Today is Presidents Day (or, as we used to call it, Lincoln’s Birthday). That makes it a good time to talk about one of the great anomalies in Presidential history: the fact that President Abraham Lincoln, our Commander in Chief during our bloodiest war, took the time to review over 1,600 cases of military convictions during his 1,503 days in office, and that Lincoln pardoned a myriad of soldiers condemned to death.
The test that Lincoln applied, as Lincoln himself put it, was “whether this soldier can better serve the country dead than living.” (This is a good example of “gallows humor,” with real gallows.)
In one case of desertion, President Lincoln said: “If a man had more than one life, I think a little hanging would not hurt this one; but after he is once dead we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be; so the boy shall be pardoned.”
In another case, the soldier’s father went to the White House to beg for mercy for him. President Lincoln, who had never met the father before, greeted him as “my old friend.” Lincoln listened to the father, and then wrote out on a piece of paper: “Job Smith is not to be shot until further orders from me – ABRAHAM LINCOLN.” The father started to cry, but he asked Lincoln why he had phrased it this way. Lincoln said: “If your son never looks on death till further orders come from me to shoot him, he will live to be a great deal older than Methuselah.”
Lincoln refused to release a slave trader from prison, however, despite a personal appeal from an influential Congressman. “If this man were guilty of the foulest murder that the arm of man could perpetrate, I might forgive him on such an appeal; but the man who could go to Africa, and rob her of her children, and sell them into interminable bondage, with no other motive than that which is furnished by dollars and cents, is so much worse than the most depraved murderer, that he can never receive a pardon at my hands. No!”
Yet time after time, President Lincoln pardoned soldiers who had been sentenced to death for sleeping during sentry duty, desertion, and even treason. Lincoln called the desertion convictions his “leg cases”: “If Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs, how can he help their running away with him?”
And why did Lincoln show this mercy? Because over 600,000 people died during the Civil War, more than one out of every 50 Americans. And Lincoln thought that that was more than enough death. As journalist David Locke said: “No man on earth hated blood as Lincoln did.”
In November 2009, I gave a speech on the Floor of the House, in which I recalled Lincoln’s love for life. I added: “In the same way, I’d like to think that whether I leave here after two years, or twenty years, that there will be no blood on my hands. That’s why I’m against the war in Iraq. That’s why I’m against the war in Afghanistan. And that’s why I’m so much in favor of health care reform that saves lives in America.”
Happy birthday, Abe. And happy birthday – happy birth -- to all the descendants of the men whose lives you gave back to them.