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.


Additional Reading

Jeffrey Crouch, The Presidential Pardon Power (Lawrence, KS, 2009).

Colleen Shogan, “The History of the Pardon Power: Executive Unilateralism in the Constitution,”, 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.

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"

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.