Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 5.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.

Stay of Execution for Nathaniel Gordon [1]

February 4, 1862

Abraham Lincoln,

President of the United States of America,

To all to whom these Presents shall come Greeting:

Whereas, it appears that at a Term of the Circuit Court of the United States of America for the Southern District of New York held in the month of November A.D. 1861, Nathaniel Gordon was indicted and convicted for being engaged in the Slave Trade, and was by the said Court sentenced to be put to death by hanging by the neck, on Friday the 7th. day of February, A.D. 1862;

And whereas, a large number of respectable citizens have earnestly besought me to commute the said sentence of the said Nathaniel Gordon to a term of imprisonment for life, which application I have felt it to be my duty to refuse;

And whereas, it has seemed to me probable that the unsuccessful application made for the commutation of his sentence may have prevented the said Nathaniel Gordon from making the necessary preparation for the awful change which awaits him:

Now, therefore, be it known, that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, have granted and do hereby grant unto him, the said Nathaniel Gordon, a respite of the above recited sentence, until Friday the twenty-first day of February, A.D. 1862, between the hours of twelve o'clock at noon and three o'clock in the afternoon of the said day, when the said sentence shall be executed.

In granting this respite, it becomes my painful duty to admonish the prisoner that, relinquishing all expectation of pardon by Human Authority, he refer himself alone to the mercy of the common God and Father of all men.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto signed my name and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.


Done at the City of Washington, this Fourth day of February A.D. 1862, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-sixth.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

WILLIAM H. SEWARD Secretary of State.


[1]   DS, ORB. Attorney General Bates replied on February 4, 1862, to a note, presumably not extant, from Lincoln on the same date requesting an opinion asPage  129

to whether the executive could lawfully grant to a convict a ``respite of his sentence, without relieving him altogether of the death penalty.'' Bates gave his opinion that ``I have no doubt that you can. . . . A reprieve does not annul the sentence. . . . It only prolongs the time.'' (DLC-RTL). Although many previous seizures of slave ships had been made, Captain Nathaniel Gordon of Maine was the only slave-trader ever convicted and hanged in accordance with federal law. So numerous were the failures of juries to convict, that many believed Gordon entitled to executive clemency as a victim of unprecedented juridical rigor. The language of Lincoln's reprieve leaves no doubt of his concurrence in the justice of the sentence, but indicates his awareness that public sympathy had encouraged Gordon to believe a pardon would be granted.