A deep dive into history shows another president’s relentless campaign of pardons as far more destructive to the nation at one of its most fragile moments.
Prior to 1860, presidents used constitutional power to pardon and commute sentences sparingly. But like so much else in American history, the Civil War changed all that. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the so-called Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction. The order offered a full pardon to anyone who had joined the Confederate cause, save for a number of key exceptions: high-ranking officials and those who mistreated Black soldiers or their officers.
For Lincoln, this measure was less about pardons than undermining the Confederate war effort, offering amnesty in exchange for abandoning the secessionist, pro-slavery cause. Moreover, this was less a program than a tentative plan. Few took him up on the offer. In the end, Lincoln pardoned only 64 individuals for secession-related crimes.
When Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination, he revived the idea as a way to reintegrate states on the losing side of the war. In May 1865, Johnson issued a far more sweeping proclamation of amnesty that aimed to restore the white men who participated in the rebellion. With a single signature, he pardoned hundreds of thousands of people, but drew a line at those worth more than $20,000.
Those with more wealth were encouraged to apply directly to Johnson to clear their names. Otherwise, they could not acquire or transfer property or possess other economic rights. And, crucially, they could not participate in politics, much less hold political office.
Over the summer and fall of 1865, throngs of well-off Southern whites flocked to the White House to beseech Johnson for pardons. The more savvy of these applicants began hiring “pardon brokers” who had special access to the president.
Johnson soon began approving individual pardons with little regard for their merits, ultimately signing upward of 13,500 of them. As a result, many pardoned aristocratic planters and politicians who ruled in formerly Confederate states won the right to run for office in the next election. Thanks to Johnson’s assistance, they soon found themselves once again in charge of local and state governments. One of their first initiatives was passing racist “Black Codes,” laws used to limit the movement of freed slaves so that they could be forced to labor for their former masters at low wages. At the same time, white vigilantes operating under the newly formed Ku Klux Klan began terrorizing Black communities.
Lincoln’s Republicans, who envisioned the abolition of slavery as the first step in the full enfranchisement of African Americans, were outraged. The minister and reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson spoke for many when he wrote: “What most men mean today by the ‘president’s plan of reconstruction’ is the pardon of every rebel for the crime of rebellion, and the utter refusal to pardon a single Black loyalist for the ‘crime’ of being Black.”
Johnson’s use of the pardon power became a matter of growing concern. What had begun as a practical attempt to reconstruct the South soon became a brutally effective political weapon, with Johnson repeatedly siding with white Southerners. Indeed, Johnson was a white supremacist who had no interest in helping the freed slaves, vetoing legislation aimed at protecting them.
Radical Republicans in Congress fought back, passing legislation designed to wrest control over Reconstruction from Johnson. They passed the Civil Rights Bill in 1865 (and overrode Johnson’s veto), giving Blacks equal rights with whites and creating the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Johnson’s attempts to undermine the Republican vision of Reconstruction – and his willingness to pardon people en masse – eventually led to his impeachment in 1868. Johnson emerged from this much weakened, as Congress took control of the policy toward the former Confederacy. But he wasn’t done using the pardon power to re-enfranchise the former rebels.
On Christmas Day in 1868, just before leaving office, Johnson issued a universal amnesty for every single treasonous Confederate, effectively pardoning those exempted from his earlier edicts. In the end, his pardons would effectively expunge the crime of treason from the record of millions of Americans.
The only exceptions that remained were a handful of high-level Confederates who could not fully enjoy the benefits of this general proclamation because the 18th Amendment forbid former Confederate officials like Jefferson Davis from holding office without a special vote of Congress. Indeed, Davis never applied for a full pardon. As he quipped in 1884, “‘Tis been said that I should apply to the United States for a pardon, but repentance must precede the right of pardon, and I have not repented.”
The same, of course, could be said of Johnson himself, who went to his grave convinced of the righteousness of his pardoning power. The verdict of history, though, has been far harsher: Johnson remains one of the most reviled presidents of all times, rightly blamed for restoring a bunch of treasonous white supremacists to political power, and undermining the nation’s formative attempt at pursuing racial equality in the immediate wake of emancipation.