“A Plea for General Amnesty” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By 1872, all states in the former Confederacy had been readmitted to the Union, and the tide of public opinion was turning away from the strict measures imposed on Southern states after the Civil War. The right of African Americans to citizenship and of black men to vote had been secured, at least on paper, by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, but it was still necessary, in some cases, for federal troops to enforce these rights. There was widespread violence against Republican politicians, black and white, and despite significant suppression of the Ku Klux Klan, white-supremacist organizations continued to grow. While some believed that continued penalties were needed to force the South to protect the rights of black citizens, others believed that the practices of Northern Republicans had been counterproductive, creating an environment in which Southern citizens were angry and resentful; also, some felt that it had been a mistake to give black men the vote when there were so many white men who could not vote because of their association with the Confederacy. Carl Schurz, a Republican senator from Missouri, represented those who believed that the South should be governed by its educated, propertied class, despite their support of the Confederacy or their racial bias.

Summary Overview

By 1872, all states in the former Confederacy had been readmitted to the Union, and the tide of public opinion was turning away from the strict measures imposed on Southern states after the Civil War. The right of African Americans to citizenship and of black men to vote had been secured, at least on paper, by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, but it was still necessary, in some cases, for federal troops to enforce these rights. There was widespread violence against Republican politicians, black and white, and despite significant suppression of the Ku Klux Klan, white-supremacist organizations continued to grow. While some believed that continued penalties were needed to force the South to protect the rights of black citizens, others believed that the practices of Northern Republicans had been counterproductive, creating an environment in which Southern citizens were angry and resentful; also, some felt that it had been a mistake to give black men the vote when there were so many white men who could not vote because of their association with the Confederacy. Carl Schurz, a Republican senator from Missouri, represented those who believed that the South should be governed by its educated, propertied class, despite their support of the Confederacy or their racial bias.

Defining Moment

After the Civil War, the United States was deeply divided over how best to readmit states that had left the Union. Andrew Johnson, who became president after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, took a conciliatory approach to the Southern states. His strategy brought him into sharp conflict with Republicans in Congress, who pursued a punitive approach and demanded that the states of the former Confederacy be made, by force if necessary, to accept full citizenship rights for black men. The Reconstruction Acts provided that states should be readmitted to the Union with full representation only after they had proven their commitment to the rights of free black citizens, and that former Confederate leaders, with some exceptions, were not allowed to serve in political or military positions. These contingencies remained on the books when Schurz gave his speech in 1872.

Ulysses S. Grant became president in 1869 and worked with Congress to admit states to the Union only when they had implemented laws protecting the rights of black Southerners. He also successfully suppressed the Ku Klux Klan and was willing to employ federal troops to protect black voters. By 1872, however, Grant's presidency was marred by scandal and allegations of corruption, and congressional factions that believed former Confederates were the natural ruling class of the South and should be relieved of their disabilities were gaining ground.

Schurz delivered his speech in response to a bill that was brought to the floor of the Senate that would exclude any former Confederate from political or military office. Though this bill made the exception that this provision could be removed by the House of Representatives, many senators felt that it was time for a general amnesty, or lifting of all restrictions for former Confederates. Debate on the Senate floor was wide-ranging–from those who felt that anyone who had openly served the Confederacy should be barred from public office for life, to those, such as Schurz, who felt that it was time to lift all such restrictions.

Passed on May 22, 1872, the Amnesty Act allowed most former Confederates to vote and hold office. About five hundred leaders of the Confederacy were still barred from political and military life, but more than 150,000 white Southerners who had fought for the Confederacy were once again able to vote. Most Southern states then quickly undid many of the reforms made during Reconstruction.

Author Biography

Carl Schurz was born in Germany in 1829 and immigrated to the United States in 1852. He settled first in Wisconsin and later lived in Missouri and New York. In 1861, he was appointed ambassador to Spain and then served with distinction as a brigadier general during the Civil War. After the war, Schurz was the first German-born American to be elected to the US Senate. By all accounts, he was a moderate Republican. President Johnson sent Schurz to the South in 1866, and he returned with the opinion that Southern states should be readmitted with full rights. During Reconstruction, Schurz was opposed to the use of the military to enforce the voting rights of former slaves in the South, breaking with President Grant over these issues. Schurz served as secretary of the interior from 1877 to 1881; he then moved to New York to pursue a career in business management. He died in New York in 1906.

Document Analysis

Carl Schurz made the speech for general amnesty on the floor of the Senate in response to a bill that would continue limiting the political power and voting rights of former supporters of the Confederacy. Though Schurz had been an abolitionist and a friend and a supporter of President Lincoln, he felt that the government had gone too far in allowing black Southerners, whom he assumed to be unprepared or unfit for full participation in political life, to vote and to hold office while so many educated, propertied white Southerners were unable to do so. This inequality, he felt, had contributed to the breakdown of order in the South, and to widespread corruption.

Schurz argued that the use of force to secure the rights of freed slaves had been necessary at the end of the war–“we had to establish and secure free labor and the rights of the emancipated class”–but, once that had been done, and black Southerners had the vote (secured through the Fifteenth Amendment), Schurz argued that it was counterproductive to continue to restrict the rights of other Southerners. According to Schurz, once the Constitution had been amended, and freedmen's rights ostensibly protected, the states should have begun setting up the best governments possible, using the best-educated citizens with the most invested in their states; such people, in Schurz's opinion, were likely to be former Confederates. By barring the best minds of the South from political office, the government had set up corrupt and ignorant political systems that were guaranteed to promote resentment and racial disharmony.

Though, he says, “the colored people of the South earned our admiration and gratitude,” Schurz argues that they were not suited to play a major role in political life, especially given the ruined state of the South after the war. Schurz did not believe that African Americans were ready to enter “the political arena as men armed with the intelligence and experience necessary for the management of public affairs,” and that promoting them to such a level had brought disaster. The lack of experience and education was not the fault of African Americans, he argues, but as “a class they were ignorant and inexperienced,” and therefore easily misled by opportunistic outsiders who did not have the best interests of the South in mind. At the same time, those Southerners with education and political and business experience, as well as the most to gain by wise government, were shut out of the process because of their former association with the Confederacy.

Schurz did not deny that strong racial prejudices existed in the South. He believed that barring white Southerners from government while black Southerners were given a political voice had made these prejudices worse and that the continued disabilities leveled against Southern whites had led to an unnatural imbalance of power between ignorant, easily misguided former slaves and their educated, experienced former masters. This could not help but make a bad situation worse, in his opinion. He thought Southerners would have more quickly accepted black political participation if they had been fully part of the process.

Essential Themes

Schurz's Senate speech emphasized beliefs that were shared by many politicians and citizens in the 1870s: Black Southerners, while not deserving of enslavement, were not worthy of full political participation either, and the South was best ruled by white Southern landowners. Many felt that removing former Confederates from political life had given black men, and their corrupt allies, an unnatural superiority over white people, and this had enflamed existing racial prejudice and violence. Schurz and others called for a general amnesty to allow former Confederates full military and political participation. Whether Schurz intended it or not, the result of this amnesty, which later that year became reality, was the removal of many of the rights and protections given to black Southerners during Reconstruction.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Carl Schurz, German American.” Watertown History. Watertown Historical Society. 2013. Web. 28 Dec. 2013.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
  • Schurz, Carl. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. 3 vols. New York: McClure, 1907–1908. Print.
  • ___________. Report on the Condition of the South. New York: Arno, 1969 Print.
  • Trefousse, Hans Louis. Carl Schurz: A Biography. New York: Fordham UP, 1998. Print.
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