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The action of a government by which all persons or certain groups of persons who have committed a criminal offense—usually of a political nature that threatens the sovereignty of the government (such as Sedition or treason)—are granted Immunity from prosecution.

Amnesty allows the government of a nation or state to "forget" criminal acts, usually before prosecution has occurred. Amnesty has traditionally been used as a political tool of compromise and reunion following a war. An act of amnesty is generally granted to a group of people who have committed crimes against the state, such as Treason, rebellion, or desertion from the military. The first amnesty in U.S. history was offered by President George Washington, in 1795, to participants in the Whiskey Rebellion, a series of riots caused by an unpopular excise tax on liquor; a conditional amnesty, it allowed the U.S. government to forget the crimes of those involved, in exchange for their signatures on an oath of loyalty to the United States. Other significant amnesties in U.S. history were granted on account of the Civil and Vietnam Wars.

Because there is no specific legislative or constitutional mention of amnesty, its nature is somewhat ambiguous. Its legal justification is drawn from Article 2, Section 2, of the Constitution, which states, "The President … shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." Because of their common basis, the difference between amnesty and pardon has been particularly vexing. In theory, an amnesty is granted before prosecution takes place, and a pardon after. However, even this basic distinction is blurry—President gerald r. ford, for example, granted a pardon to President richard m. nixon before Nixon was charged with any crime. Courts have allowed the two terms to be used interchangeably.

The earliest examples of amnesty are in Greek and Roman Law. The best documented case of amnesty in the ancient world occurred in 403 b.c. A long-term civil war in Athens was ended after a group dedicated to reuniting the city took over the government and arranged a general political amnesty. Effected by loyalty oaths taken by all Athenians, and only later made into law, the amnesty proclaimed the acts of both warring factions officially forgotten.

In other nations in which amnesties are accepted parts of the governing process, the power to grant amnesty sometimes lies with legislative bodies. In the United States, granting amnesties is primarily a power of the Executive Branch, though on some occasions Congress may also initiate amnesties as part of legislation. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (100 Stat. 3359, 8 U.S.C.A. §1101) attempted to reduce the number of Aliens illegally entering the United States by punishing employers who knowingly hired them. However, because of concerns voiced by both employers and immigrant community leaders, the act compromised: it contained provisions for an amnesty giving citizenship to illegal immigrants who had been residents for a set period of time.

Though the Supreme Court has given the opinion that Congress can grant an independent amnesty, it has never expressly ruled on the issue. However, the president's power to grant amnesty autonomously has never been in serious question. The president always has recourse to the pardoning powers granted the office by the Constitution.

During the Civil War period, President Abraham Lincoln offered a series of amnesties without congressional assent to Union deserters, on the condition that they willingly rejoin their regiments. After the war, Lincoln issued a proclamation of amnesty for those who had participated in the rebellion. Though Congress protested the leniency of the plan, it was helpless to alter or halt it. Lincoln's amnesty was limited, requiring a loyalty oath and excluding high-ranking Confederate officers and political leaders. Lincoln hinted at but never offered a broader amnesty. It was not until President Andrew Johnson's Christmas amnesty proclamation of 1868 that an unconditional amnesty was granted to all participants in the Civil War. Amnesty used in this way fosters reconciliation—in this case, by fully relinquishing the Union's criminal complaints against those participating in the rebellion.

Amnesty was used for a similar purpose at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. In 1974, President Ford attempted reconciliation by declaring a conditional amnesty for those who had evaded the draft or deserted the armed forces. The terms of the amnesty required two years of public service (the length of a draft term), and gave evaders and deserters only five months to return to the fold. Many of those whom the amnesty was designed to benefit were dissatisfied, viewing the required service as punishment. On the other hand, many U.S. citizens agreed with President Nixon that any amnesty was out of the question. It was left to President jimmy carter, in 1977, to issue a broad amnesty to draft evaders. Carter argued the distinction that their crimes were forgotten, not forgiven. This qualification makes clear the purpose of an amnesty: not to erase a criminal act, nor to condone or forgive it, but simply to facilitate political reconciliation.

Though an amnesty can be broad or narrow, covering one person or many, and can be seriously qualified (as long as the conditions are not unconstitutional), it cannot grant a license to commit future crimes. Nor can it forgive crimes not yet committed.

Further readings

Barcroft, P. 1993. "The Presidential Pardon—A Flawed Solution." Human Rights Law Journal 31 (December): 381–94.

Damico, A. 1975. Democracy and the Case for Amnesty. Gainesville, Fla.: Univ. Presses of Florida.

Hagan, John. 2001. Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kane, Joseph N. 1981. Facts about the Presidents. New York: Wilson.

Norton, M., et al., eds. 1991. A People and a Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Slye, Ronald C. 2002. "The Legitimacy of Amnesties under International Law and General Principles of Anglo-American Law: Is a Legitimate Amnesty Possible?" Virginia Journal of International Law 43 (fall): 173–247.

Young, Gwen K. 2002. "Amnesty and Accountability." U.C. Davis Law Review 35 (January): 427–82.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


n. a blanket abolition of an offense by the government, with the legal result that those charged or convicted have the charge or conviction wiped out. Examples: a) the amnesty given to Confederate officials and soldiers after the Civil War, or b) President Jimmy Carter's granting amnesty (under certain conditions) to those who violated the selective service act in evading the draft during the Vietnam War. The basis for amnesty is generally because the war or other conditions that made the acts criminal no longer exist or have faded in importance. Amnesty is not a pardon as some believe, since a pardon implies forgiveness, and amnesty indicates a reason to overlook or forget the offenses. (See: pardon)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


an act of a sovereign power waiving liability for a past offence. The term is also used for similar orders of inferior bodies.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

AMNESTY, government. An act of oblivion of past offences, granted by the government to those who have been guilty of any neglect or crime, usually upon condition that they return to their duty within a certain period.
     2. An amnesty is either express or implied; it is express, when so declared in direct terms; and it is implied, when a treaty of peace is made between contending parties. Vide Vattel, liv. 4, c. 2, Sec. 20, 21, 22; Encycl. Amer. h.t.
     3. Amnesty and pardon, are very different. The former is an act of the sovereign power, the object of which is to efface and to cause to be forgotten, a crime or misdemeanor; the latter, is an act of the same authority, which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for the crime he has committed. 7 Pet. 160. Amnesty is the abolition and forgetfulness of the offence; pardon is forgiveness. A pardon is given to one who is certainly guilty, or has been convicted; amnesty, to those who may have been so.
     4. Their effects are also different. That of pardon, is the remission of the whole or a part of the punishment awarded by the law; the conviction remaining unaffected when only a partial pardon is granted: an amnesty on the contrary, has the effect of destroying the criminal act, so that it is as if it had not been committed, as far as the public interests are concerned.
     5. Their application also differs. Pardon is always given to individuals, and properly only after judgment or conviction: amnesty may be granted either before judgment or afterwards, and it is in general given to whole classes of criminals or supposed criminals, for the purpose of restoring tranquillity in the state. But sometimes amnesties are limited, and certain classes are excluded from their operation.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.