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Definition: Amnesty


Quick Summary of Amnesty

:For the human rights organization, see Amnesty International.
Amnesty (from the Greek amnestia, oblivion) is an act of grace by which the supreme power in a state restores those who may have been guilty of any offence against it to the position of innocent persons. It includes more than pardon, inasmuch as it obliterates all legal remembrance of the offence.

Amnesties, which, in the United Kingdom, may be granted by the crown alone, or by act of Parliament, were formerly usual on coronations and similar occasions, but are chiefly exercised towards associations of political criminals, and are sometimes granted absolutely, though more frequently there are certain specified exceptions. Thus, in the case of the earliest recorded amnesty, that of Thrasybulus at Athens, the thirty tyrants and a few others were expressly excluded from its operation; and the amnesty proclaimed on the restoration of Charles II of England did not extend to those who had taken part in the execution of his father. Other celebrated amnesties are that proclaimed by Napoleon on March 13, 1815, from which thirteen eminent persons, including Talleyrand, were excepted; the Prussian amnesty of August 10, 1840; the general amnesty proclaimed by the emperor Franz Josef I of Austria in 1857; the general amnesty granted by President of the United States Andrew Johnson after the American Civil War in 1868; and the French amnesty of 1905. The last act of amnesty passed in Great Britain was that of 1747, which proclaimed a pardon to those who had taken part in the ’45 Jacobite Rising.

Amnesty is sometimes now the term used to denote cases of pardon by a country where offenses are not stricken from the record and individuals proclaimed innocent. Instead, those individuals receive some lesser sentence in response to an admission of guilt.

What is the dictionary definition of Amnesty?

Dictionary Definition

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.

Full Definition of Amnesty

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 the 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. Affected 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.

Cite Term

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Modern Language Association (MLA):
Amnesty. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd.
August 16, 2022
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):
Amnesty. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: August 16, 2022).
American Psychological Association (APA):
Amnesty. Retrieved August 16, 2022
, from website:

Definition Sources

Definitions for Amnesty are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 26th November, 2021 | 0 Views.