My History in Politics blog:

In the current debate on the immigration situation in the United States, one word seems to shriek louder than any other amid the cacophony of voices raised. AMNESTY!!! For those opposed to anything but deportation for illegals, it is pronounced with such a sense of horror that seemingly nothing less than a mortal sin has been invoked. In other words, a very, very, dirty word.

Not long ago, listening to U.S. Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama as he drawled his condemnation of any such heinous suggestion of pardon — “Whah that would be amnesty!” — I had to smile. The good senator was intimating that a terrible thing like amnesty was unthinkable and unheard of in our country. But I was thinking that more than likely one of his Southern ancestors was a beneficiary of the largest massive amnesty in American history.

But before going into the reprieve given by President Andrew Johnson to millions of Confederate soldiers, thus exempting them from charges of treason (the only crime defined by the U.S. Constitution — in Article III, Section 3), it will be instructive to start at the very beginning of our independence and see how amnesty came into play even while we were still struggling to break away from Great Britain.

In this instance, we are talking about amnesty for Tories, those Americans who in the language of the Constitution were guilty of “levying war” against the United States “or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Even prior to the end of the Revolution, the U.S. Continental Congress issued a call to grant amnesty to such traitors to the American cause. In 1787, four years after the Peace Treaty was signed, its successor, the U.S. Congress, ordered the States to adhere to the agreement with England, which included allowing amnesty and citizenship for Tories.

That same year, the Massachusetts General Court (its Legislature) approved a universal amnesty for Tories, with a few exceptions for the most notorious of King George III’s supporters. On one occasions, two of our fiercest Bay State patriots, John Adams and James Bowdoin, were among the signers of a petition requesting amnesty for a Francis Johannot Jr., who had come back from exile abroad. Virginia’s Patrick Henry, another great American patriot, was also a strong proponent of amnesty for Tories.

During the Civil War, too, a move toward amnesty was initiated before hostilities ceased. President Abraham Lincoln, in his “Amnesty Proclamation of December 8, 1863” offered pardons to all Southerners who had taken up arms against the U.S., except those who had held a Confederate civil office or had mistreated Union prisoners. These ex-rebels needed only sign an oath of allegiance to the Union. While Lincoln was yet alive, still another broad amnesty was issued in the last week of 1864.

Once Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency, amnesty for all Southerners proceeded apace. High-ranking Confederate military leaders, who had not initially been eligible for pardons, were now allowed to ask for clemency through a Johnson pronouncement on May 29, 1865. Three years later, with the Civil War over, a further presidential proclamation offered amnesty to practically every last Southerner. Only Jefferson Davis, General John Cabell Breckinridge, the Confederates’ secretary of war and a prewar vice president of the U.S., General Robert E. Lee and a few other Dixie bigwigs were left out. (It is interesting to note that Robert E. Lee was finally fully pardoned many years later by President Gerald Ford and Jefferson Davis by President Jimmy Carter).

Capping off his amnesty activity, President Andrew Johnson, the Tennessean War Democrat, as a lame duck after Ulysses Grant’s election, granted a final “unconditional amnesty to all Confederates,” and this time John C. Breckinridge was included.

Other instances of U.S. amnesty granting occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century. President Gerald Ford not only pardoned Robert E. Lee but in 1974 granted amnesty to draft evaders and deserters during the Vietnam War, to be followed by Jimmy Carter with a much broader — and needless to say, more controversial — amnesty for the war’s extreme opponents.

In our own day and age, the Internet has revealed an unusual tribute to President Andrew Johnson for his munificence in the use of the pardoning power. The Libertarian “Presidential Rankings” posted on the Web lists Johnson as the seventh best president in our history, five places ahead of George Washington, as seen through the eyes of these distrusters of government. Stated in Johnson’s favor, among other actions, was “Gave Amnesty for Confederates.” Admittedly, the Tennessean could not compete with the group’s “number I best of Presidents,” Zachary Taylor, who won the accolade because he “Did Absolutely Nothing.” Even so, Johnson’s all-time record of absolving lawbreakers stood him in good stead with this crowd.

Not so Abraham Lincoln, who also amnestied Confederates. These Libertarians deemed him “The Worst President” ever. Number three in this category of bad presidents, surprisingly, was Ronald Reagan, whom one might think would be an idol for the government haters. Yet perhaps reflecting their ambivalence about amnesty was the fact that Ronald Reagan signed the last major amnesty measure in our history to date. This was the “Immigration and Control Act of 1986,” and it relates very much to today’s controversy over this issue. A bipartisan effort, the measure was cosponsored by Republican U.S. Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Democratic Representative Romano Mazzoli of Kentucky. What it did was provide an amnesty opportunity and pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who had been in the United States at least four years. Close to three million illegals took advantage of its provisions.

It should be noted that their pardonable crime, essentially trespassing in defiance of a politically determined quota system, could hardly be deemed comparable to those earlier forgiven offenses of waging war against the United States or violating the U.S. Constitution’s stricture against treason.

Nevertheless, “amnesty” remains a dirty word in today’s debates. But it is also an integral component of our American past.

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