Presidential Pardons III (1863-1868)
Bill Long 9/12/07
A Moving Story of Presidential Mercy
Even though there still were seven classes of excluded people in Lincoln's second proclamation, he was usually supportive of petitions for pardon from people in those classes. Though he said on one occasion in 1864, as a spur to encouage people to seek pardons, "But the time may come, probably will come, when public duty shall demand that it [the 'door of mercy'] be closed and that in lieu more rigorous measures than heretofore shall be adopted," he was known for his mercy to pardon-seekers. Shortly after Lincoln's death, Attorney General James Speed said of him:
"all who had the good fortune to know him well must feel and know that from his very nature he was not only tempted but forced to strain his power of mercy. His love for mankind was so boundless; his charity so all embracing, and his benevolence so sensitive that he sometimes was as ready to pardon the unrepentant as the sincerely penitent offender" (quoted in Dorris, 110).
I believe that one of the reasons Lincoln was merciful is that he knew so well how to "manage" people that he could use the pardon as an instrument not just of mercy but also of moral control. He knew he had a 'power' over people, and that pardon was one of the means to solidify that power.
The following story, recounted by Dr. Robert Stephens, grandnephew of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, only came to light in the June 1943 issue of the Lincoln Herald (vol. XLV, no 2, pp 18-21), a publication of Lincoln Memorial University of Harrogate, TN. It tells the story of John Stephens, the nephew of Alexander Stephens and father of the author, Dr. Robert Stephens. This story shows the way that Lincoln was able to capture the heart even of the grandnephew of his "arch enemy."
When Lincoln met with Stephens and others at the Hampton Roads peace conference in Feb. 1865, Stephens told the President that he had a nephew who, when he last heard from him, was a prisoner of war at Johnson's Island in Lake Erie. He was worried about his nephew's well-being, and wanted to pass this concern along to the President.
Promptly the next day the President ordered the officer in command of Johnson's Island prison camp to parole "Lieutenant John A. Stephens" and that Stephens was immediately to report to Lincoln in Washington DC. Lincoln wrote that this was "in pursuance of an agreement I made yesterday (Feb. 3) with his uncle, Hon. A. H. Stephens."
Lincoln returned to the White House and within a short time a worried and surprise officer reported to the White House as instructed. He was ushered into Lincoln's presence, and Lincoln told him the story of his uncle's entreaty. When he learned the story, John Stephens was elated. He would be able to go home. Lincoln then sent the following Feb. 10 letter with John Stephens for the latter to deliver to his uncle.
"According to our agreement, your nephew, Lieut. Stephens, goes to you bearing this note. Please, in return, to select and send to me that officer of the same rank imprisoned at Richmond whose physical condition most urgently requires his release."
Well, Stephens' son then tells the story from the perspective of 1943, almost 70 years after John received this startling letter from the President:
"Folding this letter without drying the ink, the President handed it to Lieutenant Stephens..Then turning again to his desk, he took from a pigeon hole a small profile (picture) of himself and taking his pen, wrote under the likeness, 'A. Lincoln.' Handing this to Stephens, he said, 'Suppose you take this along with you. I don't expect there are many of them down South.'"
Well, the nephew didn't go home right away, but he ended up serving on the staff of Gen. John Echols for a few months until Lee's surrender in April of that year. Then he went to his home in Georgia and delivered the note to his uncle. By this time, however, Lincoln had been assassinated.
The nephew, John Stephens, then framed the letter of his relase "and in the lower right hand corner of the frame, he placed the autographed photograph" given him by President Lincoln. The picture and letter remained in the Stephens family for the next 78 years. Dr. Robert Stephens writes:
"For over seventy years it has hung on the wall of the Stephens' home, a silent reminder of a most unusual event in history, showing the kind impulses of a man's heart. The incident woven around this letter has done much to soften the feelings of the South for Abraham Lincoln. It always alleviates the pain of the old sores and tends to bind two once warring sections closer to each other."
It is stories like this which added to the legend of Lincoln. He, the Christ-like figure who would be sacrificed for the "sins" of a nation, showed the qualities of tenderness and mercy even to the ones who had declared war on him. But he also was a cagey and perceptive politician. Lincoln knew that no one, even the # 2 (behind Jefferson Davis) enemy of the Union, could continue to hate him once he assured the safety of Stephens' nephew. It makes the politicians of today seem, at times, very, very small.
Even if Andrew Johnson pursued the same or nearly the same policy as Lincoln, he would be facing different circumstances and political realities. The next essays discuss how the policy of "mercy" backfired on Andrew Johnson. First, however, an essay on Andrew Johnson and Jefferson Davis.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long