By Paul Mills
President Trump’s recent pardoning marathon has shed new light on an often overlooked sphere of presidential authority. As one of the few powers that the White House can exercise without either congressional or, so far at least, judicial oversight, it’s worth taking a look at how some of our other presidents have wielded this potent baton.
That the rich and powerful can sometimes bring both undue and embarrassing weight to bear on a president in such situations is perhaps best illustrated by the case of an internationally prominent business titan from Bath.
This is the case of Charles Morse, one of the wealthiest persons in America in the early 1900s. His beneficence gave his native city a high school that still bears his last name, given by him to honor his mother, a longtime Sunday school teacher.
But it was far from a Sunday school model of behavior for which Morse would be best known.
Morse’s success in coastal shipping endeavors, particularly with the then lucrative ice trade, had won him the title of “Admiral of the Atlantic Coast.” Financing for his ventures had occurred through capturing control of some of the nation’s largest banks and exploiting them to benefit his businesses.
The country’s financial panic of 1907, blamed by some on Morse’s self-dealings in the copper trade, occasioned a sharp look at Morse’s methods, however, and in 1908 a New York federal prosecutor won a conviction against Morse for making false entries in a bank’s bookkeeping records and misusing its funds.
Desperation over his 15-year sentence led Morse, after two years behind bars in Atlanta’s federal penitentiary, to orchestrate both a sickness and a public campaign urging President Taft to offer him a pardon so that his wife and four children did not have to see him die in prison.
Taft, who was one of the country’s most intellectually astute chief executives and who would go on to be chief justice of the Supreme Court, was not easily swayed. He thus called upon the foremost medical experts in the country, assembling a team of high-ranking military doctors to examine Morse, over whom a careful watch was also maintained. This array of foremost medical professionals concluded that Morse had a serious kidney ailment and would soon die in prison.
Based on this diagnosis, Taft granted a pardon.
It turned out, however, that Morse had temporarily provoked his symptoms by surreptitiously drinking soapsuds and other chemicals.
Once out of prison, his escapades resumed. During the era of the First World War, Morse again became a major force in international shipping. Less than a decade after emerging from prison, the government won an $11.5 million verdict against Morse for lining his pockets with government funds and only delivering 22 of the 36 ships it had ordered from him.
As President Taft himself acknowledged, Morse’s deception, “shakes one’s faith in expert testimony and also expert examinations.”
The Morse case illustrates a cautionary tale about issuance of pardons and also points up a powerful feature of them, namely that they’re irrevocable.
Despite the Morse fiasco, Taft was more parsimonious overall with his pardoning authority than most other American presidents.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with 2,819, leads the list, in part because he served some four years longer than any other president.
Truman, the runner-up, issued 1,913, and Eisenhower is third with 1,110.
President Clinton comes in 12th at 396 but 140 were issued on one day alone, his final in the White House. The most controversial of these was to Marc Rich, a multimillion-dollar hedge fund director who had contributed to Clinton campaigns and who faced tax, wire fraud and racketeering charges.
President Trump falls behind these others so far in the number of pardons issued, but the book on him has yet to be written in this regard. Moreover, his use of the process has recently been noted not for the number of pardons but for the apparent favoritism to his close political supporters.
As of this writing it also remains to be seen whether members of his own family or even himself will be the purported subject of this, a most unusual sphere of presidential power.
We shall see.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney who analyzes public affairs in Maine from an historical perspective. He can be reached by email at [email protected].