Why Amnesty Is the American Way

tags: Lincoln, Amnesty, Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction

Sean Braswell is a Senior Writer at OZY. He has five degrees and writes about history, politics, film, sports, and anything in which he gets to use the word “dystopian.”

Blanket amnesty for hundreds of thousands of wrongdoers was deeply controversial. Many could not fathom forgiving people who had so flagrantly disobeyed the nation’s laws. Rewarding illegal conduct with amnesty suggested, as one Republican senator from Indiana put it, “that it was simply an honest difference of opinion between parties in which there was no criminality on either side.”

And yet with his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction on Dec. 8, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln initiated an enormous conciliation process that would help reunify the fractured nation. In May 1865, just weeks after Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the Civil War had left many Americans howling for revenge, Union-run prisons in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, in keeping with the fallen leader’s proclamation, began to release Rebel soldiers. The cost of their freedom and renewed American citizenship: a simple oath of allegiance.

“Amnesty” is one of those unutterable words in American politics today, deployed as a shorthand rebuke of those proposing to confer legal status on the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Even Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, shy away from the word “amnesty.” After all, calls from their Republican rivals, especially Donald Trump, to deport illegal immigrants and build a fortification on the Mexico border, have found support from the electorate.

Yet amnesty is a concept that has played a remarkable, and mostly positive, role in American history. No less than the likes of Lincoln, George Washington and Ronald Reagan have availed themselves of the power to forgive a group’s unlawful trespasses in the hopes of resolving massive political challenges and forging a stronger, more unified citizenry. And, as history demonstrates time and again, we should not forget just how powerful forgetting can be. 

From the Greek “amnēstia,” or forgetfulness, amnesties are general pardons, either full or conditional in nature, that exempt a certain group or class from punishment. In the U.S., the power to grant legal amnesties primarily resides in the president, under Article II of the Constitution, but Congress has also conferred them through legislation. ...

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