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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Honesty of Richard Jackson

By Timothy Dwight (1752–1817)

[From Travels in New England and New York. 1821.]

AMONG the prisoners taken by the Americans at the battle of Hoosac, was an inhabitant of Hancock in the County of Berkshire—a plain farmer, named Richard Jackson. This man had conscientiously taken the British side in the Revolutionary contest, and felt himself bound to seize the earliest opportunity of employing himself in the service of his sovereign. Hearing that Colonel Baum was advancing with a body of troops toward Bennington, he rose early, saddled his horse, and rode to Hoosac, intending to attach himself to this corps. Here he was taken in such circumstances as proved his intention beyond every reasonable doubt. He was besides too honest to deny it. Accordingly, he was transmitted to Great Barrington, then the shire-town of Berkshire, and placed in the hands of General Fellows, High-Sheriff of the County, who immediately confined him in the County gaol. This building was at that time so infirm, that without a guard no prisoner could be kept in it who wished to make his escape. To escape, however, was in no degree consonant with Richard’s idea of right; and he thought no more seriously of making an attempt of this nature than he would have done had he been in his own house. After he had lain quietly in gaol a few days, he told the Sheriff that he was losing his time and earning nothing, and wished that he would permit him to go out and work in the daytime, promising to return regularly at evening to his quarters in the prison. The Sheriff had become acquainted with his character, and readily acceded to his proposal. Accordingly, Richard went out regularly during the remaining part of the autumn, and the following winter and spring, until the beginning of May; and every night returned at the proper hour to the gaol. In this manner he performed a day’s work every day, with scarcely any exception beside the Sabbath, through the whole period.

In the month of May, he was to be tried for high-treason. The Sheriff accordingly made preparations to conduct him to Springfield, where his trial was to be held. But he told the Sheriff that it was not worth his while to take this trouble, for he could just as well go alone; and it would save both the expense and inconvenience of the Sheriff’s journey. The Sheriff, after a little reflection, assented to his proposal; and Richard commenced his journey—the only one, it is believed, which was ever undertaken in the same manner for the same object.

In the woods of Tyringham, he was overtaken by the Honorable T. Edwards, from whom I had this story. “Whither are you going?” said Mr. Edwards. “To Springfield, sir,” answered Richard, “to be tried for my life.” Accordingly he proceeded directly to Springfield, surrendered himself to the Sheriff of Hampshire, was tried, found guilty, and condemned to die.

The Council of Massachusetts was, at this time, the supreme executive of the State. Application was made to this Board for a pardon. The facts were stated, the evidence by which they were supported, and the sentence grounded on them. The question was then put by the President, “Shall a pardon be granted to Richard Jackson?” The gentleman who first spoke observed that the case was perfectly clear; the act alleged against Jackson was unquestionably high-treason; and the proof was complete. If a pardon should be granted in this case, he saw no reason why it should not be granted in every other. In the same manner answered those who followed him. When it came to the turn of Mr. Edwards, he told this story with those little circumstances of particularity, which, though they are easily lost from the memory and have escaped mine, give light and shade a living reality, and a picturesque impressiveness to every tale which is fitted to enforce conviction, or to touch the heart. At the same time he recited it without enhancement, without expatiating, without any attempt to be pathetic. As is always the case, this simplicity gave the narration its full force. The Council began to hesitate. One of the members at length observed, “Certainly such a man as this ought not to be sent to the gallows.” To his opinion the members unanimously assented. A pardon was immediately made out and transmitted to Springfield, and Richard returned to his family.

Never was a stronger proof exhibited that honesty is wisdom.