That Time a Republican President Refused to Pardon a Racist

Long before Joe Arpaio’s pardon, another president rejected a racist’s plea for mercy

Republicans are fond of saying they belong to “the Party of Lincoln.” President Trump boasts he “can be the most presidential” U.S. leader in history, except for “the great Abe Lincoln.”

Trump and Lincoln do have at least one thing in common: Both were asked early in their presidencies to pardon a man accused of racism. But the presidents made dramatically different decisions.

Trump pardoned former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio on Friday of intentionally disobeying an order issued by a federal judge. The court order had required the sheriff to stop immigration sweeps that targeted Latinos —  citizens and illegal immigrants alike.

Lincoln had to decide whether to pardon a man accused of doing something even more heinous than racial profiling. Captain Nathaniel Gordon, a young sea captain, had been convicted of sailing to Africa to pick up and sell African slaves in the Americas in 1860. Importing slaves had been punishable by death since 1820.

U.S. Coast Guard sailors were horrified when they captured Gordon’s ship off the coast of Africa and discovered nearly 900 naked Africans, half of them children, “stowed so closely that during the entire voyage they appeared to be in great agony,” the New York Times reported at the time.  Twenty-nine died during the voyage and were tossed overboard.

After Gordon’s conviction and death sentence, Gordon’s wife, supporters, and the slave-trade industry begged Lincoln to grant a pardon. “It is said that petitions for a commutation of his sentence, signed by twenty-five thousand names, were forwarded for presentation to the President,” the Times reported.

Lincoln said no. He had just completed his first year as president and the Civil War started the year before.

Lincoln wrote a one-page letter to Gordon’s supporters, stating, “I have felt it to be my duty to refuse.” He didn’t want to further delay Gordon “from making the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits him.”

The “awful change” Lincoln referred to was death.

On Feb. 21, 1862, Gordon was hung in a courtyard filled with people at The Tombs, a New York City jail that no longer exists. Harper’s magazine sketched the scene.

The New York Times praised Lincoln’s decision, writing: “The majesty of the law has been vindicated, and the stamp of the gallows has been set upon the crime of slave-trading in so forcible a way that it will not soon be forgotten. And it was time. That crime has been far too lightly thought of among us of late.”

The Times of 157 years later was less enamored of Trump’s Arpaio pardon. It said the pardon “would be scorning the Constitution itself.”