The tradition of executive pardon began during the earliest stages of U.S. nation building. A federation emerged from the Revolutionary War with a swelling—albeit confusing—patriotism and a staggering war debt. Some states (e.g. Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia) had resolved their war debts independently. As the federation transformed into a nascent Republic, Alexander Hamilton planned to consolidate state debts into the national debt. This project was criticized by many who believed they had already paid their war debts, and, specifically those who believed Hamilton was taxing the supporters of his opponents. These events lead to the Whiskey Rebellion.
Unrest characterized the western reaches of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland until a boiling point was reach in the summer of 1794. Gangs of Revolutionary veterans harassed tax collectors and even attacked the home of a tax inspector. George Washington responded by marching through the trouble areas with a force of 13,000 militia men, and the rebellion was quelled with minimal violence. Twenty men were arrested, and two convicted of treason. Enacting the powers granted in Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, George Washington pardoned both persons convicted of treason.
During the presidency of John Adams, another rebellion fomented as Congress solicited taxes to sponsor the Quasi-War. Veterans saw the taxes as repressive and contrary to the objectives they fought for in the Revolutionary War. Under the leadership of John Fries, farmers resisted the taxes by preventing tax assessors from cataloguing their assets. When a group of resisters were jailed, Fries led 120 militiamen to the jail where they successfully negotiated—or intimidated—the release of their peers. Adams described the event as “treason” and, subsequently, Fries was judged guilty of that treason. Adams later pardoned Fries, but, only two days before his anticipated execution.
The political climate has changed substantially from the aforementioned events to Bradley Manning’s trial, but there are lessons to be heeded. First, military personnel or veterans have naturally become the guardians of the things for which they fight, often placing them in precarious positions as potential agents of turbulence. This phenomenon occurs because they uniquely own the tools and knowledge to effectively check government behavior. Second, President Obama can magnanimously pardon Bradley Manning by citing the traditions of our nation’s founding fathers. When the wisdom of proven state officials has prevailed, (e.g. Washington’s and Adams’ pardons for those convicted of treason) their precedent should be honored in order to develop effective and consistent statecraft and to solidify a National ethos consistent with the tenants of our constitution. In this tradition, decisions which honor the successes of our nation's great leaders will accumulate to represent a body of behavior uniquely American. Obama could pardon Bradley Manning with these considerations and, with the appropriate press and framing, simultaneously generate the sought after “American credibility”.