Mitchell’s Musings 9-2-2017: Pardon

31 Aug 2017 5:09 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 9-2-2017: Pardon

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

Recently, President Trump’s pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio has produced much well-deserved controversy.[1] Although presidents have broad powers to issue pardons, the Arpaio pardon didn’t follow the standard practice of review. Usually, those individuals pardoned have in some way expressed regret for their conduct and have requested a pardon. So the Arpaio pardon was at least unusual. Apparently, Arpaio had not himself requested a pardon, but his lawyer had some communication with the White House about it. And Arpaio certainly did not regret his conduct.

Of course, there have been other controversial pardons in the past. Perhaps the most notable pardon in that regard was the one granted by President Gerald Ford to former President Richard Nixon. Nixon had not expressed regret at the time and had not requested the pardon. But Ford did not want a former president on trial or even jailed.

Arpaio’s offense was contempt of court. There was another case, many decades ago, in which a president granted a pardon for contempt of Congress, even though the recipient did not ask for one and, in fact, may well have wanted to go to jail as a martyr. Indeed, what impelled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue a pardon to Dr. Francis E. Townsend – even though none was requested – was precisely to prevent Townsend from becoming a martyr and a political issue.



So who was Townsend and why did this issue arise? Townsend (seen in the photo) was an elderly physician who ended up living in, and for a time working for, the City of Long Beach, California, in the 1930s.[2] As the nation sunk into the Great Depression in the early part of that decade, he began promoting a cure for the Depression through a local newspaper. At the time, California was something like Florida today: a place for the elderly to retire in the sunshine, away from colder climates of the Midwest or elsewhere. Long Beach had many elderly residents like Townsend.

In an era before Social Security, indigent elderly persons relied on support of charities, poorhouses, or – in the case of California – what was termed “outdoor relief,” essentially, an early form of “welfare” for oldsters. Townsend’s scheme, which was concocted out of various movements of the day, proposed a pension payment by the federal government of $200 a month for individuals over age 60, provided they promised not to work and to spend every penny of the pension during the course of the month. Jobs would thus be left to the young and the elderly would stimulate demand and job creation by their consumption. The cost of the plan was to be financed by a seemingly modest 2% tax on all transactions, perhaps jumpstarted by some kind of currency creation.

There are lots of things to be said about the practicality of the Townsend Plan, but it had an obvious appeal to California’s disproportionately elderly population. Two hundred dollars ($400 for an elderly couple!) was a considerable sum at the prices of that period. Indeed, the Townsend movement felt compelled to publish sample budgets proving that someone could actually spend that amount in a month. The Plan would have transferred as much as a quarter of the GDP from those under 60 to the elderly.

Townsend’s transaction tax would have applied to any arms-length purchase. Hence, when the carmaker bought steel, it would have been taxed. When the steelmaker bought iron ore, it would have been taxed. When the car was sold to the dealer, it would have been taxed. And when the final consumer bought the car from the dealer, it would have been taxed. Note that this form of pyramid tax would have been a strong incentive for vertical industrial consolidation. If the carmaker owned the dealership, the steel mill, and the iron mine, all but the tax on the final sale could have been avoided. But these details were not of concern to the Townsendites. Soon there were dues-generating Townsend clubs throughout California that spread to the rest of the country. There were Townsend newspapers and books for sale. The Townsend movement, in short, became a profitable business.[3]

For the Roosevelt administration, the Townsend movement posed two challenges. First, it competed with its Social Security proposal. Compared to Townsend’s $200 a month, the payments to be made under Social Security were skimpy. Moreover, the Roosevelt plan involved creating a pension system that looked like the few corporate pensions that had developed by the 1930s. There would be employer and employee contributions and a trust fund that would have to be built up (and not pay any pensions until the 1940s). Townsend’s plan in contrast had no cost to recipients, did not require a work history of contributions, would start paying immediately, and offered far more money. Thus, Roosevelt and those developing the Social Security plan looked at the Townsend Plan as stealing elderly political support (which it did).

Second, Roosevelt would be up for re-election in 1936. We know with hindsight that he won in a landslide. But at the time, polling was embryonic and the outcome was not considered a slam dunk. There was fear that Louisiana Senator Huey Long – who had his own “Share the Wealth” movement – would combine with Townsend and other movements that had sprung up. Long might run a third-party campaign that would siphon votes from Roosevelt and throw the election to the Republicans. As it happened, Long was assassinated and the remnants of his movement did combine with Townsend’s and others, running an obscure congressman for president in a campaign that fizzled out.

The Roosevelt administration found allies in Congress to start an investigation of Townsend. In part, it focused on the moneymaking aspect of the Townsend movement. Townsend himself was charged in the hearings with everything from being an atheist to a communist. There was pressure on the FBI from the Roosevelt administration to dig up dirt on Townsend.[4] The Post Office Department was used to monitor mail volume going to Townsend as a measure of his popularity. In short, although it remains unclear if Townsend was a huckster or just a naïve believer in his plan, he was clearly subject to an array of Dirty Tricks by the administration.

At one point in the Congressional hearings, Townsend became frustrated with the questioning and simply walked out, an action that led to a contempt of Congress charge for which he was eventually convicted. But in the end, Social Security was enacted in 1935, and Roosevelt was re-elected in 1936. Yet the Townsendites continued to attract significant elderly political support and continued to push for their plan. If Townsend were actually jailed, the president feared, his pension movement would be strengthened. Rather than see that happen, Roosevelt simply issued an unrequested pardon for Townsend, diffusing the issue. Townsend’s followers, unaware of the Dirty Tricks that had been emanating from the White House, in fact looked favorably at Roosevelt’s rescue of their hero.

The ultimate irony of the Townsend pardon is that it could be argued that Roosevelt owed a debt of gratitude to Dr. Townsend. The administration’s Social Security proposal was a radical innovation in U.S. politics that might well have been defeated in Congress. But with the elderly pushing for the Townsend Plan instead, Social Security became the moderate alternative. A member of Congress or a Senator – having voted against the Townsend Plan – would not want to slap his elderly constituents in the face twice by also voting against the more modest Social Security plan. What Roosevelt considered the crown jewel of the New Deal may well have owed its success to Francis Townsend. You might look at the Townsend pardon as a reward for his inadvertent service to the New Deal.


Emblem of the Townsend movement




[2] The material that follows comes from my book Pensions, Politics, and the Elderly: Historic Social Movements and Their Lessons for Our Aging Society (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), Chapter 4.

[3] A newsreel on the Townsend movement can be seen at  

[4] The FBI did accumulate a large stack of files on Townsend, but never found anything it wanted to pursue. 

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