Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lincoln's Mercy And Its Limits

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?
Read the rest here.

A fascinating article on Lincoln's (in)famous penchant for granting pardons and reprieves to almost anyone with a sob story or who he just felt sorry for, and one of the few cases where he bluntly refused clemency and sent a man to the gallows.

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