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!
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