Virginia Vagrancy Law, January 15, 1866
The first full session of the General Assembly of Virginia after the Civil War passed "An Act Providing for the Punishment of Vagrants" that was clearly intended to control the public behavior of former slaves. In some respects it resembled prewar black codes that restricted the personal liberty of enslaved and free black people. The new law authorized local law enforcement officials and overseers of the poor to arrest, detain, hire out to work, or expel anybody who had no obvious means of support, refused to work at wages normally paid in the locality, or went begging. The law provided no legal means for people to appeal acts of the local officials. Alfred Terry, the commanding general of the United States Army in Virginia, reportedly described the law as nothing less than slavery by another name.
White government officials in Virginia had distinguished between black and white servants, including African American slaves, for more than 200 years by then. Colonial and antebellum laws nearly always restricted the liberties of servants more than of free people and of African Americans more than of white people. The end of slavery effectively repealed all of the state's laws governing enslaved people, and the legislators undoubtedly feared that unless former owners offered them employment and places to live they posed a threat to public order.
Southern laws like the Virginia Vagrancy Act of 1866 convinced reformers in Congress that the southern state governments could not or would not protect the rights of freedpeople. During the ensuing two years Congress passed a series of Civil Rights Acts designed to protect the rights of the freedpeople and proposed and in June 1866 submitted to the states an amendment to the Constitution that granted freedpeople American citizenship and prohibited the states from denying them due process of law or the equal protection of the laws. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, invalidated the state debts that had been incurred during the Civil War as well as the Confederate government's public debt. It also placed restrictions on the civil and voting rights of men who before the war had held appointments under the United States government and then held office in the Confederate government or served in its army. The amendment, however, allowed Congress to remove those political disabilities by a two-thirds' vote. It also ordered the reduction of the congressional representation of any state that abridged the rights of freedpeople, and it gave Congress the "power to enforce, by appropriate legislation the provisions" of the amendment.
1. What motivated Virginia's leaders to pass these vagrancy laws? What were their goals?
2. What provision of the 14th Amendment made vagrancy laws like these unconstitutional?
1. Compare and contrast Virginia's slave code and the 1866 Vagrancy Laws. How are they similar?
2. What role did stereotypes about African Americans play in convincing white leaders in Virginia that they needed to pass laws such as these? What arguments, stemming from proslavery positions in the antebellum era, made them feels these laws were necessary?
Foner, Eric and Olivia Mahoney. America's Reconstruction: People and Politics after the Civil War. New York: Harperennial, 1995.
Lowe, Richard. Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856–1870. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991.