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Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Presidential Pardon

With some snarky speculation in the press of how President Obama might be able to pardon George Walker Bush for unspecified crimes, I thought of another story I'd heard about a presidential pardon.

This one happened back in 1829, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The court brief can be found here. The opinion was written by Chief Justice John Marshall.

In December 1829, two men -- George Wilson and James Porter -- committed armed hold-ups in Pennsylvania of trains carrying federal payrolls, and were convicted in May 1830 of robbery, obstructing the mail, and "wounding" persons in the process. They were both sentenced to death, execution to be carried out on July 2nd.

James Porter was duly hanged. However, George Wilson had some influential friends who wrote to the president pleading for mercy, and before the execution date President Jackson issued a formal pardon. In Jackson's pardon, the charges resulting in Wilson's death sentence were completely dropped, and Wilson would have to serve only a prison term of twenty years for his other crimes.

Surprisingly, Wilson refused the pardon.

Since this had never happened before, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether someone could indeed refuse a presidential pardon. Chief Justice John Marshall handed down the court's decision: "A pardon is a parchment whose only value must be determined by the receiver of the pardon. It has no value apart from that which the receiver gives to it. George Wilson has refused to accept the pardon. We cannot conceive why he would do so, but he has. Therefore, George Wilson must die."

Wilson's execution was therefore carried out.

The principle behind this decision was simple: in order to be valid, the pardon must be accepted. The person accepting the pardon therefore is implicitly admitting guilt and the need to be forgiven. My thought is that perhaps this is why Wilson never accepted the pardon: he maintained his innocence, although from my understanding of the case, there was little doubt of his guilt.

There are all sorts of theological and other inferences that may be drawn from this story, but I prefer to leave this to you, my dear readers -- and I look forward to reading what you might think!


Billy Coffey said...

Wow. I'm going to be thinking about this all day...

Alison said...

Amy, this goes right along with some things God has been teaching me lately about forgiveness. Funny how that happens, huh?

Thanks for this post. I like all of your topics in general, and I especially enjoy these with historical perspective, too.

Jane Lebak said...

I've hit this a few times on my weblog, actually, in a close study of the Prodigal Son and how it relates to self-forgiveness. That we have to accept the forgiveness God gives us, that asking to be forgiven implies we'll accept it, but it's not always that way.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Fascinating, Amy. These thought-provoking anecdotes are what I really love about your blog.

Too bad this pardon-refusal story occurs just five years too late to appear in my WIP! :-)

Avily Jerome said...

Wow- didn't read the court brief, so I have nothing on which to base speculation.

But from a theological standpoint, it really highlights our part in salvation, doesn't it? God does all the saving, He extends the pardon. But we have to accept it.

Great story, and just in time for Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah-- that preaches! It reminds me of how I often get in the way of God's grace in my life. Long after He has forgiven me for my many inadequacies and sins, I am still beating up on myself. Oh, that the Holy Spirit would help me to NOT be a George Wilson!

-- Sarah Salter

Travis said...

This is a fascinating story. I wonder if the man refused to accept the pardon because he was guilty and didn't feel he could accept mercy. Very interesting, indeed. I, too, will be pondering this story for the rest of the day.