Two Degrees of Rebellion: Amnesty and Texans after the Civil War

By Clampitt, Brad R. | Civil War History, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Two Degrees of Rebellion: Amnesty and Texans after the Civil War


Clampitt, Brad R., Civil War History


Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson each pursued plans of Reconstruction that provided for a speedy restoration of the union. Both plans included proclamations of amnesty that restored legal and political rights to most former Confederates in exchange for an oath of future allegiance to the United States and a promise to obey all legislation pertaining to emancipation. Johnson eventually issued four proclamations, concluding with a declaration of universal amnesty on Christmas Day 1868. His first proclamation, however, affected by far the greatest number of Southerners. It excluded from general amnesty fourteen specific classifications of individuals (including six groups also targeted by Lincoln's plan and a seventh Lincoln added later), who were required to request a pardon directly from the president. Johnson, who promised that he intended to grant these requests "liberally," pardoned approximately 13,500 of 15,000 applicants between May 29, 1865, and September 6,1867. Clearly, Johnson could not have handled each request individually. How did he and his staff decide whose applications to accept and whose to reject? Were some "offenses" considered worse than others? Did other considerations affect the decisions? The most complete study of the amnesty process to date, Jonathan T. Dorriss's Pardon and Amnesty Under Lincoln and Johnson (1953), while providing an excellent overview, does not answer such questions. A detailed examination of this historically overlooked process using data from Texas applications addresses these issues and reveals that Johnson did in fact consider certain exceptions--those of a military nature--less forgivable than others. (1)

At the conclusion of the American Civil War, the legal and political fate of former Confederates remained unresolved. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that actions taken by the executive and legislative branches of its own government in 1861 implied the belligerent, rather than insurrectionary, character of the Confederate States of America. The Court pointed to Lincoln's proclamation ordering a blockade of the Southern coast and congressional legislation increasing the rate of pay for American soldiers to fight the Confederacy as evidence of such status, though that clearly was never the intention of the president or Congress. The Court also advanced the "double status" theory, which considered Confederates both "belligerents" and "traitors." They were enemies because they were traitors. Thus Federal authorities possessed absolute powers of authority over parts of the country as well as belligerent powers in an official war against a recognized enemy. Despite government actions that appeared to treat the Confederates as belligerents, Lincoln, Johnson, and Congress preferred to think of the Confederates as "rebels." Federal authorities had concluded no treaty with the Confederacy and regarded its adherents as insurgents and liable to the appropriate punishment. Upon the war's conclusion, Johnson held that "treason must be made infamous, and traitors must be impoverished." Possible sentences for treason included death, disfranchisement, imprisonment, confiscation of property, and heavy fines. Because the chief executive initially controlled Reconstruction, each president claimed the power to deal with the "rebels" as he deemed appropriate. (2)

Lincoln's plan of amnesty, announced on December 8,1863, and designed at least in part as a war measure to weaken Southern support for the rebellion by promising leniency, allowed for the restoration of political rights to vote and hold office, as well as property rights, with the obvious exception of slaves. It required former Confederates to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and a pledge to abide by all executive and congressional decisions regarding emancipation. This oath formed the basis of Lincoln's Ten Percent Plan, which allowed a Southern state to begin the reconstruction process upon the pledge of at least one-tenth of that state's total number of voters in the presidential election of 1860. …

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