When Did ‘Amnesty’ Become a Dirty Word?
What killed the latest immigration deal on Capitol Hill? One of the deadliest weapons was a single potent word. When President Trump suggested in January that a compromise might actually be possible, and he would be open to considering a path to citizenship for the so-called “dreamers” who came to the U.S. as children, Breitbart immediately slammed him as “Amnesty Don.” Immigration hardliners in the House of Representatives followed suit, with Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) saying that Americans would reject “amnesty or anything that looks like amnesty.”
Then, when a bipartisan immigration deal was proposed in the Senate, it was Trump’s turn to wield the A-word to bury it. In a tweet, he said the bill would create “a giant amnesty,” echoing a statement from the Department of Homeland Security that it was nothing more than a “mass amnesty bill for illegal aliens of all ages.” The bipartisan bill and a Trump-backed alternative went down to defeat in the Senate, both tarnished by the mere association with the word “amnesty.”
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So how did “amnesty”—a word that politicians of both parties once used to invoke generosity and openness—become such a monstrous taboo? Its very invocation has scuttled attempts at immigration reform year after year. Despite its recent weaponization, the usage of the word “amnesty” has actually been rather benign over most of its history. But its more recent shift offers a window into the growing potency of immigration in American politics.
In today’s debate, amnesty has come to carry a sense of getting off scot-free, a kind of unearned forgiveness, but its origins lie in the more benign idea of forgetting. The word originated as “amnestia” in ancient Greek, with the same root as “amnesia.” Even in classical times, this word for not-remembering could also refer more specifically to the pardoning of a crime against the state. The historian Plutarch relates that after the assassination of Julius Caesar, the great Roman statesman Cicero “persuaded the senate to imitate the Athenians and decree an amnesty for the attack upon Caesar.” In English, “amnesty” was borrowed in the sixteenth century with a similar legal understanding, equated to an “act of oblivion” from the government to forgive someone of past offenses.
“Amnesty” has been present in American politics from the beginning. A search on documents collected by the American Presidency Project, hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara, finds no less than 346 uses of “amnesty” by presidents from Washington to Trump. The history of the word’s presidential usage offers some insight into how “amnesty” has become so politically fraught.
When George Washington used the word in a 1794 State of the Union address, he spoke of “the proffered terms of amnesty” extended to those in western Pennsylvania who fought against the government in the Whiskey Rebellion. Fifty years later, John Tyler considered a “general amnesty” in a lesser-known uprising, Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion.
But it took the Civil War for “amnesty” to become entrenched in American political discourse. Less than a year into the war, in February 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order releasing political prisoners in military custody, granting them “an amnesty for any past offenses of treason or disloyalty,” as long as they upheld the conditions of their parole. In December 1863, Lincoln outlined his plan to offer amnesty to former Confederates at the war’s end, a policy that would be carried out by his successor, Andrew Johnson, as part of Reconstruction.
Presidential amnesties were also granted in the 1890s (by Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland) to members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints charged with polygamy – laying the groundwork for Utah becoming a state. And in the early years of the twentieth century, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt offered amnesty to rebels in the Philippines who had fought against American troops in the Spanish-American War.
In 1933, a new kind of amnesty was enacted by Franklin D. Roosevelt in his Christmas Amnesty Proclamation, granting clemency to those who had dodged the draft in World War I. Harry Truman followed Roosevelt’s lead in 1946, establishing an “Amnesty Board” to review the cases of conscientious objectors who had refused to serve in World War II. Truman ultimately pardoned only about 1,500 of the 15,000 violators of the Selective Service Act, despite pleas by Eleanor Roosevelt and others for more leniency.
In the U.S. and abroad, “amnesty” continued to be an expression of mercy and compassion for a broad class of people. In 1961, a British lawyer, Peter Benenson, declared an “Appeal for Amnesty” for prisoners of conscience around the world, a campaign that spawned the organization Amnesty International.