Dr. Johnson Makes An Eloquent Petition For Clemency

It is a noble thing to intercede on behalf of another’s worthy cause.  But the cause should be a worthy one; we must work to manage expectations; and, when every effort has been exerted, we must know when to let matters take their own course.  Advocating on behalf of another in this way could almost be viewed as a form of public service.  One of the law’s fundamental rules is the principle of proportionality:  a punishment should be reasonably proportional to the crime committed.  The reader examining the following anecdote should ask himself whether the punishment was, in fact, proportional to the committed offense.

In the spring and summer of 1777, Dr. Samuel Johnson was involved in an application for clemency on behalf of an unfortunate clergyman named Dr. William Dodd.  Reverend Dodd was a well-known preacher, writer, and manager of charitable institutions; he was, according to writer James Boswell, a former “Prebendary of Brecon, and a chaplain in ordinary to his Majesty [George III].”  Dodd got himself into serious trouble by his extravagant spending habits; he soon ran up tremendous debts, and this led him to be tempted by conduct that he might never have indulged in otherwise.  He forged “a bond of which he attempted to avail himself to support his credit”; that is, he forged documents in order to obtain a loan.  Unfortunately for him, the person whose name he used to perpetrate the fraud was a man of standing and influence, the Earl of Chesterfield, a man Dodd had once tutored.  Like most financial criminals, Dodd believed he would be able to make good on the loan before his artifice was detected.  Of course, things did not turn out this way, and he was exposed and vigorously prosecuted.

In those days forgery was considered a serious crime.  Boswell calls it “the most dangerous crime in a commercial country”; and once the Earl of Chesterfield testified against Dodd, the unlucky clergyman was sentenced to be hanged.  Dodd’s friends approached Samuel Johnson, who as a man of letters was seen as a neutral party who might be well-placed to intervene on Dodd’s behalf.  Johnson wrote him several speeches, little literary pieces that might today be called press-releases; Dodd was moved by these efforts on his behalf, and sent Johnson this note from Newgate Prison in May 1777:

I am so penetrated, my ever dear Sir, with a sense of your extreme benevolence towards me, that I cannot find words equal to the sentiments of my heart…You are too conversant in the world to need the slightest hint from me, of what infinite utility the Speech on the aweful day has been to me.  I experience, every hour, some good effect from it.  I am sure that effects still more salutary and important must follow from your kind and intended favour.  I will labour—God being my helper–to do justice to it from the pulpit…May God Almighty bless and reward, with his choicest comforts, your philanthropick actions, and enable me at all times to express what I felt of the high and uncommon obligations which I owe to the first man of our times.

In June, Dodd was even more direct, sending Johnson this message:

If his Majesty [George III] could be moved of his royal clemency to spare me and my family the horrours and ignominy of a publick death, which the publick itself is solicitous to waive, and to grant me in some silent and distant corner of the globe, to pass the remainder of my days in penitence and prayer, I would bless his clemency and be humbled.

Johnson then wrote a formal petition for clemency, addressed to the king.  The letter was made to appear as having come from Dr. Dodd himself; Johnson apparently thought that it would have a better chance of success if the appeal came directly from the convicted.  The letter read as follows:

May it not offend your Majesty, that the most miserable of men applies himself to your clemency, as his last hope and his last refuge; that your mercy is most earnestly and humbly implored by a clergyman, whom your Laws and Judges have condemned to the horrour and ignominy of a publick execution.

I confess the crime, and own the enormity of its consequences, and the danger of its example.  Nor have I the confidence to petition for impunity; but humbly hope, that publick security may be established, without the spectacle of a clergyman dragged through the streets, to a death of infamy, amidst the derision of the profligate and profane; and that justice may be satisfied with irrevocable exile, perpetual disgrace, and hopeless penury.

My life, Sir, has been useless to mankind.  I have benefitted many.  But my offenses against God are numberless, and I have had little time for repentance.  Preserve me, Sir, by your prerogative of mercy, from the necessity of appearing unprepared at that tribunal, before which Kings and Subjects must stand at last together.  Permit me to hide my guilt in some obscure corner of a foreign country, where, if I can ever attain confidence to hope that my prayers will be heard, they shall be poured with all the fervour of gratitude for the life and happiness of your Majesty.

It was an eloquent plea, but Johnson was careful to manage his client’s expectations.  He wrote to Dodd, “I most seriously enjoin you not to let it be at all known that I have written this letter, and to return the copy to Mr. Allen in a cover to me.  I hope I need not tell you, that I wish it success.  But do not indulge hope.  Tell nobody.”  Soon after this, Johnson also wrote a plea to the influential Charles Jenkinson, the First Earl of Liverpool:

Sir, since the conviction and condemnation of Dr. Dodd, I have had, by the intervention of a friend, some intercourse with him, and I am sure I shall lose nothing in your opinion by tenderness and commiseration.  Whatever be the crime, it is not easy to have any knowledge of the delinquent, without a wish that his life may be spared; at least when no life has been taken away by him.  I will, therefore, take the liberty of suggestion some reasons for which I wish this unhappy being to escape the utmost rigour of his sentence.

He is, so far as I can recollect, the first clergyman of our church who has suffered publick execution for immorality; and I know not whether it would not be more for the interest of religion to bury such an offender in the obscurity of perpetual exile, than to expose him in a cart, and on the gallows, to all who for any reason are enemies to the clergy.

The supreme power has, in all ages, paid some attention to the voice of the people; and that voice does not least deserve to be heard, when it calls out for mercy.  There is now a very general desire that Dodd’s life should be spared.  More is not wished; and, perhaps, this is not too much to be granted.  If you, Sir, have any opportunity of enforcing these reasons, you may, perhaps think them worthy of consideration:  but whatever you determine, I most respectfully intreat that you will be pleased to pardon this intrusion.

Unfortunately, however, the application for clemency failed.  Either George III was not convinced of its merit, or he was preoccupied with the conflict then raging in the American colonies; we do not know.  His appeals having been exhausted, Dodd prepared himself to face the executioner.  He wrote this final poignant letter to Johnson:

Accept, thou great and good heart, my earnest and fervent thanks and prayers for all thy benevolent and kind efforts in my behalf.  O!  Dr. Johnson!  As I sought your knowledge at an early hour in life, would to heaven I had cultivated the love and acquaintance of so excellent a man!  I pray God most sincerely to bless you with the highest transports–the infelt satisfaction of humane and benevolent exertions!…I shall hail your arrival there with transport, and rejoice to acknowledge that you were my Comforter, my Advocate, and my Friend!  God be ever with you.

To this Johnson responded with this final letter.  It is a brilliant piece of writing, capturing that fine balance between Stoic courage and tender sympathy:

That which is appointed to all men is now coming upon you.  Outward circumstances, the eyes and the thoughts of men, are below the notice of an immortal being about to stand the trail for eternity, before the Supreme Judge of heaven and earth.  Be comforted:  your crime, morally or religiously considered, has no very deep dye of turpitude.  It corrupted no man’s principles; it attacked no man’s life.  It involved only a temporary and reparable injury.  Of this, and of all other sins, you are earnestly to repent; and may God, who knoweth our frailty, and desireth not our death, accept your repentance…

In requital of those well-intentioned offices which you are pleased so emphatically to acknowledge, let me beg that you make in your devotions one petition for my eternal welfare.

I am, dear Sir, your affectionate servant,

Sam. Johnson

The execution was carried out soon after this letter was written.  Johnson would later say of Dr. Dodd, “He was at first what he endeavored to make others; but the world broke down his resolution, and he in time ceased to exemplify his own instructions.”



Read more in the newly-released On Moral Ends: