I Don’t Beg Your Pardon

A long, long time ago (before Star Wars was a thing); in a galaxy far, far away (actually, it was right here on Earth)…George Wilson and James Porter decided to hold up the mail. AND I don’t mean: “hold-up-the-mail” as in “slow-it-down”…I mean “hold-up-the-mail” as in “rob-it-at-gunpoint”!

As we open up this intriguing little caper 200(ish) years later, we can only speculate as to what George Wilson and his accomplice James Porter were trying to acquire. Presumably, back in the “the day,” mail was actually something people wanted? [shoulder shrug]

If someone were to rob the mail today, the only loot they could hope to score would be somebody else’s bills, some credit card offers and a massive heap of Pottery Barn catalogs.

Nevertheless, on the twenty-sixth day of November, in the eighteen hundred and twenty-ninth year of our Lord, Wilson and Porter committed a crime that, sadly, would NOT become known as “Mail-Gate.” [sigh]

As this “NOT-QUITE-crime-of-the-century” played out, Samuel M’crea found himself on the wrong end of Wilson and Porter’s peashooter. Then, they improperly proceeded to procure plenty of plunder by promptly pilfering the postman without paying the proper piper! (they robbed the mailman)

A week later (December 6, 1829) Wilson and Porter struck again! Perhaps they decided to “go back for seconds” because their first heist was such a success…OR maybe they rang the postman twice because their first attempt was a COMPLETE FAIL!

Wilson: “Hey!? What kind of deal is this?!? An establishment that calls itself “Crate and Barrel” doesn’t even sell crates…or barrels!?!”

Porter: “Yeah? If you think that’s cheap…my piece of mail lied to me…I was NOT already a winner!”

Regardless, whatever Wilson and Porter may have scored from their robbery isn’t the point. The point is: robbing the mail, whether it was worth it or not, is a federal offense…and a rather serious one at that as we’ll learn in a moment.

Wilson and Porter did not get away with their crime. It wasn’t long before they were picked up, sorted, cancelled and then delivered (postage due) to United States Federal Court. As a result, the world was introduced to case number “8 L Ed 640.”

Both Wilson and Porter were “stamped” with six indictments relating to the robberies. Two charges each of: “obstruction of mail,” “robbery of mail” and “putting the life of a mail carrier in jeopardy.” On the surface those charges don’t sound too horrendously bad, but “putting the life of a mail carrier in jeopardy” carries a possible death sentence!

On top of this, Wilson and Porter both faced one additional charge of: “wounding a mail carrier.” This charge ALSO carried a possible death sentence! However, the prosecution chose not to pursue that indictment. Presumably it was being “left on the table” for future use…you know?…in case something weird might happen.

If you happen to stumble across the transcript of case number 8 L ed 640, you will discover it does not make very good outhouse reading. What you WILL find is that case number 8 L Ed 640 is weighed down with a whole burlap sack full of nineteenth century legal speak. You are going to have to wade through words like “therewith,” “ex-officio,” and “aforesaid.” You will have to deal with phrases like: “with force and arms,” “to wit,” and “prout the same.” You are going to come across one particular “sentence” in the transcript that starts out with this rhetorical formality: “The grand inquest of the United States…blah, blah, blah…” This “sentence,” which is really more of a paragraph…and a LONG paragraph at that, ends later on…MUCH later on…with a blurb about the “peace and dignity of the United States” [eye roll]. In between those two phrases you will encounter over two hundred words making up a whole wagon train of confusing legal clauses separated by twenty-four commas!

As you can see, case number “8 L Ed 640” brings us a lot of ominous legal terminology. It’s a lot like reading through the book of Leviticus. They both contain some interesting legal principles and they are both about as exciting as watching paint dry…except for one thing: George Wilson and James Porter were about to become unwitting examples of a Biblical principle concerning “The Law.” One (or TWO in this case) will not find any mercy in “The Law”¹ as “The Law” can only be satisfied with blood² [cue ominous music].

The object lesson that Wilson and Porter illustrate begins with a set of rapid-fire court dates that nowadays would take months, if not years, to get through.

On April 26, 1830 Wilson and Porter plead “not guilty” to their alleged crimes. A trial ensued and five days later on May 1, 1830 Wilson and Porter were convicted. Later that very month, (May 27th 1830 to be precise), Wilson and Porter are sentenced to death by hanging! To conclude this frantic legal pace, an execution date of July 2nd 1830 is set…just five weeks away!

This is where case “8 L Ed 640” starts to get a little squirrelly. James Porter is indeed executed on July 2nd 1830 and his role in our story exits stage bottom. (Noose around the neck, trap door opens…”exits stage bottom,” see what I did there?)

However, back on sentencing day, George Wilson decided to complicate the preceedings by withdrawing his “not guilty” plea. To make this case even more interesting, George Wilson had some influencial friends who were going to try to gain a bit of relief for their old friend. They would do so by appealing to someone who had been granted a unique constitutional privilege.

For what it’s worth, George Wilson’s legal case was successful…sort of.

On June 14th 1830 George Wilson was granted a pardon by President Andrew Jackson.

I could launch into a technical definition of the word “pardon” using a “veritable plethora” of 1830s legal speak, but I’ll spare you that. It’s sufficient to say that a pardon excuses an offense by not demanding “blood” from the person who otherwise owes it. It’s also worth noting that a pardon, like forgiveness, is NOT something that we can earn or work for. Pardons and forgiveness are freely granted.³

Okay, I know you didn’t ask for this, but I’m going to further set the stage with a brief civics lesson. A legal pardon DOES NOT come from the judicial branch of government (I.E. the court system). The court system only deals with issues of fact and law; not mercy.⁴ Pardon power rests with the executive branch of government, which ironically is responsible for law enforcement and execution of punishment. More specifically, pardon power is held by an elected official overseeing the executive branch of government, namely: the President.

However, the President’s pardon (an earthly example of mercy) MAY have a string or two attached. It could be selective, it might only be partial. There’s a chance it will have some conditions associated with it.

I would also like to note: an earthly pardon issued by the President differs considerably from the eternal pardon issued by Christ. Christ’s pardon is once, for all and complete⁵…no strings attached.

Whether or not George Wilson (or James Porter) ever received one of these “no-strings-attached” eternal pardons is beyond the scope of my knowledge.

Having said that, Andrew Jackson’s certificate of pardon for George Wilson did indeed come with one stipulation. George Wilson’s pardon was only a reprieve from the sentence of death.

The certificate of pardon written by Andrew Jackson states in part that “Wilson [had] been recommended as a fit subject for the exercise of executive clemency by a numerous and respectable body of petitioners.” The pardon also notes that this “body of petitioners” (influential friends) had been “praying for a remission from the sentence of death.”

With that, using words like, “inasmuch” and “hereunto” while being witnessed by Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, President Andrew Jackson signs the pardon.

This, in turn, causes MORE confusion for case number “8 L Ed 640.”

Wanting to see George Wilson (much like his accomplice James Porter) unceremoniously ushered into the next life, the prosecution drags this case to a panel of appellate judges in order to sort out the confusion.

The first question before the court was if the pardon could be applied to that one open indictment of “wounding a mail carrier” that was still “on the table.”

For what it’s worth, the court ruled that a pardon could be applied to “nolle prosequi” indictments (open, unprosecuted charges). This was bad news for the prosecutor. Seemingly it was good news for George Wilson. As far as we’re concerned today, that decision is really just a boring formality.

There was a much more intriguing question before the court that day.

On October 21st 1830 George Wilson appeared at a court hearing to deal with all of the legal complications that had arisen (plea withdraw/open charges/pardon). The sentencing court knew (UNOFFICIALLY) of the pardon that President Andrew Jackson had issued. As George Wilson stood in court that day he was asked by the judge if he had anything to say before the expected resentencing. The judge was, of course, referring to any pardon that “MAY” have been issued. Then, George Wilson shocked the world (legal and otherwise) by uncorking this little gem: Wilson declared, “I have nothing to say. I do not wish to avail myself to any pardon in order to avoid sentence in this particular case.”

George Wilson refused the pardon.

The intriguing question before the appellate judges that day was this: Does a citizen have the right to refuse a pardon? Let me tell you: The prosecution sure hoped so…but the panel of appellate judges were divided. As a result, George Wilson’s case number “8 L Ed 640” was kicked up to the United States Supreme Court.

The case was argued in front of the Supreme Court by Andrew Jackson’s Attorney General Roger Taney. Should you choose to unpack that, it will reveal itself as a backwards conflict of interest…but then again, this was a backwards conflicted case. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at that time was the famed John Marshall. Notably, George Wilson (who had just refused a pardon to save his life) did not appear OR have any representation at the Supreme Court hearing. Why bother with a defense when you want the prosecution to win? Right?

Roger Taney, using more tiresome 1830s legal speak, essentially argued that while everybody “knew” about the pardon…the pardon had never been OFFICIALLY presented in court. Taney stated that the court can only operate in facts and law. Taney argued, in fact, a court could not officially know of a certificate of pardon until it was officially presented.

Roger Taney rolled out a few compelling reasons why someone might reject a pardon. Taney suggested that someone may want to suffer punishment as a way to make peace with the public. Taney mentioned that someone may want to suffer punishment as evidence of contrition. The Attorney General however, with all of his legal wisdom, was NOT able to speculate as to why someone would turn down a life saving pardon. Nevertheless, Taney argued, the same principles must apply in misdemeanors AND in capital cases.

Roger Taney concluded his argument by stating: A pardon which has not been presented by suit, plea, petition, motion or any other legal avenue cannot be recognized by a court. Therefore, the sentence (in this case death by hanging) must be carried out.

It’s noteworthy that Andrew Jackson’s pardon was dated with the traditional “Year of Our Lord” as 1830…but the pardon was also dated with “year 54.” It had been 54 years since the U.S. had declared independence from Great Britain. This illustrated how the U.S. was still a “new-kid-on-the-block” (so to speak). To further illustrate the United States’ relative youth, Justice John Marshall’s opinion was laced not only with 1830s legal speak, but it was also peppered with citations from British Royal law.

John Marshall’s complete opinion contains about two dozen tedious paragraphs. It’s chock-full of ridiculous words, run-on sentences and way too many commas. However, to his credit, the long diatribe is summed up nicely with this:

“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.”

Simply stated: We, as citizens, do indeed have the legal right to reject a pardon.

By law (Biblical and otherwise) the dismissal of a pardon will obligate us to pay the price of wrongdoing with our own blood.

There is a popular misconception out there that George Wilson went to the gallows upon refusal of his pardon. That would have made a fitting end to case number “8 L Ed 640.” Alas…the “post hoc” (sorry) evidence points us in a different direction.

Based on the brutal efficiency and “breakneck” speed of our 1830s criminal justice system; one could easily account that George Wilson should have, indeed, gone to the gallows.

However, it seems as though mercy was destined to befall on George Wilson after all…one way or the other.

On January 14, 1841, the National Gazette of Philadelphia reported that George Wilson received a full unconditional pardon from President Martin Van Buren.

Evidently, that pardon took. George Wilson was released from prison.

Perhaps the idea that George Wilson’s life was spared has something to do with those nagging second chances that refuse to go away. In that light, I would submit that, whether or not we’ve been convicted of a capital crime…we are all living under the sentence of death.⁶ If we don’t present the freely offered certificate of pardon⁷ our souls will be eternally condemned.⁸

Christ, not too much unlike Martin Van Buren, is there with that second chance. It comes in the form of a full unconditional pardon that he wants us to take.

¹Gal 3:21–22

²Deut 17:11

³Rom 9:16/Eph 2:8–9

⁴Lev 20:10–12

⁵ 1 Pet 3:18

⁶Rom 6:23

⁷Jn 3:16

⁸Mk 16:16

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