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Rhetorical Devices in Civil Rights Act of 1866

Veto as Exposition: While the language of Congress’s Civil Rights Act of 1866 lacks persuasive and rhetorical strategies, President Johnson’s veto serves as a piece of rhetorical exposition. A veto serves as a claim in opposition to a proposal, so Johnson states the reasons for his opposition. Effective pieces of exposition provide a central thesis, supported by evidence and enhanced with rhetorical appeals. President Johnson’s veto does contain claims in opposition, and he does support them with some examples, but the lack of meaningful evidence reveals the agenda behind many of his claims. Ultimately, Johnson’s veto seems to be in the interest of the ex-Confederate South and his fellow conservative politicians, rather than in the interest of the country as a whole. Moreover, the veto expresses Johnson’s advocacy of states’ rights and his fears about federal power more than it expresses an objective appraisal of the Civil Rights Act.

Rhetorical Devices Examples in Civil Rights Act of 1866:

Presidential Veto

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"This language seems to imply a permanent military force, that to is to be always at hand..."   (Presidential Veto)

Johnson takes up Section 9 of the Civil Rights Act, expressing dismay at the power given to the president to draw on the armed forces in order to more directly enforce the act. Johnson interprets this measure as implying “a permanent military force,” though it is not clear where in the language of the act the notion of permanence arises from.

"This extraordinary power is to be conferred upon agents irresponsible to the Government and to the people..."   (Presidential Veto)

In his criticism of Sections 4 and 5 of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson expresses doubts about the gathering of special commissioners or a “posse comitatus” to enforce the act. He suggests that such agents would be “irresponsible to the Government,” a statement that could only be true if by “the Government” he means the state governments and not the federal government. After all, these agents would, by definition, be federally mandated. Johnson also worries that these law-enforcement groups might run unchecked and become forces of “wrong, oppression, and fraud.” Johnson does not substantiate his concern with evidence, only states it.

"the Constitution guarantees nothing with certainty if it does not insure to the several States the right of making and executing laws in regard to all matters arising within their jurisdiction..."   (Presidential Veto)

Johnson offers another objection to the Civil Rights Act here, though it is more of a general objection to the balance of power between the federal and state governments. According to Johnson, “the Constitution guarantees nothing with certainty if it does not insure to the several States the right of making and executing laws in regard to all matters.” Not only does Johnson decline to cite the portion of the US Constitution upon which he constructs his claim, his assertion is an exaggeration by any standard. The Constitution guarantees many things—rights, regulations, programs, and more—with certainty.

"always essential to the preservation of individual rights; and without impairing the efficiency of ministerial officers, always necessary for the maintenance of public peace and order...."   (Presidential Veto)

Johnson objects to the Civil Rights Act’s attempts to organize the judicial system and marshal service in the proper adjudication and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act. The drafters of the act suspected that there may be either inertia or disobedience with regards to the practical deployment of the Civil Rights Act. Johnson criticizes each one of these attempts to guide these various federal departments, in each case citing a broad principle that would be threatened—“public liberty,” “the preservation of individual rights,” and, most apocalyptically of all, “public peace and order.” In none of these cases does Johnson offer any rationale as to why increased federal ordinance will beget catastrophe. Because Johnson does not offer clear rationale for these objections, instead relying on appealing to public fears, his objections lack persuasive power, revealing that his primary aim is to advance his states’ rights agenda.

"As respects the Territories, they come within the power of Congress, for as to them the lawmaking power is the Federal power; but as to the States no similar provision exists vesting in Congress the power “to make rules and regulations” for them...."   (Presidential Veto)

In this paragraph, Johnson expresses some of the core political philosophies of the Democratic party. The Democrats of the 1860s were the conservatives of their age, interested—as are the Republicans of modern American politics—in downscaling federal taxation, legislation, and control. In the 19th century, one of the central issues dividing Democrats and their more progressive allies, the Republicans, was that of states’ rights. To the Republicans who drafted the Civil Rights Act, there was little question that the federal government ought to be able to pass legislation which implicates every citizen and which supersedes every other level of governance, whether state or civic. The Democrats, Johnson included, fundamentally disagreed with such a vision. To them, states and state governments occupied the same stratum of importance as the federal government. Thus, Johnson questions the validity of federal laws, asserting that for “States no similar provision exists vesting in Congress the power ‘to make rules and regulations’ for them.” To the Republicans controlling Congress, it was clear that state legislatures occupied a lower rung on the lawmaking hierarchy than the Federal Congress. To Johnson, no such hierarchy ought to exist. His veto is built on an argumentative structure that is concerned more with states’ rights than civil rights.

"So, too, they are made subject to the same punishment, pains, and penalties in common with white citizens, and to none other. Thus a perfect equality of the white and colored races is attempted to be fixed by Federal law in every State of the Union over the vast field of State jurisdiction covered by these enumerated rights...."   (Presidential Veto)

In this paragraph, Johnson levels two criticisms against the Civil Rights Act. First, the act offers African Americans the same panoply of rights available to white citizens without explicitly stating the punishments to which they are subject. Johnson seems to ignore that the primary right granted—that of citizenship—inherently entails certain demands and limitations. Second, it is a breach of states’ rights to prevent any state from exercising “any power of discrimination between the different races.” This second point, unrelated to the first, is the crux of Johnson’s veto and lies near the heart of his politics. The issue is states’ rights. Despite his position as the most powerful figure in the federal government, Johnson could not accept an act by which the federal government would supersede the respective desires of the state governments.

"Those rights are, by Federal as well as State laws, secured to all domiciled aliens and foreigners, even before the completion of the process of naturalization;..."   (Presidential Veto)

In this passage, Johnson argues that the Civil Rights Act is unnecessary—the rights it grants are already secured to native-born citizens and foreigners alike, without any need to explicitly delineate the scope or reach of the ruling. John then pivots, stating that anyone wishing to be granted citizenship ought to “pass through a certain probation”; his vision is one of meritocracy. By this logic, it would be unfair to grant citizenship to African Americans without forcing them through a vetting process while continuing to submit foreigners to such a process. If Johnson’s method of argumentation thus far appears to lack cohesion, that is because his points do not follow a logical sequence, emerge from a core principle, or substantiate a central thesis.

"If, as is claimed by many, all persons who are native born already are, by virtue of the Constitution..."   (Presidential Veto)

President Johnson begins this paragraph with back-to-back conditional clauses. This grammatical construction presents hypothetical situations as a pretext for an argument, and it can serve as an effective logos appeal when it takes into account data and facts. However, Johnson does not acknowledge the reality of the political landscape, which means that he makes this appeal under a false premise. On the one hand, he says that if everyone born within the USA is a citizen, then the Civil Rights Act is unnecessary. Since African Americans still lacked basic civil rights compared to white Americans, this statement lacks context and understanding. On the other, he says that if the legislation is necessary, then it ought to include the eleven unrepresented states. Since those ex-Confederate states had yet to be reintegrated into Congress and properly represented, Johnson ignores the political and social realities of the situation.

"The tendency of the bill must be to resuscitate the spirit of rebellion and to arrest the progress..."   (Presidential Veto)

The conclusion of President Johnson’s veto makes a pathos, or emotional, appeal to his readership. Expressions like “resuscitate the spirit of rebellion” and “arrest the progress” serve to provoke fears that the Civil Rights Act will cause discord, destroying the progress the country has made since the end of the war. Such a claim is hyperbolic, and since Johnson’s veto lacks sufficiently cohesive, well-supported arguments, his objections to the bill lack persuasive power.

"The bill in effect proposes a discrimination against large numbers of intelligent, worthy, and patriotic foreigners, and in favor of the negro..."   (Presidential Veto)

President Johnson concludes this paragraph by reiterating his point that granting citizenship to African Americans without requiring a probation period is discriminatory against any foreigner who desires to go through the process of citizenship. He attempts to bolster this claim by portraying the ideal foreigner in a sympathetic light. However, in so doing, he suggests that no African American is “intelligent, worthy, and patriotic.”

"I regret that the bill..."   (Presidential Veto)

A presidential veto utilizes a different stylistic approach from a piece of Congressional legislation. President Johnson must provide rationale for his decision to veto the Civil Rights Act, making this text expository in nature. Johnson’s use of words and phrases such as “regret,” “approve consistently,” and “sense of duty” all represent efforts to gain support for his veto by presenting himself as thoughtful and trustworthy. Careful readers will consider the claims and evidence Johnson uses in order to decide whether or not his veto is persuasive.

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