George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Edmund Randolph, 1 March 1791

To Edmund Randolph

March 1st 1791. 11 o’clock, A.M.

The President of the United States requests that the Attorney-General will give the question which accompanies the petition of Samuel Dodge, and which is herewith transmitted, a full consideration, and report his opinion thereon as soon as possible.1


1GW enclosed the petition of Samuel Dodge for a presidential pardon, as well as two certificates and an affidavit included by Dodge in support of his petition. Dodge had served in the Continental army during the Revolution and was a customs inspector for New York. According to his petition Dodge had boarded a sloop in New York Harbor on 6 Oct. 1790 to superintend the unlading of cargo, for which a permit had been issued. Most of the cargo, Dodge explained, was landed between sunrise and seven o’clock in the evening on 7 Oct., but seven or eight hogsheads of molasses were landed after sunset, in violation of federal law. As a result of this infraction, Dodge had been suspended from his post and indicted by a federal court on 22 Feb. 1791. In his petition Dodge maintained that he had been entirely ignorant of the regulation forbidding unlading after seven o’clock in the evening, which had gone into effect only a few days before the incident. He added that the grand jury that had handed down the indictment against him was satisfied that Dodge had not acted with fraudulent intent. Dodge enclosed a certificate from the grand jurors to this effect with his petition. Dodge concluded his petition by explaining that he had been “induced to plead guilty to his indictment trusting that the purity of his intentions Would With the honorable the Executive effect A remission of the penalties to which he is exposed—He also begs leave to State that the honorable the Judges of the Circuit Court have suspended giving Judgment against him untill the next Court in order that he might in the meantime apply for relief. As Your Petitioner therefore is conscious of having violated the Act first above mentioned unintentionally and without any fraudulent design, and as no injury could possibly arise to the publick, or any advantage accrue to himself or to any person interested in the Said cargo by reason of the unlading a part thereof as above Stated he hopes the Executive will consider his conduct as the mere effect of ignorance. And be pleased to remit all the penalties disabilities and forfeitures to Which he is exposed under the Act above mentioned—or afford him such other relief as may be proper.” With his petition, Dodge enclosed the certificate from the grand jurors, a certificate from John Lamb attesting to Dodge’s character and the payment of all duties on the cargo involved, and an affidavit from John Adams, Jr., a clerk in the employ of the cargo owners, testifying that he had witnessed the unlading and that when the last hogsheads of molasses had been put on the wharf there was still sufficient light to count “several hundred sticks of Log and nicaranga wood” on a nearby wharf (Samual Dodge’s petition, 24 Feb. 1791, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

The circumstances of the case were substantially as Dodge reported them. He had been indicted on 22 Feb. 1791, at a special session of the Circuit Court for the District of New York, for violating Section 26 of the Collection Act of 1790 by permitting the unlading of seven hogsheads of molasses after sunset without a special license from John Lamb, collector for New York. The penalty prescribed by law for such activity was a fine of $400 and ineligibility for federal office for a term not exceeding seven years (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972–. description ends 4:390–434). Dodge pled guilty the same day, but the court postponed judgment until the April session to allow Dodge to petition GW for a pardon (Special Session of the Circuit Court for the District of New York, 21 Feb. 1791, in Marcus and Perry, Documentary History of the Supreme Court, description begins Maeva Marcus et al., eds. The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800. 8 vols. New York, 1985-2007. description ends 2:139).

For GW the case involved the constitutional limits of the pardoning power. Under the provisions of Section 67 of the Collection Act of 1790, one-half of the fine that might be levied against Dodge was to be paid to the informer who had reported the illegal activity to the collector. Randolph’s opinion on this legal issue, which was probably the “question” to which GW alludes, has not been found. On 26 April 1791 Alexander Hamilton wrote to Richard Harison, U.S. attorney for New York, soliciting an opinion on whether a pardon would deprive the informant of his right to a share in the fine, commenting that in common law practice the power to pardon had not been construed to extend to divesting individuals of their right to civil remedies. Harison concurred and concluded that any pardon would not divest the informant of his right to a share of the fine (Hamilton to Harison, 26 April 1791, and Harison to Hamilton, 24 May 1791, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 8:312–14, 352–54). At the April session the circuit court again continued judgment. On 14 Sept. 1791 Tobias Lear informed Edmund Randolph that “the President thinks proper to have a pardon issued for Saml Dodge which the Atty Genl is requested to prepare accordingly” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters). Apparently the pardon did not lead to Dodge’s reinstatement as customs inspector; Nicholas Romayne, a New York City physician, wrote to Hamilton seeking Dodge’s reinstatement on 9 April 1792 (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 11:256–57).

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