The Amnesty Act of 1872 was the long-sought conclusion for those who took part in secession and were barred from public affairs. Learn about the deep history of the decision to pardon those responsible for the Civil War.


At the beginning of 1863, an era known as Reconstruction descended upon the nation. This did not mean the Civil War had concluded. Rather, with the war swinging in favor of the Union, Republicans began to develop a policy for re-instituting rebelling states back into the Union. At the time, President Abraham Lincoln suggested the Ten Percent Plan. Put simply, if a rebelling state had ten percent of its votes loyal to the Union during the 1860 election, a new state government would be recognized. Radical Republicans, however, demanded fifty percent allegiance plus ‘iron clad’ oaths in order to be recognized. Both policies fell short, especially with the untimely assassination of Lincoln in 1865. It would not be until the Amnesty Act of 1872 that full rights would be restored to secessionists. Let’s take a look at the extensive history toward amnesty.

Reconstruction Following the Civil War

When the war concluded in April 1865, Congress had the Herculean task of restoring the nation to its pre-war unity. One of the major issues was what to do with southern individuals who had supported the insurrection (i.e, soldiers, commanders, politicians). President Andrew Johnson suggested a ‘blanket amnesty.’ This meant that individuals who had rebelled, and had a net worth more than $20,000, would be given a full pardon and voting rights. Basically, this limited amnesty to upper class white southerners who could influence elections with their money and power. Radical Republicans overwhelmingly rejected Johnson’s program.

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In 1866, radical Republicans had drawn up a clause that would be inserted into the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The House of Representatives, under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens, recommended that all individuals who took part in the rebellion be stripped of their voting rights until 1870. The Senate, however, refused to pass this aspect of the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead, the Senate revamped the clause to read as follows:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Simply, Congress stripped members of the insurrection of their ability to hold any type of public office unless an official vote overturned a specific case. It’s important for you to note that even though the loss of voting rights is not specifically outlined in the Senate’s clause, many insurrection supporting southerns were not able to vote until 1872.

Amnesty for Secessionists

While many supporters of the insurrection lost their voting privileges for a number of years, President Ulysses S. Grant decided that by 1872, it was time to reinstate basic rights to the South. Therefore, on May 22, 1872, Congress terminated the restrictive measures sanctioned upon the South during 1866. The Amnesty Act of 1872, as it became known, pardoned close to 200,000 Confederate troops as well as hundreds of military leaders. The act essentially nullified Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment by reestablishing voting rights for secessionists as well as lifting the ban on office holding against those who took part in the insurrection.

Results of Amnesty

Upon removing the restrictions on former Confederates, Grant also began slowly withdrawing federal forces from the South in the hope that stability had been reached. Unfortunately, peace in the South was short lived. By 1873, newly pardoned white southerners were once again reestablishing white supremacy throughout the region. Eventually, the Republican regime in the South collapsed and the Democrats once again gained control. The Amnesty Act of 1872 paved the way for southerners to reassert their (anti-black, white supremacist) influence in public office.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Explain the political debate regarding the reinstatement of rights of those southerners who supported the insurrection
  • Describe the addition to the Fourteenth Amendment that stripped southerners of political power
  • Discuss the negative impact of the Amnesty Act of 1872 on progress related to racial equality