At the end of July 1800, President John Adams signed a warrant for the execution of a deserter. Less than a month later, however, he reversed the decision and cancelled the warrant, although he held off granting a full pardon. What happened?
First, here are the facts of the case as related to Adams. Samuel Ewing deserted in Detroit from Captain Porter’s company in a regiment of Artillerists and Engineers on May 8, 1800. The next evening, he returned to the fort with a loaded musket and threatened to kill anyone who tried to capture him. When Lieutenant Rand approached him, Ewing pointed his musket and attempted to fire but the gun failed.
Secretary of War Samuel Dexter sent the proceedings of the court martial to Adams, remarking that he felt it was best the President confirm the sentence of death. As President, Adams was technically responsible for the decision. Adams replied that the sentence would stand as “the crime of this man is so gross it cannot with safety to the service be pardoned.”
Which begs the question, why did Adams change his mind? On August 8, Dexter had sent Adams an extract of a letter from Lieutenant Colonel Hamtramck, who had presided over the court martial. Hamtramck was concerned that Ewing might be insane: “having deserted on one day, returning on the next, and declaring war against a whole Garrison appears to me to have been the effect of a deranged brain.”
Adams took this suggestion seriously, although he was apparently irritated that no mention of possible insanity was made in the initial report of the court martial. On August 16, Adams canceled the warrant for the execution of Samuel Ewing. “Let the man remain under arrest for the present,” Adams wrote to Dexter, “To pardon him immediately might injure the service.” At this point, Samuel Ewing disappears from our archive, but it seems he was never executed.