Trump pardoning Jan. 6 offenders will repeat Civil War mistakes

Following conflict, it’s vital to hold those who commit violence accountable to deter future violence. Yet, other than the conspirators behind the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, virtually no one involved with the Southern rebellion was punished. In the immediate aftermath of the war, President Andrew Johnson granted clemency to thousands of high-ranking Confederate officials and military officers. Later he issued a full pardon and amnesty for anyone involved in the rebellion.

The insurrection clause of the 14th Amendment was intended to keep former Confederate civilian and military officeholders out of the new government. It soon became irrelevant. The 1872 Amnesty Act removed this prohibition for all but a handful of the highest-ranking Confederates.

The victims of the conflict, particularly freed enslaved people, were ignored. The notion of “40 acres and a mule” stood for the 1865 government initiative that turned over 400,000 acres of land along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts to freed people to govern themselves. Less than a year later, and despite 40,000 newly freed people having already moved there, Johnson reversed the order, returning the land to the Southern planters who had owned it. The majority of freed people became employees of their former owners under restrictive contracts. Others fled to northern cities in the Great Migration where they struggled to overcome poverty. Affirmative action and DEI programs wouldn’t be so necessary today if the United States had done better then.

In addition, many countries opt for days of remembrance to honor victims of conflict. Yet it wasn’t until 2021 that Juneteenth, celebrating the end of slavery, became a national holiday. Ten states still celebrate a Confederate Memorial Day or Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ birthday. Even more defiantly, Alabama and Mississippi celebrate Confederate general Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day as a joint holiday.

Addressing the needs of society as a whole is also important after conflict. The US-led Marshall Plan played a pivotal role in rebuilding Europe after World War II. One of its goals was to prevent a repeat of the economic grievances that led to the rise of fascism in the first place.

Following the Civil War, the Southern economy was in shambles and the federal government did little to help it recover. The region was thrust into poverty and the Reconstruction Era is most often associated with “carpetbaggers” from the North exploiting the South. Economic disparities remain high, and it’s no surprise that conservative candidates running on claims that liberal, northern, urban elites are exploiting the white working class resonate so well with voters.

These divisions in society are exacerbated by the lack of a shared national understanding of the causes and outcomes of the Civil War. The federal government did not create a truth commission to investigate and document the events. And while education reform plays a prominent role in post-conflict countries today, the United States has had no federal policies on how the Civil War era needs to be taught in schools.

Many K-12 textbooks in former Confederate states still deemphasize slavery and reinforce the Lost Cause narrative. This is why former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s omission of slavery when asked about the causes of the Civil War rang true to many.

While the failure to address the wounds of the Civil War continues to haunt the United States, there is hope. Across the South, monuments to the Confederacy are being dismantled. The US military recently finished renaming its bases that had honored Confederate soldiers. Many cities have adopted programs to address racial inequality in the name of reparations. Amazon, eBay, Etsy, Walmart, and many other retailers no longer sell items featuring the Confederate flag. And the University of Mississippi’s new mascot, Tony the Landshark, is much better than the previous Colonel Reb.

The United States has a chance to take the right approach in dealing with recent events. The Justice Department has charged more than 1,300 people in connection with the Jan. 6 attack and about 500 have been sentenced to prison. Trump and a number of his associates have been indicted in the Georgia election interference case, which continues to move forward. A congressional committee undertook a comprehensive investigation of the attack and efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, producing an 845-page report.

A pardon of those involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection would undo these efforts, just when the United States is finally coming to terms with its last insurrection, and probably lead to an era of increased political violence.

Andrew G. Reiter is associate professor of politics and international relations at Mount Holyoke College.

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