rebellion. The Joint Committee was made up of fifteen Senators and Congressmen, with a solidly Republican majority. The co-chairman of the Joint Committee was the Radical Thaddeus Stevens, the boogeyman to many white Southerners. Stevens and the others members were charged by Congress with designing policies to allow the conquered states to be returned to civilian control and be allowed to send delegates to Congress.1
On January 16, 1866 Ohio Congressman John Bingham laid his first draft of the 14th Amendment before Congress. The brief proposal attempted to insure the protection of former slaves’ “life, liberty, and property” against actions by state governments hostile to blacks.2
Bingham’s proposal went nowhere. Support for the passage of a 14th amendment soon shifted to the more pressing need to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Civil Rights bill created a new, color-blind definition of who was a United States citizen. According to Section 1 of the act: “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States.” 3
President Andrew Johnson was reviled by Radical Republicans for vetoes of the Civil Rights Act and the Freedmen’s Bureau Act.
This first Civil Rights bill was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, who set out in his veto message his objection to citizenship conferred on both blacks and the children of non-white immigrants:
This provision comprehends [as citizens] the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes, and persons of African blood. Every individual of these races, born in the United States, is by the bill made a citizen of the United States.4
Fear of the children of “Gipsies” and Chinese receiving citizenship at birth would be repeated over and over during the debate on the 14th Amendment. Chinese immigrants, who were barred from law from every naturalizing and becoming citizens themselves, were a small, but feared minority. The idea that children of non-white immigrants could be citizens if they were born in the U.S. was a frightening threat to many Americans who believed that full citizenship should only be enjoyed by whites.5
The decision on whether blacks who had been slaves should be citizens, wrote President Johnson, belonged to the white people of the South who had formerly enslaved them. Similarly, whites should decide whether blacks could marry whites, make contracts with whites, or enter the professions. We get an insight into Andrew Johnson’s deep prejudices in his letter to Benjamin B. French, the commissioner of public buildings:
Everyone would, and must admit, that the white race was superior to the black, and that while we ought to do our best to bring them up to our present level, that, in doing so, we should, at the same time raise our own intellectual status so that the relative position of the two races would be the same.6
Robert Dale Owen immigrated to the United States in 1825 to help his prominent father found a Utopian socialist community at New Harmony in Indiana. Although the radical colony attracted hundreds of members, it lasted as a social experiment for fewer than three years. This print depicts the community as its founders envisioned it. The reality was much messier.
At a time when the Tennessee-born president was blocking citizenship for blacks and the children of non-white immigrants, an immigrant was working to get the push for the 14th Amendment moving again.7
Robert Dale Own was a Scottish socialist who had immigrated to the United States as a young man with his prominent father. He had helped found Utopian egalitarian communities and he advocated for workers’ rights. His economic radicalism carried over into his private life. Owen was an early convert to gender equality and had denounced the “unjust rights” of husbands in a document he signed the day he was married. Of the legal powers of husband over wife, he declared that “I consider myself, and earnestly desire to be considered by others, as utterly divested.” 8
In 1911, feminists in Indiana erected a memorial to Robert Dale Owen at the Indiana state capitol. The plaque reads: “Erected in the honor of Robert Dale Owen by the Women of Indiana in recognition of his efforts to obtain for them educational privileges and legal rights.”
Owen had been worried about the question of blacks voting and Southern representation in Congress at least since he had served as a member of the committee that had recommended the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau before the end of the Civil War. He recognized that he Constitution provided a perverse spur to increased power by Southern whites at the end of the war. The Framers had provided in 1787 that slaves would only count and three-fifths of a man for purposes of representation in Congress and in the Electoral College. With slavery finally broken throughout the South, blacks would now count as full men, thus increasing the representation of Southern states in the House of Representatives and the power of those states in selecting a president. However, since blacks could not vote, that surge of political power would accrue only to the very white Southerners who had been in revolt against the United States.9
In the months after the war ended, white voters elected delegates to state constitutional conventions to establish new governments to take back control of the states from the occupying Union military forces. While these conventions would end slavery, they established all-white electorates and legislatures that placed blacks in a situation just barely above slavery. In June 1865 Owen wrote a public letter to President Johnson urging that former Confederate states grant blacks the right to vote prior to new constitutions being accepted by the Federal government. Until they allowed black suffrage, he wrote, their delegations should be excluded from Congress.10
Five months later Owen wrote a second open letter calling for a Constitutional Amendment taking the questions of citizenship and voting away from the states and vesting the protection of African American voting rights in the hands of the Federal government.11
The failure of the 14th Amendment to gain enough support in Congress to move forward in the face of presidential opposition in the first quarter of 1866, led Owen to seek a compromise.12
This 1866 cartoon by German immigrant Thomas Nast depicts President Andrew Johnson as a lying Iago claiming to be the black Othello’s friend while selling out his interests.
The immigrant was uniquely positioned to offer advice. He was a well-known speaker and writer. He had served years as a Democratic Congressman. During the Civil War he had switched parties and become a strong abolitionist. Friendships with Radical Republican leaders like Speaker of the House Thad Stevens had solidified his post-war standing. In April, 1866, Owen met with the Speaker of the House to try to reignite the movement for a constitutional Amendment.13
Many modern American seemed to have forgotten Thaddeus Steven, at least until Tommy Lee Jones resurrected “The Great Commoner,” as he was known, in the movie Lincoln. The forgetting of this outstanding politician was perhaps purposeful. Stevens, who advocated the complete equality of the races, became a dangerous memory after his death. As America accepted Jim Crow segregation in the 1890s, this man, who may have had an African American life companion, and who was buried in a cemetery filled with blacks at a time when even the dead were segregated, was a subversive example of a leader who did not see America through the eye slits of a white hood.14
Robert Owen described Stevens with affection; “He was rough in expression, had strong prejudices, and was sometimes harsh in his judgments, but he was genuine to the core, upright and patriotic beyond the reach of sinister motive, inflexible and enthusiastic of purpose in the right; above all he was a stanch friend of the poor and the oppressed.” Stevens was friend who shared the concerns of the immigrant.15
Owen told Stevens that the prime purpose of Reconstruction should be to place the freed slaves under the protection of the Federal government, rather than to maintain the unequal power of whites over blacks by state governments. Stevens agreed that protecting the rights of the freed blacks should be the focus of Federal policy, saying of the former slaves, “our first duty is to them. Let the cursed rebels lie on the bed they have made.” 16
Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania was one of the few true abolitionists in Congress in the 1840s. As early as 1837 he had championed the voting rights of blacks. In 1854 he briefly joined the anti-immigrant Know Nothings, but switched to the anti-slavery Republican Party a year later.
Speaker of the House Stevens generally liked Robert Owen’s proposal, but he had one major problem with it. It granted blacks the right to vote, but only a decade after it was proposed. Stevens told Owen that “I hate to delay full justice so long” to African Americans. Owen said that the amendment would protect the civil rights of blacks immediately and would ultimately give them the full rights of citizenship. Delaying voting, he said paternalistically, would allow blacks to receive an education before being given the vote. He also believed that the delay would reduce racist opposition to the amendment. 17
Stevens recognized that there was not a majority in either the house of Congress for the immediate enfranchisement of African Americans, nor did he think that many states would ratify such an amendment. He saw Owen’s proposal as a way to get a 14th Amendment moving towards passage. He championed it with the Joint Committee and won its approval, only to find that even this compromise was too radical. The white supremacist Democrats refused to accept it and the Republican Party bosses told Stevens that he had to withdraw it because they would lose the coming election in November if they were identified as the staunch advocates of votes for black men. Stevens told Owen regretfully that “our committee hadn’t backbone enough to maintain its ground.” 18
It would take two more months of hard work and a massacre of blacks in Memphis before passage of the Amendment was achieved in Congress.
The early 20th Century historian of the Joint Committee’s deliberations concluded that even though Owen’s proposal was much changed before it was adopted, “Owen’s proposition is the forebear of the present fourteenth amendment.” The godfather of the most far reaching contribution to the Constitution of the 19th Century was an immigrant.19
Video: Eric Foner on the Veto of the Civil Rights Act
1. American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment by Gerard N. Magliocca published by NYU Press. (2013) Kindle Edition; Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America Garrett Epps published by Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition; Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship During the Civil War by Christian G. Samito published by Harvard University Press (2009); The Fourteenth Amendment and the Priviledges and Immunities of American Citizenship by Kurt Lash published by Cambridge University Press (2014); No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights by Michael Kent Curtis published by Duke University Press (1990); The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. 39th Congress, 1865-1867 by Benjamin B. Kendrick, published by Columbia University Press (1914); Andrew Johnson’s letter to Benjamin B. French, the commissioner of public buildings (8th February, 1866); Robert Dale Owen: A Biography by Richard William Leopold published by Harvard University Press (1940); The Civil Rights Act of 1866; Veto of the Civil Rights Bill by Andrew Johnson March 27, 1866.
2. The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. 39th Congress, 1865-1867 by Benjamin B. Kendrick, published by Columbia University Press (1914) pp. 50-51.
3. The Civil Rights Act of 1866.
4. Veto of the Civil Rights Bill by Andrew Johnson March 27, 1866.
5. Veto of the Civil Rights Bill by Andrew Johnson March 27, 1866.
6. Andrew Johnson’s letter to Benjamin B. French, the commissioner of public buildings (8th February, 1866)
7. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America Garrett Epps published by Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition p. 187.
8. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America Garrett Epps published by Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition p. 186.
9. Robert Dale Owen: A Biography by Richard William Leopold published by Harvard University Press (1940) pp. 365-368.
10. Robert Dale Owen: A Biography by Richard William Leopold published by Harvard University Press (1940) p. 366.
11. Robert Dale Owen: A Biography by Richard William Leopold published by Harvard University Press (1940) p. 366.
12. Robert Dale Owen: A Biography by Richard William Leopold published by Harvard University Press (1940)
13. Robert Dale Owen: A Biography by Richard William Leopold published by Harvard University Press (1940)
14. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America Garrett Epps published by Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition p. 198.
15. Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America Garrett Epps published by Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition p. 198.
16. The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. 39th Congress, 1865-1867 by Benjamin B. Kendrick, published by Columbia University Press (1914) p. 299.
17. The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. 39th Congress, 1865-1867 by Benjamin B. Kendrick, published by Columbia University Press (1914) p. 300.
18. The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. 39th Congress, 1865-1867 by Benjamin B. Kendrick, published by Columbia University Press (1914) p. 302.
19. The Journal of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction. 39th Congress, 1865-1867 by Benjamin B. Kendrick, published by Columbia University Press (1914) p. 303.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
106. The Draft Riots End in a Sea of Blood-July 14-15, 1863.
157. A Scottish Socialist and a German General Work to Help Slaves Become Freedpeople-Robert Dale Owen, Carl Schurz and the founding of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
169. The 14th Amendment, the German Immigrant Carl Schurz, and the Assault on White Superiority Part of The Coming of the 14th Amendment
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites