Friday, January 28, 2011

Debate Among Lincoln Aficionados?

In a very odd New York Times article entitled "Kindnesses Are Revealed From Day Lincoln Died," Sam Roberts contemplates the recent National Archives episode and suggests:
the disclosure of the forgery has touched off a kerfuffle among Lincoln aficionados over whether the president was pardon-happy or a ruthless wartime commander.
Roberts then offers what he apparently thinks is key piece of evidence in the matter: the fact that Lincoln "showed compassion in other official business" his last day in office.

While we cannot claim to be in the company of "Lincoln aficionados" per se, David Kincaid and I have conducted systematic empirical research of the 331 clemency warrants on file in Microfilm Set T967 in the National Archives and the findings of that research are published in Presidential Studies Quarterly. While our research may not have uncovered anything so glamorous or fascinating to aficionados as a life-saving pardon signed out of the window of a carriage on the way to Ford's Theater, we feel we have contributed enough to the topic to be given serious consideration.

Our research on clemency warrants for persons convicted in civil courts, found that President Lincoln granted more pardons than 13 of the 15 presidents before him and that his clemency activity was generally increasing as the term progressed. Nearly 1/3 of the pardons Lincoln granted to those outside of the District of Columbia were granted to individuals from the so-called border states. Unlike many of his predecessors, Lincoln took the time to explain the rationale behind his decision making in many of his warrants. For this reason, we know that good conduct, repentance and excellent reputation before the commission of an offense were critical factors to him, as well as the youthfulness of an offender.

We also concluded, from the language of warrants, that Lincoln's pardons may have featured an unprecedented degree of public influence. In addition to referencing members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, governors and other politicians, they very often reference the support of "large" numbers of "honorable" or "respectable" citizens. In some instances, specific numbers are given (fifty, many hundred, nearly one thousand, over eleven hundred, etc.). Lincoln clearly used one of the most imperial and unilateral powers of the presidency generously, and in a highly democratic fashion. See Times article here.

See also: "Inside Lincoln's Clemency Decision Making." P.S. Ruckman, Jr. and David Kincaid, 29 Presidential Studies Quarterly 84-99 (Winter 1999).

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