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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Limits of Lincoln's Mercy -

The Limits of Lincoln's Mercy -

On a frosty day in late February 1862, at a little past noon, 400 people stood solemnly within the stone-walled courtyard of the Tombs, New York City’s jail. Eighty were marines, dressed in Union blue and standing rigidly at attention with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets; the rest of the crowd consisted of reporters, politicians and observers who had cadged invitations to an unusual execution.

The condemned, flanked by government officials, was a small, dark-haired man in a black frock coat. His arms were pinioned, a black hood covered his face and a noose encircled his neck. He had been convicted of having “piratically, feloniously, and forcibly” captured “800 negroes, with intent to make them slaves.” His name was Nathaniel Gordon, and he was about to become the only man in American history to be executed for the crime of slave trading.

After Gordon’s conviction, his lawyers had exercised the one option open to them – a direct appeal to the president of the United States. The Constitution states that the president “shall have the power to grant reprieves and pardons.” And no president in the history of this nation has been so praised, or so criticized, for his use of the pardoning power as Abraham Lincoln. He was, to some, a man of compassion and mercy, to others, a sentimental meddler who continually undermined military discipline and the sanctity of the courts. But in this case the habitually merciful Abraham Lincoln withheld his customary clemency and allowed the execution to take place. Why?

Library of CongressThe execution of Nathaniel Gordon.

There were three areas in which Lincoln’s pardoning power could be applied. The first related to cases in the civil courts. During his tenure, Lincoln reviewed 456 civil cases; 375 of them – over 82 percent — received pardons. The second class had to do with those in rebellion against the government. This being the Civil War, more than half the country qualified.

The third category was in military cases. It was here that Lincoln received the most criticism for what was perceived as his interference in the flow of military justice and discipline. He made it clear from the beginning that he was “unwilling for any boy under 18 to be shot,” and he had a tendency to pardon youths who had fallen asleep on guard duty or had deserted. Gen. Joseph Hooker once sent an envelope to the president containing the cases of 55 convicted and doomed deserters; Lincoln merely wrote “Pardoned” on the envelope and returned it to Hooker....

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