PRESIDENT LINCOLN PARDONS JOHN BOOTH
On June 17, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln signed a
pardon for John Booth, a free African-American
resident of the District of Columbia. Staff of the Papers of
Abraham Lincoln discovered the pardon document signed
by Abraham Lincoln in a May 2007 visit to the Public Library
in Cincinnati, Ohio. The staff of the library offered to contact
an individual who owns a collection of Lincoln documents.
The owner generously allowed the library staff to bring the
documents to the library for project editors to scan.
The story behind this pardon began when John
Booth, an African-American blacksmith living in
Georgetown, District of Columbia, stole twenty sticks of
wood valued at sixty cents from Charles Myers & Son.
Booth was arrested and charged with larceny. The criminal
court for the county of Washington of the District of Columbia
found Booth guilty and sentenced him to pay a fine of $1
and serve a six-month imprisonment in the common jail.
On April 17, 1861, attorney F. W. Jones wrote out
a letter for Elizabeth Booth, John Booth’s wife, to Abraham
Lincoln, requesting executive clemency. As president, Lincoln
served as the executive authority for the District of Columbia,
much as governors did in the states and territories. In this
capacity, President Lincoln had the authority to grant pardons
to those convicted of crimes by local courts. Elizabeth Booth
assured the president that her husband was “contrite and
sincere in his repentance,” that this crime was the “first with
which he was ever charged or suspected,” and that she and
their five children depended upon his daily labor for their
support. Attorney Jones added from his own knowledge
that the Booths had five small children, the oldest of whom
was eleven years of age. Elizabeth Booth and their children
were “now in a destitute condition.”1
In addition to this appeal from the prisoner’s wife,
President Lincoln also received a letter from Henry Addison,
who had been Mayor of Georgetown from 1845 to 1857
and had resumed the office in 1861. Mayor Addison wrote
that John Booth had worked for many years for the City of
Georgetown and that “he is a worthy and industrious colored
man.” Addison asked that Lincoln extend “executive
clemency” to Booth.2 Another letter from Charles Myers &
Son to President Lincoln declared that “It is true that he
took the wood from us but he now having been in jail some
4 weeks, and exhibiting signs of penitence for his fault, we
would be much pleased to see him pardoned.”3
Nearly two months passed before attorney F. W.
Jones wrote on June 10 to Attorney General Edward Bates
to call his attention to Booth’s plight. Although the application
for a pardon had been filed in Bates’s office “several weeks
ago,” “no action has been had.” Jones noted that Booth had
been in confinement nearly three months, “I trust this fact
will entitle the matter to your more favorable consideration.”4
One week later, on June 17, 1861, Attorney General
Bates wrote to Secretary of State William H. Seward that
“he was directed by the President to request you to issue a
warrant with the following recital for the pardon of John
Booth.”5 Bates provided the text of the pardon that was
specific to Booth’s case. A clerk in the state department
prepared the pardon document, and on the following day,
both Abraham Lincoln and William H. Seward signed the
pardon and affixed the presidential seal.
By Daniel W. Stowell, Director/Editor
1Elizabeth Booth to Abraham Lincoln, 18 April 1861, Record Group
59: General Records of the Department of State, Entry 902:
Appointment Records, General Pardon Records, Requisitions for
Pardons, 1858-1862, National Archives and Records Administration,
College Park, MD.
2Henry Addison to Abraham Lincoln, 17 April 1861, RG 59, Entry
902; Mary Mitchell, Divided Town: Georgetown, D.C., During the
Civil War (Barre, MA: Barre Publishers, 1968), 1.
3Charles Myers & Son to Abraham Lincoln, 17 April 1861, RG 59,
4F. W. Jones to Edward Bates, 10 June 1861, RG 59, Entry 902.
5Edward Bates to William H. Seward, 17 June 1861, RG 59, Entry 902.
Pardon of John Booth, signed by Abraham Lincoln
Image courtesy of a private collector in Cincinnati, OH.
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