What was the General Amnesty Act?
It was a law passed by the US Congress in May 1872 to remove certain political prohibitions – including a ban on holding elected office – that had been imposed on defeated Southern rebels following the North’s victory in the American Civil War (1861–65).
Why was it passed?
Immediately after the Civil War, a raft of congressional legislation was enacted, including the ban on ex-rebels holding office. Known as Reconstruction, these laws also granted civil and political rights to the 4 million African-Americans who had been freed from slavery. This was met with fierce resistance by many white Southerners, some of whom joined organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan to terrorise freed people who dared exercise their newly recognised rights.
To protect African-Americans, the federal government required troops, resources, and the support of Northern voters – something which, by the early 1870s, was in short supply. The Amnesty Act reflected a growing consensus among white Northerners that, in order to end racial turmoil in the South, former rebels must be forgiven rather than punished.
What was the immediate reaction to the act?
There was opposition from radical members of the Republican Party. However, the act received widespread support from Democrats and moderate Republicans, who welcomed the return into the national fold of the roughly 150,000 ex-rebels who had previously been excluded from government.
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How did it shape Reconstruction?
Over the next five years, former rebels were elected to state and federal offices across the South. Meanwhile, Washington DC increasingly declined to act to defend the liberties of black Southerners. In 1877, President Rutherford Hayes withdrew US troops from the South, formally ending federal protection for African Americans in the region.
Southern legislators then moved to reverse the achievements of Reconstruction by, among other things, enacting literacy tests to deny the vote to African-Americans, and passing laws mandating the separation of black and white people in public spaces.
Why should we remember the Amnesty Act today?
The long-term consequences of the act are still evident in US society to this day. The system of segregation created after Reconstruction remained in place until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, but even that extraordinary effort failed to fully uproot racial inequality. Discrimination in housing, employment and policing remain realities of American life today. We cannot understand why without first knowing the history of Reconstruction, and the Amnesty Act’s pivotal role within it.
Alys Beverton is a lecturer in American history at Oxford Brookes University
This article first appeared in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine