In August of 1974, faced with Congressional hearings, a mountain of bad press and the looming threat of impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign.
His official letter of resignation was delivered at 11:35 a.m. Eastern Time on August 9, 1974.
A half-hour later, Nixon’s Vice President Gerald Ford took the Presidential Oath and was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.
After the swearing-in ceremony, Ford gave a brief acceptance speech that was broadcast live on radio and television.
He acknowledged that he was taking office “under extraordinary circumstances” and urged Americans to “go forward now together.”
He then made a remark that became — and remains — a famous political quotation:
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
Following that, Ford alluded to another famous political quote.
“Our Constitution works.” he said. “Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”
The phrase “a government of laws, and not of men” reflects a political idea that dates back as far as the ancient Greeks.
But it was enshrined in quotation history by John Adams in one of his Novanglus letters, published in the Boston Gazette in 1774.
Written anonymously under the pen name “Novanglus,” these letters argued that Great Britain’s treatment of American colonists violated their rights under British law.
In the seventh Novanglus letter, Adams wrote that “the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire…a government of laws, and not of men.”
By the 20th Century, British monarchs had virtually no real power.
In contrast, American presidents have many significant powers under the law. One of them is the power to pardon criminals, both after and apparently before they are convicted.
On September 8, 1974, President Ford announced that he had granted Richard Nixon a “full, free, and absolute” pardon for any crimes he “has committed or may have committed” while president.
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