February 7, 1862 was the originally scheduled execution date for Nathaniel Gordon, a convicted trans-Atlantic slave trader. However, Gordon, the scion of a respectable Presbyterian family from Portland, Maine, had good reason to believe that neither his death sentence nor any other severe punishment would actually be carried out.
After all, in the 43 years since the United States had belatedly outlawed the international slave trade (1809), few American slavers had been caught, even fewer tried, and hardly any convicted. America’s anti-slave trading statute was a loophole-ridden law which was only half-heartedly enforced by a nation which still held the victims of that illegal trade to be perfectly legal property upon U.S. soil.
American enforcement of it’s own anti-slave trade law was so close to non-existent that the first conviction under the Act which included the possibility of a death sentence was not until 1854, nearly 40 years after that version of the law had been enacted. But in the 1854 case, Jefferson Davis’ future defense lawyer got a minimal sentence for the defendant, and President James Buchanan eventually granted him a full pardon anyway.
Furthermore, after the War of 1812, which began with British detention of American Slave ships (most of us learned it as “impressment of American sailors”), the American flag was arguably the safest for slavers to sail under. Since only the British were serious about enforcing the prohibition of the international Slave Trade activity on the high seas, and since post-War of 1812 they refrained from most overt interference with American shipping, American slave ships got as close to a “free pass” as existed.
And then there’s the matter of Abraham Lincoln’s own forgiving nature. A full inventory of examples of Lincoln’s kindness, compassion, and innate goodness would be a daunting and lengthy project. But a couple of brief examples are particularly illustrative of his humanity.
Edward Bates, Lincoln’s Attorney General, famously commented to White House artist Francis Carpenter about the President’s propensity for pardons and commuted sentences to deserters, spies, and their like:
I have sometimes told him…that he was unfit to be intrusted with the pardoning power. Why, if a man comes to him with a touching story, his judgment is almost certain to be affected by it. Should the applicant be a woman, a wife, a mother, or a sister,—in nine cases out of 10, her tears, if nothing else, are sure to prevail.
When Gordon’s prosecutor, E. Delafield Smith (a Lincoln Administration appointee), met to urge the President to uphold the death sentence for Gordon, Lincoln responded: “Mr. Smith, you do not know how hard it is to have a human being die when you know that a stroke of your pen may save him.”
The intensity and breadth of the lobbying campaign to commute Gordon’s sentence was nearly overwhelming, and included public rallies, petitions signed by thousands of citizens, pressure from U.S. Senators and Representatives, and, of course, the heartfelt, tearful pleas of Gordon’s young wife and other family members which the Attorney General so feared.
The pressure brought to bear on the President to pardon Gordon was well articulated by The New York World. That paper asserted that all types of “social, professional and other interested influence has been brought to bear upon Mr. Lincoln, and it is stated that never before has a President been so thoroughly and persistently approached for official interference as in this case. Every possible argument which the ingenuity of counsel, the regard of relatives, or the fear of mercantile accomplices could suggest, has been used.”
But the President withstood the pressure, and stated that he felt he had a “duty to refuse” this particular request for clemency, but instead granted Gordon a two-week stay of execution, until February 22, so that the condemned slave trader would have some time to make “the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits him.”
In his stay of execution, President Lincoln went on to state that: “In granting this respite, it becomes my painful duty to admonish the prisoner that, relinquishing all expectation of pardon by Human Authority, he refer himself alone to the mercy of the common God and Father of all men.” Needless to say, Lincoln chose the words “God and Father of ALL men” (emphasis added) intentionally as he always did when writing and speaking.
Lincoln’s refusal to intervene in the case of Nathaniel Gordon helped pave the way for a key 1862 diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and Great Britain on mutual enforcement of anti-slave-trade efforts on the seas. It is difficult to assess the degree to which this aided in staving off pressure within England to recognize the Confederacy, but it certainly played a positive role. As the London Daily News stated about the President’s decision not to interfere in the execution of Gordon, it was “an index of the quality of Mr. Lincoln’s government, of its strength of principle, and the consistency of its policy, and it marks the end of a system.”
More significantly in terms of our own national history, however, this proved to be the long overdue deterrent to continued American trans-Atlantic Slave Trade activity, and a significant step in early 1862 by Abraham Lincoln on his increasingly public resolve to ensure broad national and worldwide recognition that this Civil War was indeed very much about the future of slavery in the U.S.
February 12 is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and I choose to believe he would be proud to be remembered in the context of Black History Month in U.S. history.
Sources for this column include : Abraham Lincoln: A Life (volume two), by Michael Burlingame (2008, Johns Hopkins University Press); President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, by William Lee Miller (2008, Alfred A. Knopf); A World On Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman (2010, Random House); and Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher, (1989, Literary Classics of the United States).
Patrick Teegarden’s historical perspectives on the Civil War over the last year have been a special feature of The Colorado Statesman. Teegarden can be reached at: Patrick@coloradostatesman.com