5 Famous or Infamous Grants of Amnesty

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A Brief History

On April 26, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a general amnesty for those members of the émigrés of the French Revolution, those royalists and others opposed to the French Revolution that had fled France.  Allowing all but about 1000 of the most die hard opponents of the Revolution (and Napoleon) such as the ringleaders of the Armée des Émigrés, those expatriate French royalists that created military forces to fight against Napoleon’s regime, to return to France without penalty was of course a healing gesture to unite France under the leadership of Napoleon.  (Napoleon publicly stated respect for the courage and dedication of those enemies, saying “True, they are paid by our enemies, but they were or should have been bound to the cause of their King. France gave death to their action, and tears to their courage. All devotion is heroic”).

Today we discuss 5 historic instances of amnesty being granted to a large group of people, and the controversy such amnesty sometimes caused.  As we have said, “You cannot make everybody happy, and trying to do so will only make many others unhappy.”  (Note: This quotation is a lesson the author learned the hard way as a Marine Corps officer and Police supervisor.)

One case in which amnesty might have been expected, but the victor slaughtered his defeated opponents instead  took place after Julius Caesar won the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BC, Caesar slaughtered his enemies instead of offering them clemency in exchange for fealty.  Amnesty and magnanimous gestures are not to be taken for granted!

Question for Students (and others):  Which of these amnesties do you agree or disagree with? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Digging Deeper

1. President Lincoln and President Johnson Pardons Confederates, 1865.

“President Andrew Johnson Pardoning Rebels at the White House”, Harper’s Weekly, October 14, 1865

After the bitterly fought 1861 to 1865 US Civil War, President Lincoln wanted to heal the country as quickly as possible and directed his generals to offer terms to Confederate officers that Confederate soldiers that surrendered would be allowed to return to their homes and face no legal consequences for their rebellion against the United States (with some exceptions for war criminals and high Confederate officials).  After the death of Lincoln in 1865, President Andrew Johnson continued the policy of healing the nation by declining to punish those that had supported the Confederacy.  Not all Northern/Unionist Americans agreed with this policy and desired to punish those states that had attempted to secede from the Union, along with the people that had sided with the Confederate States.  While it is common to offer clemency or amnesty to former foes once a war is over, it is also common for a certain faction of people on the winning side to not feel so magnanimous and prefer a policy of punishment.

2. President Carter pardons Draft Dodgers, 1977.

U.S. anti-Vietnam War protesters at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A placard to the right reads “Use your head – not your draft card”.

American involvement in the Vietnam War (1964-1973) was a hotly debated topic, especially insofar as about 30% of those Americans that fought in the war had been drafted.  Those Americans that “dodged” the draft by fleeing to Canada, coming up with bogus reasons (medical, phony hardships, scholastic ruses, faked mental illness, etc.) earned bitter enmity by those veterans of previous American wars as well as those that served in the US military during the Vietnam War.  When President Jimmy Carter pardoned all draft dodgers in 1977 a considerable number of Americans disagreed with the action, disagreement that contributed to Carter failing to be reelected in 1980.  Carter’s opponent in the 1976 Presidential election, sitting President Gerald Ford, had advocated for a less inclusive pardon for draft dodgers.  Carter’s pardon did not include those that were in the military and went AWOL or deserted (half a million to a million service members!) during the war.  Even Carter’s supporters were unhappy by Carter’s refusal to pardon deserters!  Other critics complained that such a pardon would encourage other potential draftees in the future to refuse to serve.  Again, you cannot make everyone happy!

(Note: Many current and former US politicians were draft dodgers, such as Bill Clinton with fake intentions of signing up for ROTC, Newt Gincrich doing the same, George W. Bush getting a slot in the Air Force Reserve through illegal means, Donald Trump with phony “bone spurs” on his feet, and Dick Cheney with baloney deferments among others.  See our article  “10 Patriots that Dodged the Draft.”)

3. President James Buchanan pardons Mormons after massacre and war, 1858.

President James Buchanan was inaugurated in March 1857. The Presidential campaign of 1856 featured extensive denunciation of polygamy and Mormon governance in Utah.

Brigham Young had moved his flock of Latter Day Saints out West to Utah to escape persecution in Eastern States, but still found a somewhat hostile environment even on the frontier.  President Buchanan had been convinced to send a military expedition to Utah in response to stories about Mormon polygamy and other practices contrary to the American norm.  Buchanan sent a new Governor of the Utah Territory to replace Brigham Young, without first notifying Young of the action.  Along with the new Governor, Buchanan sent 2500 troops to ensure the transfer of power took place in 1857.  The LDS members in Utah feared the military expedition was sent to annihilate the Mormons and fought back against the incursion of the US Army.  With vivid memories of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, and the subsequent “Extermination Order” by the Governor of Missouri to kill all Mormons, the LDS constructed defenses and awaited the Army.  A standoff ensued, and Young refused to bow to secular authority, claiming his religious standing trumped the US government in matters in Utah.  The 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in which about 140 non-Mormon pioneers were slaughtered by Mormons had raised tensions to a dangerous level.  Young, who had considered secession from the US for Utah, ordered his men to attack the Army in Utah, which was accomplished through guerrilla type raids.  President Buchanan finally ended the Utah Rebellion by his proclamation of clemency for all LDS people involved (“a free pardon for the seditions and treasons heretofore by them committed”) in exchange for Brigham Young ceding authority to the newly appointed Governor.

4. President Washington pardons Whiskey Rebels, 1795.

George Washington reviews the troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

President George Washington had to mobilize 13,000 troops to put down a rebellion by distillers who were upset about a heavy tax on distilled spirits.  The rebels were caught and convicted of either state crimes or treason, the latter of the two would have resulted in their executions.  Despite the trouble caused, however, and the federal expenses that accrued, Washington had his friend, the governor of Virginia, pardon them.  The Whiskey Rebellion and its subsequent amnesty for participants was the first US instance of Presidential pardons.

5. King Charles II rebuffs Parliament by granting amnesty to religious dissenters, 1672.

Charles in Garter robes by John Michael Wright or studio, c. 1660–1665

The English Civil War (1642-1651) saw the overthrow and execution of King Charles I (1649) and the exile of King Charles I’s heir, the future King Charles II (1651).  In 1660, Charles II returned to England to claim the throne of the Kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland.  The restoration of the monarchy included the restoration by Charles II of the Church of England and religious freedom for Catholics and others, much to the chagrin of those opposed to the Church of England and the Catholic Church.  Charles II tried time and again to lobby Parliament into enacting a law pardoning all religious dissenters to no avail, as Parliament consistently refused to do so.  Charles II took it upon his own initiative to issue a Royal Pardon for those dissenters, called the “Royal Declaration of Indulgence” in 1672.  Parliament resented the King defying the Parliament, and in 1679 managed to have the Royal Declaration of Indulgence rescinded.

(Note: For some reason, possibly the “hedonistic behavior” of the King and his court, Charles II was known as “The Merry Monarch.”)

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Charles II of England. Royal Declaration of Indulgence – 15 March 1672. Amazon Digital Services, 2013.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”B00DSFEGDG”]

Crouch, Jeffrey. The Presidential Pardon Power.  University Press of Kansas, 2009.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”0700616462″]

Davis, John and George Tremmel. Parole, Pardon, Pass and Amnesty Documents of the Civil War: An Illustrated History.  McFarland & Company, 2013.

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The featured image in this article, a caricature mocking the King of Prussia and émigrés, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.