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Reconstruction in the Wake of Vietnam: The Pardoning of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis Francis MacDonnell In August 1975, President Gerald Ford signed Senate Joint Resolution 23 restoring full citizenship rights to Robert E. Lee. Three years later, in November 1978, Jimmy Carter approved congressional action extending similar amnesty to Jefferson Davis. The separate measures assured that the two deceased Confederates might legally hold public office and serve jury duty. The effort to pass this legislation and the varied responses to it were shaped by the Vietnam War experience. In fact, the issue of amnesty for Vietnam draft evaders became enmeshed in the struggle to pardon Lee and Davis. The two ex-Confederates benefited from the urge for national reconciliation that followed the divisions of Vietnam and Watergate. Ultimately, the same impulse helped win clemency for 1960s draft evaders. The tendency toward forgiveness gained momentum from a heightened distrust in government's capacity to act wisely and punish justly, as well as a reinvigorated public sympathy toward those who dissented from Washington's authority. Robert Penn Warren has noted that "the Civil War is our only 'felt' history—history lived in the national imagination."1 In the story of the Lee and Davis pardons one 1 Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War (New York: Random House, 1961), 3. On the grip that the memory of the Civil War maintained over the national imagination, see Gaines Foster, Ghosts ofthe Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence ofthe New South 1865-1913 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1986); Charles Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion ofthe Lost Cause 1865-1920 (Athens: Univ. ofGeorgia Press, 1980); Thomas Connelly , The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (New York: Knopf, 1977); Thomas Connelly and Barbara Bellows, God and General Longstreet: The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1982); David Blight, Frederick Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith With Jubilee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1989); David Donald, "Getting Right With Lincoln," in Lincoln Reconsidered (New York: Knopf, 1956), 3-18; Michael Kämmen, Mystic Chords ofMemory: The Transformation ofTradition in American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1991); and John Bodnar, Remaking America : Public Memory. Commemoration and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Civil War History, Vol. XL, No. 2, © 1994 by The Kent State University Press I20CIVIL WAR HISTORY sees show the conflict between North and South continued to resonate in the consciousness of post-Watergate America. In the wake of both the Civil War and the Vietnam conflict, the federal government's pardoning policy generated tremendous controversy. The stakes were higher and the debate considerably more acrimonious during the Reconstruction period than in the 1970s. Prior to his assassination, Abraham Lincoln instituted a generous program of amnesty for ex-Confederates. Lincoln offered pardon to all who took an oath of loyalty to the United States. He excepted from this plan civil and diplomatic officers of the Confederacy; those who resigned from the army, United States Congress, or judiciary to aid the rebellion; those above the rank of colonel in the Southern army; and those who mistreated prisoners of war. However, the president allowed even persons in excepted categories to file an individual application of amnesty. The clemency program was central to Lincoln's Reconstruction program, for once the percentage ofamnestied persons equaled 10 percent ofthe electorate in i860, the loyal elements might form a state government.2 Upon his succession to the presidency, Andrew Johnson followed a pardoning process that he believed was consistent with that of Lincoln. Johnson liberally extended clemency, though initially he added to the number of excepted categories requiring individual presidential action. The Democratic president and the Republican-dominated Congress soon grew suspicious of one another. Johnson's political ineptness, insensitivity to the plight of Southern blacks, and lenient amnesty program toward the South alarmed the Congress . Both moderate and radical Republicans believed that the president's policies jeopardized the gains won in the recently concluded war. Legislators expressed particular concern at the election of prominent ex-Confederates (amnestied by Johnson) to public office and their resistance to the extension of basic civil rights to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 119-133
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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