The pardon of Jefferson Davis and the 14th Amendment
October 17, 2018 by NCC Staff
On this day in 1978, President Jimmy Carter officially restored the full citizenship rights of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, signing an act from Congress that ended a century-long dispute.
Davis is most remembered today as one of the leaders of the Confederacy, along with General Robert E. Lee. In 1976, Lee’s citizenship was restored by Congress, also about a century after Lee’s death after the Civil War. The restoration of Davis’ citizenship soon followed.
“In posthumously restoring the full rights of citizenship to Jefferson Davis, the Congress officially completes the long process of reconciliation that has reunited our people following the tragic conflict between the States,” the resolution read on October 17, 1978.
“Earlier, he was specifically exempted form resolutions restoring the rights of other officials in the Confederacy. He had served the United States long and honorably as a soldier, Member of the U.S. House and Senate, and as Secretary of War. General Robert E. Lee’s citizenship was restored in 1976. It is fitting that Jefferson Davis should no longer be singled out for punishment,” the resolution said.
Attempts to restore Davis’ full citizenship were a hot-button issue in 1876, when there was talk about Davis as a potential Senate candidate. Specifically, provisions in the 14th Amendment made that nearly impossible, unless Congress decided otherwise.
Section 3 of the 14th Amendment said that the House and Senate would need to approve Davis as an officeholder because of his association with the Confederacy.
“No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability,” the section reads.
It wasn’t Davis’ first brush with the 14th Amendment.
He was charged with treason after the Civil War, and his defense team claimed that the 14th Amendment already punished Davis by preventing him from holding public office in the future and that further prosecution and punishment would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
In fact, the 14th Amendment had been passed during the time of Davis’ indictment in the federal court system, when the case of United States v. Jefferson Davis was being heard.
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former enslaved people—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” One of three amendments passed during the Reconstruction era to abolish slavery and establish civil and legal rights for Black Americans, it would become the basis for many landmark Supreme Court decisions over the years.
One of the trial justices in the Davis case in 1868 was Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who was at the district court in his role as a circuit judge. Chase wanted the treason charges dismissed, but a second judge, John C. Underwood, disagreed with him.
With a deadlock in district court, the Davis case would head automatically to the Supreme Court. But President Andrew Johnson issued a general pardon on Christmas Day in December 1868 for all those who fought for the Confederacy, provided that anyone eligible applied for one.
It was actually Johnson’s fourth amnesty provision for Confederates, and it restored civil and property rights and provided immunity from treason charges. But it didn’t allow former Confederate officials to vote or hold office. In 1872, the Amnesty Act was amended to allow almost all former Confederates, except for several hundred former high-ranking officials (such as Davis), to hold public office and vote. So while Davis became eligible for a general pardon, he didn’t have full citizenship rights if he wanted to hold elected federal office.
In 1876, Davis was specifically excluded from a universal amnesty bill that restored the full citizenship rights of the remaining former Confederates. The amendment to the bill was proposed by James G. Blaine, a candidate in that year’s presidential election.
When it passed, there was outrage in some Southern states. And Davis had no inclination to ask for any kind of pardon. “It has been said that I should apply to the United States for a pardon, but repentance must precede the right of pardon, and I have not repented,” Davis said in 1881.
In a book published right after his death, his wife Varina Davis said people in Mississippi had asked her husband to run for the Senate again in the 1870s, but he had no interest, citing his age.
Before his involvement with the Confederate government, Davis was a highly respected U.S. senator from Mississippi and a former secretary of war. And his Senate resignation speech from 1861 was one of the most dramatic moments in the run-up to the Civil War.
Davis explained that Mississippi was leaving the Union because “we are about to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our fathers bequeathed to us.” There was open weeping in the Senate chamber after the speech.
“I hope … for peaceful relations with you, though we must part. They may be mutually beneficial to us in the future, as they have been in the past, if you so will it. The reverse may bring disaster on every portion of the country,” Davis said.
Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) was a Mexican War hero, U.S. senator from Mississippi, U.S. secretary of war and president of the Confederate States of America for the duration of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Prior to the start of the war, Davis had argued against secession, but when Mississippi seceded he resigned from the U.S. Senate. In February 1861 he was elected president of the Confederacy. Davis faced difficulties throughout the war as he struggled to manage the Southern war effort, maintain control the Confederate economy and keep a new nation united. Davis’ often contentious personality led to conflicts with other politicians as well as his own military officers. In May 1865, several weeks after the Confederate surrender, Davis was captured, imprisoned and charged with treason, but never tried.
Davis had an impressive political career before he became president of the Confederacy, but he was appointed, not elected, to many of the offices he held in his antebellum career. His limited experience with electoral politics was a handicap to his presidency, and, perhaps more important, he lacked the personal qualities that made Abraham Lincoln a successful president.
Did you know? An 18-year-old Jefferson Davis was placed under house arrest while at West Point for his role in the 1826 Eggnog Riot, which started after cadets were caught smuggling whiskey into their barracks.
Raised on the Mississippi frontier, Davis’s life was shaped by his brother Joseph, who was twenty-four years his senior. Joseph Davis made a fortune as a lawyer and planter, and he played a paternal role in Jefferson’s life for many years. After Jefferson graduated from West Point and served in the army, Joseph gave him a plantation and the slaves to farm it. In the 1840s, Joseph managed the plantation so that Jefferson could go into politics.
Jefferson Davis became a staunch states’ rights Democrat and champion of the unrestricted expansion of slavery into the territories. He was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1845-his only successful electoral campaign-and then was appointed to the Senate after he became a hero while serving in the army during the Mexican War. In the Senate he opposed the Compromise of 1850, particularly the admission of California as a free state.
Have you ever wondered why we vote on the first Tuesday in November? Our current Presidential Election Day was established by Congress in 1845
In 1851 he resigned from the Senate to run unsuccessfully for the Mississippi governorship. In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed Davis secretary of war. Davis served ably in this office and in 1857 reentered the Senate, where he continued to advocate the spread of slavery into the territories. During the secession crisis, he resigned from the Senate and in 1861 was chosen by acclamation to be the Confederate president.
Davis worked very hard at his presidential duties, concentrating on military strategy but neglecting domestic politics, which hurt him in the long run. He could not manage congressional opposition as successfully as Lincoln, nor could he inspire the southern public as Lincoln did his public in the North. Davis was also a poor judge of people, unlike Lincoln. The Confederate president protected incompetents, such as Braxton Bragg, and he did not make use of talented men he disliked, such as Joseph E. Johnston. In April 1865 the Union armies finally surrounded Richmond, and Davis and his family fled the city for the Deep South, only to be captured in Georgia in May.
Davis’s life after the war was bleak. Charged with treason, he went to prison in Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he remained for two years. In prison his physical and emotional health deteriorated, and he was never the same after he was released in May 1867. He and his family traveled abroad for two years. When he returned to America, he had trouble making a living. He worked for an insurance company in Memphis, but the company went bankrupt, and when he published a history of the Confederacy, it did not sell well. He lived off the charity of friends and relatives until his death in New Orleans in 1889. He refused to take the oath of allegiance to regain his citizenship, which was restored only posthumously by the U.S. Congress in 1978.
WE&P by EZorrilla.
Filed Under: 14th Amendment, Article II, Article III, Civil War, Fifth Amendment, Article II, Section 2, Article III, Section 3, Treason Clause, Grand Jury, Double Jeopardy, Self-Incrimination Clauses