The Ironclad Oath was an oath promoted by Radical Republicans and opposed by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. The Republicans intended to prevent political activity of ex-Confederate soldiers and supporters by requiring all voters and officials to swear they had never supported the Confederacy. Given the temporary disenfranchisement of the numerous Confederate veterans and local civic leaders, a new Republican biracial coalition came to power in the eleven Southern states during Reconstruction. Southern conservative Democrats were angered to have been disenfranchised.
Text of the Oath
I, A. B., do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I have never voluntarily borne arms against the United States since I have been a citizen thereof; that I have voluntarily given no aid, countenance, counsel, or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility thereto; that I have neither sought nor accepted nor attempted to exercise the functions of any office whatever, under any authority or pretended authority in hostility to the United States; that I have not yielded a voluntary support to any pretended government, authority, power or constitution within the United States, hostile or inimical thereto. And I do further swear (or affirm) that, to the best of my knowledge and ability, I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.— Statutes at Large, Thirty Seventh Congress, Second Session
Role during Civil War
Congress originally devised the oath in July 1862 for all federal employees, lawyers and federal elected officials. It was applied to Southern voters in the Wade–Davis Bill of 1864, which President Abraham Lincoln vetoed. Former vice-president Andrew Johnson also opposed it after he became president in April 1865. Both Johnson and Lincoln wanted Southerners instead to swear to an oath that in the future they would support the Union. Lincoln's amnesty oath was integral to his ten percent plan for reconstruction. In 1864 Congress extended the provisions of the ironclad oath to its own members, but overlooked perjury when it came to seating Southern Republicans.
Role in Reconstruction
The Oath was a key factor in removing many ex-Confederates from the political arena during the Reconstruction era of the late 1860s. To take the Ironclad Oath, a person had to swear he had never borne arms against the Union or supported the Confederacy — that is, he had "never voluntarily borne arms against the United States," had "voluntarily" given "no aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement" to persons in rebellion and had exercised or attempted to exercise the functions of no office under the Confederacy. A farmer who sold grain to the Confederate Army would be covered. The oath was detested by ex-Confederates; some called it "The Damnesty Oath."
Congress devised the oath in July 1862 for all federal employees, lawyers, and federal elected officials. It was applied to Southern voters in the Wade–Davis Bill of 1864, which President Abraham Lincoln vetoed. President Andrew Johnson also opposed it. Both Johnson and Lincoln wanted Southerners instead to swear to an oath that in the future they would support the Union. Lincoln's amnesty oath was integral to his ten percent plan for reconstruction. In 1864 Congress extended the provisions of the ironclad oath to its own members, but overlooked perjury when it came to seating Southern Republicans. Historian Harold Hyman says that in 1866, Northern Congressmen "described the oath as the last bulwark against the return of ex-rebels to power, the barrier behind which Southern Unionists and Negroes protected themselves."
The first Supplemental Reconstruction Act (March 23, 1867) required an oath of past loyalty in order for any man in the South to vote. The local registrar had to swear that he had never held office under Confederacy, nor given aid or comfort to it. They also had to take the ironclad oath.
In 1867 the United States Supreme Court held that the federal ironclad oath for attorneys and the similar Missouri state oath for ministers, teachers, and other professionals were unconstitutional, because they violated the constitutional prohibitions against bills of attainder and ex post facto laws.
In March 1867 Radicals in Congress passed a law that prohibited anyone from voting in the election of delegates to state constitutional conventions or in the subsequent ratification who was prohibited from holding office under section 3 of the pending Fourteenth Amendment. Those exclusions were less inclusive than the requirements of the Ironclad Oath. These exclusions allowed the Republican coalitions to carry the elections in every Southern state except Virginia. The Republican-dominated legislatures wrote and enacted new constitutions. These new state constitutions applied to all state officials and could not be repealed by an ordinary vote of the legislature.
The Republicans applied the oath in the South to keep political opponents from holding office or (in some states) from even voting. Hyman says, "most Southerners, even good Republican supporters, were disfranchised by the ironclad oath's blanket provisions rather than by the Fourteenth Amendment's highly selective disabilities."
Perman emphasizes that the Republican ascendancy in the South was "extremely precarious" because the electorate had been defined by Congress, and "many potential opponents had been disfranchised, while others have simply refused to participate in what they regarded as a rigged election." Perman argues that while the Radicals had controlled the state constitutional conventions, they increasingly lost power inside the Republican Party to conservative forces that repudiated disfranchisement and proscription. Voters in Texas, Virginia, and Mississippi voted down the new constitutions even though many opponents were disfranchised. The result was that by 1870 in every state except Arkansas, the Republicans dropped the restrictions against ex-Confederates and supporters, such as the ironclad oath. In Arkansas the Republican split, leading to an armed conflict called the Brooks–Baxter War.
In 1871, Congress modified the ironclad oath in order to permit all former rebels to use the 1868 formula to swear to "future loyalty." President Ulysses S. Grant vetoed the law, but Congress passed it.
Voting restrictions on former Confederates varied state by state during the rest of the Reconstruction era. Few were disenfranchised in Georgia, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina. Alabama and Arkansas banned only those ineligible to hold office under the Fourteenth Amendment. Louisiana banned those newspaper editors and religious ministers who had supported secession or anybody who had voted for the secession ordinance, but allowed them to vote if they took an oath favoring Radical Reconstruction, a much more lenient avowal than required by the Ironclad Oath. In states where there was disenfranchisement the maximum percentage was 10-20% of otherwise eligible white voters; most states had much smaller percentages disenfranchised. In the South the most support for the Ironclad Oath came from white Republicans from the hill counties, where they needed it to gain local majorities.
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- William A. Blair, Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865–1914 (2004), pp 67-68
- Harold Hyman, To try men's souls: Loyalty Tests in American History (1959), p 93
- Hyman, To try men's souls (1959) p 125
- Cummings v. Missouri, 4 Wall. 277 (1867); Ex parte Garland, 4 Wall. 333 (1867).
- Hyman, To try men's souls (1959), p 261
- Paul Finkelman, ed. (2003). Religion and American Law: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 133–34.
- The Amendment provided, "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."
- William L. Richter, The Army in Texas during Reconstruction, 1865–1870 (1987) pp 97-98
- Hyman, To try men's souls: Loyalty Tests in American History (1959) p 264
- Michael Perman, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics 1869–1879 (1984), pp 23-24
- Perman, The Road to Redemption (1984) pp 26-27
- Hyman, To try men's souls (1959) p 264
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1988) p. 324
- David Donald, Jean Harvey Baker and Michael F. Holt, The Civil War and Reconstruction. (2000) p. 580
- Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1988) p. 324
- Hyman, To try men's souls (1959) p 265
- Belz, Herman. Emancipation and Equal Rights: Politics and Constitutionalism in the Civil War Era 1978.
- Belz, Herman. Reconstructing the Union: Theory and Policy during the Civil War 1969.
- Benedict, Michael Les A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863–1869 1974.
- Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863–1877 1988. Harper & Row: New York. ISBN 0-06-091453-X
- Harris, William C. With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union 1997.
- Hyman, Harold M. A More Perfect Union: The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Constitution 1973.
- Hyman, Harold M. To Try Men's Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History (1959) online
- Hyman, Harold M. Era of the Oath: Northern Loyalty Tests during the Civil War and Reconstruction (1954) online