Petition of Jane McGraw
During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson received many petitions for pardon. Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution grants clemency powers: the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” This constitutional power was rooted in English law practices, in which the ruler had the power to grant mercy.
The president can issue various types of clemency for federal crimes. Jefferson primarily granted full pardons, which would release the convicted person from any further punishment; commutations, which would reduce the penalties imposed by a conviction and sentence; and the remissions of fines and fees.
Applications for pardon often came from individuals convicted of small crimes in the District of Columbia, where all infractions were punishable in federal courts. The penalty structure often required some mandatory fines, corporal punishment, or prison time, and the judges were given limited leeway to grant reprieves. Many of Jefferson’s petitioners were sentenced to small fines or merely to pay court fees and costs, but they were required to remain imprisoned until those fines and fees were paid. With no means to earn a living while locked up, impoverished individuals could remain jailed indefinitely with no way to pay the fees required for release.
Convicted individuals instead turned to the president. Jefferson often granted pardons for these small crimes, while he retained standards for which applications merited his intervention. In addition to judging the level of crime and portion of the sentence that had already been applied, Jefferson usually requested input from the sentencing judges. Sometimes, members of the community or other persons who were acquainted with the prisoner would also weigh in on the application.
In this case, Jane McGraw was convicted of illegally selling liquor in the District of Columbia. Neighbors supported her cause, and the sentencing judges also recommended her as a candidate for pardon. Jefferson agreed and remitted her fine and costs on 18 June 1805.
Jeffrey Crouch, The Presidential Pardon Power (Lawrence, KS, 2009).
Colleen Shogan, “The History of the Pardon Power: Executive Unilateralism in the Constitution,” Whitehousehistory.org, 2020.
George Lardner, Jr., and Margaret Love, “Mandatory Sentences and Presidential Mercy: The Role of Judges in Pardon Cases, 1790–1850,” Federal Sentencing Reporter, 16 (2004).
Petition of Jane McGraw, with Jefferson’s Order
Most legal petitions, especially those prepared with the help of an attorney or another individual with legal experience, followed a basic framework and included specific elements that would help ensure the petition’s success. Some of those elements are highlighted in Jane McGraw’s petition, below.
To His Excellency Thomas Jefferson,
President of the United States of America,
The Petition of Jane McGraw of George Town in the County of Washington and District of Columbia, most respectfully showeth.
That at a Circuit Court begun and held in the City of Washington on the fourth Monday in July One Thousand Eight Hundred and four, your Petitioner was presented by the Grand Inquest for the body of the County of Washington, for having retailed liquors contrary to Law. In consequence of which process was served upon your Petitioner, returnable to December Court Eighteen Hundred and four, at which said Court your Petitioner appeared and by the advice of her friends submitted her Case to the discretion of the Court, and the Law having fixed the fine to be imposed upon Persons for violating it, the Court were unable to mitigate the punishment and your Petitioner was fined the sum of Sixteen Dollars. Your Petitioner further represents to your Excellency that She was presented for having sold a less quantity than one pint of spirituous Liquor, contrary to an Act of the General Assembly of the State of Maryland, that at the time of your Petitioners selling the same, She had a Licence granted from the Circuit Court for the County of Washington to retail Liquors, but that Licence did not authorise Her to sell less than one pint. Your Petitioner did believe that the Licence which was granted Her did authorise her to sell any quantity, and was totally ignorant that by disposing of a quantity than a Pint, she committed an infraction of the Laws of Her Country, but her Ignorance of the Law was no Plea in a Court of Justice, and Her only remedy is by an application
to your Excellency for a remission of the Fine which has been imposed upon Her. Although Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse in the Eye of the Law, yet your Petitioner trusts that in this case, it will have considerable influence in her application for Mercy. The Constitution of the United States has wisely given to the President the Power of Pardoning Offences against the United States thereby declaring that there might be some cases in which the party violating the Laws ought to be forgiven. Your Petitioner most humbly conceives that if in any similar case, the Humanity of the Executive was extended to a transgressor of the Law, that the like humanity will be extended to Her. Independent of the circumstance of Her Ignorance of the Law, Your Petitioner, will offer some considerations to your Excellency which she trusts will have their due weight in Her favor. She is a Poor Widow and has a family of Four Helpless Children to support by her Industry, and although the fine imposed would be but trivial to a Person in Opulent Circumstances, yet it is considerable to One as Indigent as herself. Your Petitioner has resided for a considerable time in this Place and during the whole of her residence she trusts She has so demeaned Herself as not to incur the hatred or displeasure of any of Her Neighbors. For a proof of her Character She begs leave to refer your Excellency to a Certificate from a Number of Gentlemen of the first respectability, which will accompany this Petition. Your Petitioner further states that since the time of her being presented by the Grand Inquest before mentioned She has discontinued to retail Spiritous Liquors in any manner, fearing least She might again ignorantly
violate the Laws of Her Country, so that a repetition of the offence is not likely to happen, and no evil consequences arise, from an extension of the humanity of the Executive in her favor. In tender consideration of these circumstances, your Petitioner most respectfully solicits Your Excellency to extend to Her the provisions of the Constitution, giving the President the Power of pardoning all offences against the United States, and grant her a remission of the Fine imposed upon her By the Circuit Court, as She apprehends that no evil can result to the United States or to any part thereof by such a measure and as the payment of the fine will be severely felt by a Person in such penurious circumstances as your Petitioner,
And your Petitioner as in duty bound will ever pray; and soforth.
June 13th 1805
We the undersigned, Neighbors of Mrs. Mcgraw, know her to be an industrious orderly Woman, & believe her to be worthy to receive from the President the Favor she solicits.
S. B. Balch.
John Baltzer Junr
J M Beatty
Chas A Beatty
On the Within Statement of facts and the recommendation annexed to it We respectfully recommend to the President the remission of the fine as prayed
June 18. 1805
[Order by TJ:]
June 18. 1805.
Let a pardon issue
Recipient’s copy, in National Archives Record Group 59, General Pardon Records.
"retailed liquors contrary to Law."
The petitioner explains their conviction.
"the Court were unable to mitigate the punishment"
She explains how the judges sentenced her.
"the sum of Sixteen Dollars"
This is the fine imposed on McGraw.
"She is a Poor Widow and has a family of Four Helpless Children to support by her Industry, and although the fine imposed would be but trivial to a Person in Opulent Circumstances, yet it is considerable to One as Indigent as herself."
The petition explains why the petitioner is a worthy candidate for clemency.
"She has discontinued to retail Spiritous Liquors in any manner"
She expresses that she won’t commit the crime again.
Jane McGraw wrote and signed the petition in her own hand.
"We the undersigned, Neighbors of Mrs. Mcgraw, know her to be an industrious orderly Woman, & believe her to be worthy to receive from the President the Favor she solicits."
McGraw included support from members of her community. This section is written in an unidentified hand, and signed by each of the following individuals.
"On the Within Statement of facts and the recommendation annexed to it We respectfully recommend to the President the remission of the fine as prayed"
Jefferson viewed petitions more favorably if they had supporting statements from the sentencing judges. Here, William Kilty and William Cranch supported McGraw’s application. This section is in Kilty’s hand, and it is signed by both Kilty and Cranch.
"Let a pardon issue"
TJ pardoned McGraw and remitted her fine and costs on 18 June. An image of the pardon is included as the last image in this exhibit.