President Trump says his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen asked him for a pardon. But Cohen testified before Congress, “I have never asked for, nor would I accept, a pardon from Mr. Trump.”
You can decide for yourself whom to believe in that dispute. I really don’t care that much about it, other than that it reminded me of one of the most interesting court cases in American history.
United States v. George Wilson in 1833 is, as far as I know, the only example of someone turning down a presidential pardon. Wilson faced a death sentence for robbing the mail, but President Andrew Jackson granted clemency. However, Wilson declined to accept the offer of grace, and the judges and lawyers were so dumbfounded that it ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chief Justice John Marshall concluded that, “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which, delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete, without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.”
I first heard about the case in a church devotional, and the religious applications of the case are obvious: God’s offer of pardon for sin is open to everyone, but it must likewise be accepted before it can be applied. As such, the case has been the subject of numerous sermons over the years.
However, I had never previously been able to find any original documents related to the long-ago facts, which tend to get stretched over the decades. But after searching for it again this week after being reminded of it by the Trump/Cohen spat, I found the full court record on the Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute website, as well as detailed newspaper accounts via the Newspapers.com archives.
The research sheds some new light on the case, and it was fun to rediscover some historical details that no one apparently knows about. Most notably, Wilson was never actually executed, despite turning down the pardon, and actually was pardoned a second time 11 years later.
The story begins with Wilson’s birth in Trenton, New Jersey, to a poor family, according to an 1830 story in The Philadelphia Saturday Bulletin. He was 24 years old at the time of the crime in 1829. The story said his father “now follows the sea” while his mother was a tenant in the Philadelphia Alms House “aged and poor.”
“At an early age George was thrown out upon the world without the benefit of a trade and a stranger to parental oversight,” the story said.
He had earlier served two years in prison for larceny, but the superintendent, S.R. Wood, had taken an interest in reforming him because of his “docile and gentle behaviour” and arranged for him to be an apprentice to a Methodist preacher, John Hagany of Wilmington, Delaware, after his release. The story said he did well for two years while his former conviction was kept secret, but then it was revealed to some other apprentices and they shunned him so that the minister decided Wilson should leave, giving him a dollar and telling him to return to the prison superintendent. But the story said Wilson was discouraged and didn’t go, eventually being arrested for a larceny in Maryland, where he met James Porter and another man, named Abraham Poteet, and that they proposed to rob the mail in Pennsylvania.
“To this George asserts that he expressed unwillingness, but that he was finally overawed by the threats of the others, who forced him to become a partner in the scheme of plunder,” the story said.
However, Poteet testified during the trial that on Dec. 6, 1829, Wilson pointed a pistol at the driver, Samuel McCrea, and told him to “stop or they would blow his guts out,” according to a May 11, 1830, story in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette.
Wilson and Porter were both convicted and then sentenced to death on May 27, 1830.
But Wilson had come back across his former prison warden, allegedly expressed regret and asked for a Bible. Preachers wrote letters saying Wilson freely expressed his guilt and was deeply penitent, and multiple newspapers took up the issue in Wilson’s favor.
In June, Jackson issued the pardon for Wilson, but not Porter, who was executed July 2. Porter was the alleged ringleader and had threatened Wilson when Wilson didn’t want to go through with it, the reports said.
The confusing part comes when Wilson went back to court on Oct. 21, 1830, and declined to accept the pardon on the capital charge of risking the mailman’s life after being sentenced to 10 years on the other charge of robbing the mail. The judge asked him why not, and Wilson responded “that he had nothing to say, and that he did not wish in any manner to avail himself, in order to avoid sentence in this particular case, of the pardon referred to,” according to the Supreme Court record.
So the question of why Wilson would have refused a pardon, when there was a campaign on his behalf to get one and he faced death, remains unclear. However, it seems to me there was some confusion about what charge he was being sentenced and pardoned for, not an objection to being released from the death penalty. The Supreme Court tried at length to sort out the various indictments against Wilson and how the pardon applied to each of them.
What is clear is that Wilson was never executed despite the court ruling that it couldn’t force him to take the pardon. He remained in prison doing hard labor until he completed a 10-year sentence for the charge of robbing the mail, according to a Jan. 14, 1841, story in The National Gazette in Philadelphia. The newspaper reported that Wilson was at that time released after being pardoned by President Martin Van Buren. President Jackson had pardoned Wilson from death for endangering the mailman’s life but had not pardoned him for other penalties related to that same charge. Van Buren’s pardon took an additional step and absolved Wilson of any remaining jail sentence.
He seemed to have learned his lesson: Wilson accepted the pardon the second time around.
• Charlie Smith is editor and publisher of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him at (601) 736-2611 or email@example.com.