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On Forgiveness and Amnesty: Closing Out the Nation’s Worst Conflict

Andrew Johnson is widely regarded as one of the worst presidents in American history, and with good reason. He was a lifelong Democrat, who ran to serve as the vice president of a Republican president on a National Union ticket. He possessed no formal education, and as a result was functionally illiterate. He attempted to rule by fiat, regardless of Constitutional restrictions, and when he could not get support from Congress, freely wielded his veto pen. By the end of his presidency, he had been effectively sidelined by Republicans in the legislature, who overrode his vetoes and eventually impeached him. Johnson survived his impeachment trial in the Senate by a single vote, making him closer to removal from office than any president in U.S. history. Strangely, he rejoined that body in 1875, when the Tennessee legislature sent him to the Senate (picking him over three former Confederate generals).

However, Johnson’s tenure as president was not entirely a failure, despite the way that he is remembered today. In foreign affairs, he made the wise decision to essentially give Secretary of State William H. Seward a free hand. As a result, Johnson’s impulse to invade Mexico and drive out foreign occupiers was replaced with a deft diplomatic touch that led to their withdrawal without American intervention. In 1867, Seward orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russian tsar, for the bargain price of $7.2 million, and Johnson summoned the Senate to an extra session to approve the sales treaty.

Perhaps Johnson’s most important contribution, though, was how he handled the end of the Civil War. Johnson came to office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, an act that could have easily led to a massive amount of retaliatory destruction. Lincoln had shown a strong desire for conciliatory action after the fighting ended—he believed that the Union would only be reunited if he dealt with the South as wayward family members, rather than bitter enemies. But, given Johnson’s combative nature, his loathing for the Southern planter class, and the fact that he came from a radically different political background than his predecessor, it is reasonable to assume that he did not share Lincoln’s position on the subject of how to welcome the Confederate States back in to the US.

On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Less than three weeks later in North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, a classmate of Lee, surrendered his forces to Union Major General William T. Sherman. For all intents and purposes, Johnston’s surrender ended the possibility of major engagements in the Civil War, and signaled the end of organized resistance to Union control. But, the question remained: how would the federal government treat the men who had taken up arms against it? After all, the Constitution only discusses one significant crime in any detail: treason. In Article III, Section 3, that document states:

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

The Congress shall have the power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.”

On May 29, 1865, less than two months after Lincoln’s assassination, President Johnson issued a proclamation that provided amnesty for all ex-rebels who had taken up arms against the federal government. There were exceptions, primarily applying to high government officials of the Confederate States and those holding property valued at $20,000 or more. But, for the rank-and-file members of the Confederate Army, both those who surrendered with Lee and Johnston and those who were still at liberty, Johnson’s proclamation made it clear that the federal government would not pursue them with an eye toward punishment for their actions.

In part, Johnson’s decision (which was unanimously supported by the Cabinet he had inherited from Lincoln) might have reflected simple pragmatism. To announce that rebel troops faced punishment, possibly even execution, would provide ample motivation for them to fight to the death, rather than being taken alive. Also, to enforce such an approach would be an enormous undertaking—requiring far more troops than the Union Army possessed if it was to be carried out against a presumably hostile population. But, I like to believe that Johnson, for all of his faults, understood that the rebellion constituted a unique form of treason, and that the only mechanism that might allow the country to resume its previous status as a unified populace, was to absolve the Confederate troops for having participated in the rebellion. Such a move not only made reconciliation possible, it enabled a whole host of social transformations that commenced in the Reconstruction Period.

Andrew Johnson bitterly opposed the Reconstruction policies of the Republicans in Congress—and did everything in his power to thwart most of their efforts. While he hated the Southern aristocracy, and thus supported the notion of abolishing slavery as a means of undercutting their power, he was anything but a believer in racial equality, and he never supported the idea of granting rights to freed slaves. And thus, I cannot pretend that Johnson knew the ramifications of his amnesty proclamation. But, sometimes the greatest acts are most successful due to the unexpected effects they carry—and 155 years ago, Johnson’s act facilitated the rebirth of the United States.


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