Amnesty, a proclamation by a sovereign power or government declaring that certain offenses have been officially forgotten or overlooked. The word comes from the Greek, meaning “a forgetting.” Amnesty is usually granted to large numbers of offenders or classes of persons at one time to free them from prosecution for political offenses, such as treason, sedition, or rebellion. It is similar to a pardon except that amnesty erases all legal record of the offense. A pardon merely releases an individual convicted of a crime from all or part of the punishment.
The U.S. Constitution gives the President power “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States” (Article II, Section 2). Although the term “amnesty” is not expressed, the Supreme Court has ruled that it falls under the definition of pardon as used in the Constitution. Also, by practice, the President's power to grant amnesties has become well established. In addition, the court has held that Congress may enact amnesty laws.
The earliest known example of amnesty occurred in Athens in 403 b.c. Thrasybulus granted a general amnesty to supporters of the Council of Thirty, the government that he had overthrown.
When the monarchy was restored in England in 1660, Charles II granted amnesty to all involved in the Great Rebellion except those who had had a part in putting his father, Charles I, to death. In 1778, during the American Revolution, the British offered amnesty to all men of the colonial forces who would lay down their arms.
The broadest use of amnesty in United States history took place during and after the Civil War. In the Amnesty Proclamation of 1863, President Lincoln offered amnesty to all Confederates except high civil and military leaders. After the war, President Andrew Johnson granted hundreds of amnesty petitions. The Amnesty Act of 1872, which offered amnesty to all but a few hundred former Confederates, was the first general Congressional amnesty.
After World Wars I and II, Presidential amnesties were granted to some draft evaders and others convicted of wartime offenses. Following the Vietnamese War, a conditional amnesty was offered to draft evaders and deserters. This was not a true amnesty, however, because hospital work or some other humanitarian type of alternative service was required of offenders before release from legal penalties.