This nation's founders gave U.S. presidents the right to grant pardons in the interest of justice and mercy. The breaking scandal over President Clinton's last-minute fire sale pardons for 140 people may be his last chance to go down in history--right down to the level of Millard Fillmore and Warren G. Harding. But as historian William MacKinnon told The New York Times, this scandal "resembles but is dwarfed" by the firestorm over President Buchanan's midterm pardon in 1858 of the entire population of Utah Territory.
What did those 50,000 Utahns do to require a pardon? Plenty. In 1857 the territory's long defiance of federal authority led to the dust-up known as the Utah War. Historians today almost always use the phrase "alleged" to describe this rebellion, but repeated acts of provocation persuaded the president to send almost one-third of the U.S. Army west to convince Brigham Young his term as territorial governor was over.
The text of Buchanan's pardon summarized a long list of "alleged" acts of rebellion that the government backed up with hundreds of pages of executive documents. Angry Utahns had seized federal court records and chased every non-Mormon judge, surveyor and Indian agent out of the territory by the end of 1857. This tended to support the president's conclusion that "a strange system to terrorism" in Utah dictated that no one could support the government without "exposing his life and property to peril." The clincher occurred October 5 when Lot Smith's raiders incinerated three wagon trains carrying 300,000 pounds of Army supplies near Green River, Wyoming. The president thought this showed a "decided and unreserved enmity to the United States" not just in words but in "overt acts of the most unequivocal nature."
By spring 1858, the Utah War was becoming a political disaster, and Buchanan was ready to let bygones be bygones. If the Mormons would stop making war against the United States and submit to the law, the president offered "a free pardon for the seditions and treasons" that had made life in the territory so interesting--or else the rebels would get their "just desserts." Young accepted Buchanan's pardon, historian MacKinnon observed, "with poor grace and unmistakable signs of contempt." The pardon triggered an uproar in the Army and among most Americans, who tended to think Buchanan had been outfoxed by Young. Mormons were equally offended, believing they had done nothing to warrant a gratuitous presidential pardon for which they had not applied.
Arguments broke out over which offenses the pardon covered. As a result, outstanding federal grand jury indictments for treason against Young and hundreds of men in the LDS Church hierarchy were quashed and attempts to revive them failed. Southern Utahns who argued that the pardon covered the murder of 120 people in what became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre lost that debate. Years later Young would be indicted for the October 1857 killing of gunrunner Richard E.Yates. (The indictment was dropped for technical reasons.) So, as MacKinnon points out, the Clinton pardons are not necessarily the most controversial in U.S. history, but they "may be unmatched for pure dramatic timing and chutzpah."
"It is a Historical fact that treson did exhist in this Territory," LDS apostle Wilford Woodruff noted in his inimitable spelling. "It is equally a Historical fact that all treason which exhisted in this Territory was pardoned by James Buchanan the President of the United States."
Historian Will Bagley's ancestors nearly froze their fannies in Echo Canyon waiting for the federal troops to come.