The President’s Pardon Power

The Pardon Power and the Constitution

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 states –

The President…shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

A reprieve is the commutation or lessening of a sentence that has already been imposed. It does not affect the legal guilt of a person charged with a crime. A pardon, on the other hand, completely wipes out the legal effects of a conviction. A pardon can be issued at the time an offense is committed or even after a full sentence has been served.

In Federalist No. 74, Alexander Hamilton wrote of the President’s Pardon power

He is also to be authorised “to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States except in cases of impeachment.”Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel. As the sense of responsibility is always strongest in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives, which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations, which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance. The reflection, that the fate of a fellow creature depended on his sole fiat, would naturally inspire scrupulousness and caution: The dread of being accused of weakness or connivance would beget equal circumspection, though of a different kind. On the other hand, as men generally derive confidence from their numbers, they might often encourage each other in an act of obduracy and might be less sensible to the apprehension of suspicion or censure for an injudicious or affected clemency. On these accounts, one man appears to be a more eligible dispenser of the mercy of the government than a body of men.

The expediency of vesting the power of pardoning in the President has, if I mistake not, been only contested in relation to the crime of treason. This, it has been urged, ought to have depended upon the assent of one or both of the branches of the legislative body. I shall not deny that there are strong reasons to be assigned for requiring in this particular the concurrence of that body or of a part of it. As treason is a crime levelled at the immediate being of the society, when the laws have once ascertained the guilt of the offender, there seems a fitness in refering the expediency of an act of mercy towards him to the judgment of the Legislature. And this ought the rather to be the case, as the supposition of the connivance of the Chief Magistrate ought not to be entirely excluded. But there are also strong objections to such a plan. It is not to be doubted that a single man of prudence and good sense, is better fitted, in delicate conjunctures, to balance the motives, which may plead for and against the remission of the punishment, than any numerous body whatever. It deserves particular attention, that treason will often be connected with seditions, which embrace a large proportion of the community; as lately happened in Massachusetts. In every such case, we might expect to see the representation of the people tainted with the same spirit, which had given birth to the offense. And when parties were pretty equally matched, the secret sympathy of the friends and favorers of the condemned person, availing itself of the good nature and weakness of others, might frequently bestow impunity where the terror of an example was necessary. On the other hand, when the sedition had proceeded from causes which had inflamed the resentments of the major party, they might often be found obstinate and inexorable, when policy demanded a conduct of forbearance and clemency. But the principal arguments for reposing the power of pardoning in this case in the Chief Magistrate is this–In seasons of insurrection or rebellion, there are often critical moments, when a well timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquility of the commonwealth; and which, if suffered to pass unimproved, it may never be possible afterwards to recall. The dilatory process of convening the Legislature, or one of its branches, for the purpose of obtaining its sanction to the measure, would frequently be the occasion of letting slip the golden opportunity. The loss of a week, a day, an hour, may sometimes be fatal. If it should be observed that a discretionary power with a view to such contingencies might be occasionally conferred upon the President; it may be answered in the first place, that it is questionable whether, in a limited constitution, that power could be delegated by law; and in the second place, that it would generally be impolitic before-hand to take any step which might hold out the prospect of impunity. A proceeding of this kind, out of the usual course, would be likely to be construed into an argument of timidity or of weakness, and would have a tendency to embolden guilt.

Joseph Story in his Commentaries on the Constitution explained the history of the Pardon power and described how it is not incompatible with a republican form of government.

§ 1488. The next power is, “to grant reprieves and pardons.” It has been said by the marquis Beccaria, that the power of pardon does not exist under a perfect administration of the laws; and that the admission of the power is a tacit acknowledgment of the infirmity of the course of justice. But if this be a defect at all, it arises from the infirmity of human nature generally; and in this view, is no more objectionable, than any other power of government; for every such power, in some sort, arises from human infirmity. But if it be meant, that it is an imperfection in human legislation to admit the power of pardon in any case, the proposition may well be denied, and some proof, at least, be required of its sober reality. The common argument is, that where punishments are mild, they ought to be certain; and that the clemency of the chief magistrate is a tacit disapprobation of the laws. But surely no man in his senses will contend, that any system of laws can provide for every possible shade of guilt, a proportionate degree of punishment. The most, that ever has been, and ever can be done, is to provide for the punishment of crimes by some general rules, and within some general limitations. The total exclusion of all power of pardon would necessarily introduce a very dangerous power in judges and juries, of following the spirit, rather than the letter of the laws; or, out of humanity, of suffering real offenders wholly to escape punishment; or else, it must be holden, (what no man will seriously avow,) that the situation and circumstances of the offender, though they alter not the essence of the offence, ought to make no distinction in the punishment. There are not only various gradations of guilt in the commission of the same crime, which are not susceptible of any previous enumeration and definition; but the proofs must, in many cases, be imperfect in their own nature, not only as to the actual commission of the offence, but also, as to the aggravating or mitigating circumstances. In many cases, convictions must be founded upon presumpions and probabilities. Would it not be at once unjust and unreasonable to exclude all means of mitigating punishment, when subsequent inquiries should demonstrate, that the accusation was wholly unfounded, or the crime greatly diminished in point of atrocity and aggravation, from what the evidence at the trial seemed to establish? A power to pardon seems, indeed, indispensable under the most correct administration of the law by human tribunals; since, otherwise, men would sometimes fall a prey to the vindictiveness of accusers, the inaccuracy of testimony, and the fallibility of jurors and courts. Besides; the law may be broken, and yet the offender be placed in such circumstances, that he will stand, in a great measure, and perhaps wholly, excused in moral and general justice, though not in the strictness of the law. What then is to be done? Is he to be acquitted against the law; or convicted, and to suffer punishment infinitely beyond his deserts? If an arbitrary power is to be given to meet such cases, where can it be so properly lodged, as in the executive department?

§ 1489. Mr. Justice Blackstone says, that “in democracies, this power of pardon can never subsist; for, there, nothing higher is acknowledged, than the magistrate, who administers the laws; and it would be impolitic for the power of judging, and of pardoning to center in one and the same person. This (as the president Montesquieu, observes) would oblige him very often to contradict himself, to make and unmake his decisions. It would tend to confound all ideas of right among the mass of the people, as they would find it difficult to tell, whether a prisoner was discharged by his innocence, or obtained a pardon through favour.” And hence, he deduces the superiority of a monarchical government; because in monarchies, the king acts in a superior sphere; and may, therefore, safely be trusted with the power of pardon, and it becomes a source of personal loyalty and affection.

§ 1490. But, surely, this reasoning is extremely forced and artificial. In the first place, there is [no] more difficulty or absurdity in a democracy, than in a monarchy, in such cases, if the power of judging and pardoning be in the same hands; as if the monarch be at once the judge, and the person, who pardons. And Montesquieu’s reasoning is in fact addressed to this very case of a monarch, who is at once the judge, and dispenser of pardons. In the next place, there is no inconsistency in a democracy any more, than in a monarchy, in entrusting one magistrate with a power to try the cause, and another with a power to pardon. The one power is not incidental to, but in contrast with the other. Nor, if both powers were lodged in the same magistrate, would there be any danger of their being necessarily confounded; for they may be required to be acted upon separately, and at different times, so as to be known as distinct prerogatives. But, in point of fact, no such reasoning has the slightest application to the American governments, or, indeed, to any others, where there is a separation of the general departments of government, legislative, judicial, and executive, and the powers of each are administered by distinct persons. What difficulty is there in the people delegating the judicial power to one body of magistrates, and the power of pardon to another, in a republic any more, than there is in the king’s delegating the judicial power to magistrates, and reserving the pardoning power to himself, in a monarchy? In truth, the learned author, in his extreme desire to recommend a kingly form of government, seems on this, as on many other occasions, to have been misled into the most loose and inconclusive statements. There is not a single state in the Union, in which there is not by its constitution a power of pardon lodged in some one department of government, distinct from the judicial. And the power of remitting penalties is in some cases, even in England, entrusted to judicial officers.

§ 1491. So far from the power of pardon being incompatible with the fundamental principles of a republic, it may be boldly asserted to be peculiarly appropriate, and safe in all free states; because the power can there be guarded by a just responsibility for its exercise. Little room will be left for favouritism, personal caprice, or personal resentment. If the power should ever be abused, it would be far less likely to occur in opposition, than in obedience to the will of the people. The danger is not, that in republics the victims of the law will too often escape punishment by a pardon; but that the power will not be sufficiently exerted in cases, where public feeling accompanies the prosecution, and assigns the ultimate doom to persons, who have been convicted upon slender testimony, or popular suspicions.

§ 1492. The power to pardon, then, being a fit one to be entrusted to all governments, humanity and sound policy dictate, that this benign prerogative should be, as little as possible, fettered, or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that, without an easy access to exceptions in favour of unfortunate guilt, justice would assume an aspect too sanguinary and cruel. The only question is, in what department of the government it can be most safely lodged; and that must principally refer to the executive, or legislative department. The reasoning in favour of vesting it in the executive department may be thus stated. A sense of responsibility is always strongest in proportion, as it is undivided. A single person would, therefore, be most ready to attend to the force of those motives, which might plead for a mitigation of the rigour of the law; and the least apt to yield to considerations, which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance. The consciousness, that the life, or happiness of an offender was exclusively within his discretion, would inspire scrupulousness and caution; and the dread of being accused of weakness, or connivance, would beget circumspection of a different sort. On the other hand, as men generally derive confidence from numbers, a large assembly might naturally encourage each other in acts of obduracy, as no one would feel much apprehension of public censure. A public body, too, ordinarily engaged in other duties, would be little apt to sift cases of this sort thoroughly to the bottom, and would be disposed to yield to the solicitations, or be guided by the prejudices of a few; and thus shelter their own acts of yielding too much, or too little, under the common apology of ignorance, or confidence. A single magistrate would be compelled to search, and act upon his own responsibility; and therefore would be at once a more enlightened dispenser of mercy, and a more firm administrator of public justice.

§ 1493. There are probably few persons now, who would not consider the power of pardon in ordinary cases, as best deposited with the president. But the expediency of vesting it in him in any cases, and especially in cases of treason, was doubted at the time of adopting the constitution; and it was then urged, that it ought at least in cases of treason to be vested in one, or both branches of the legislature. That there are strong reasons, which may be assigned in favour of vesting the power in congress in cases of treason, need not be denied. As treason is a crime levelled at the immediate existence of society, when the laws have once ascertained the guilt of the offender, there would seem to be a fitness in referring the expediency of an act of mercy towards him to the judgment of the legislature. But there are strong reasons also against it. Even in such cases a single magistrate, of prudence and sound sense, would be better fitted, than a numerous assembly, in such delicate conjunctures, to weigh the motives for and against the remission of the punishment, and to ascertain all the facts without undue influence. The responsibility would be more felt, and more direct. Treason, too, is a crime, that will often be connected with seditions, embracing a large portion of a particular community; and might under such circumstances, and especially where parties were nearly poised, find friends and favourites, as well as enemies and opponents, in the councils of the nation. So, that the chance of an impartial judgment might be less probable in such bodies, than in a single person at the head of the nation.

§ 1494. A still more satisfactory reason is, that the legislature is not always in session; and that their proceedings must be necessarily slow, and are generally not completed, until after long delays. The inexpediency of deferring the execution of any criminal sentence, until a long and indefinite time after a conviction, is felt in all communities. It destroys one of the best effects of punishment, that, which arises from a prompt and certain administration of justice following close upon the offence. If the legislature is invested with the authority to pardon, it is obviously indispensable, that no sentence can be properly executed, at least in capital cases, until they have had time to act. And a mere postponement of the subject from session to session would be naturally sought by all those, who favoured the convict, and yet doubted the success of his application. In many cases delay would be equivalent to a pardon, as to its influence upon public opinion, either in weakening the detestation of the crime, or encouraging the commission of it. But the principal argument for reposing the power of pardon in the executive magistrate in cases of treason is, that in seasons of insurrection, or rebellion, there are critical moments, when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents, or rebels, may restore the tranquillity of the Commonwealth; and if these are suffered to pass unimproved, it may be impossible afterwards to interpose with the same success. The dilatory process of convening the legislature, or one of the branches, for the purpose of sanctioning such a measure, would frequently be the loss of the golden opportunity. The loss of a week, of a day, or even of an hour may sometimes prove fatal. If a discretionary power were confided to the president to act in such emergencies, it would greatly diminish the importance of the restriction. And it would generally be impolitic to hold out, either by the constitution or by law, a prospect of impunity by confiding the exercise of the power to the executive in special cases; since it might be construed into an argument of timidity or weakness, and thus have a tendency to embolden guilt. In point of fact, the power has always been found safe in the hands of the state executives in treason, as well as in other cases; and there can be no practical reason, why it should not be equally safe with the executive of the Union.

§ 1495. There is an exception to the power of pardon, that it shall not extend to cases of impeachment, which takes from the president every temptation to abuse it in cases of political and official offences by persons in the public service. The power of impeachment will generally be applied to persons holding high offices under the government; and it is of great consequence, that the president should not have the power of preventing a thorough investigation of their conduct, or of securing them against the disgrace of a public conviction by impeachment, if they should deserve it. The constitution has, therefore, wisely interposed this check upon his power, so that he cannot, by any corrupt coalition with favourites, or dependents in high offices, screen them from punishment.

§ 1496. In England (from which this exception was probably borrowed) no pardon can be pleaded in bar of an impeachment. But the king may, after conviction upon an impeachment pardon the offender. His prerogative, therefore, cannot prevent the disgrace of a conviction; but it may avert its effects, and restore the offender to his credit. The president possesses no such power in any case of impeachment; and, as the judgment upon a conviction extends no farther, than to a removal from office, and disqualification to hold office, there is not the same reason for its exercise after conviction, as there is in England; since (as we have seen) the judgment there, so that it does not exceed what is allowed by law, lies wholly in the breast of the house of lords, as to its nature and extent, and may, in many cases, not only reach the life, but the whole fortune of the offender.

§ 1497. It would seem to result from the principle, on which the power of each branch of the legislature to punish for contempts is founded, that the executive authority cannot interpose between them and the offender. The main object is to secure a purity, independence, and ability of the legislature adequate to the discharge of all their duties. If they can be overawed by force, or corrupted by largesses, or interrupted in their proceedings by violence, without the means of self-protection, it is obvious, that they will soon be found incapable of legislating with wisdom or independence. If the executive should possess the power of pardoning any such offender, they would be wholly dependent upon his good will and pleasure for the exercise of their own powers. Thus, in effect, the rights of the people entrusted to them would be placed in perpetual jeopardy. The constitution is silent in respect to the right of granting pardons in such cases, as it is in respect to the jurisdiction to punish for contempts. The latter arises by implication; and to make it effectual the former is excluded by implication.

§ 1498. Subject to these exceptions, (and perhaps there may be others of a like nature standing on special grounds,) the power of pardon is general and unqualified, reaching from the highest to the lowest offences. The power of remission of fines, penalties, and forfeitures is also included in it; and may in the last resort be exercised by the executive, although it is in many cases by our laws confided to the treasury department. No law can abridge the constitutional powers of the executive department, or interrupt its right to interpose by pardon in such cases.

Some Famous Presidential Pardons

(1) The Whiskey Rebels (1795) – a group of whiskey-producing Pennsylvania farmers took to the streets and burned the home of a local tax inspector. 20 or so members of the mob were arrested, and 2 were convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging. Washington chose to pardon both men in July 1795 in an effort to avoid further discontent in the new nation.

(2) Brigham Young (1858) -In what became known as the Utah War, Young’s followers participated in a year-long standoff with the U.S. Army. The affair was largely bloodless, but in September 1857,  a group of Mormons killed over 100 civilian members of a California-bound wagon train. Despite this massacre—which some claimed came on Young’s orders—Young and his followers later received a full pardon from President James Buchanan as part of a peace compromise with the federal government.

(3) Richard Nixon (1974) – Richard Nixon famously resigned from office in August 1974 amid accusations of malfeasance related to the Watergate scandal. But while there was a possibility that Nixon could have been prosecuted and even jailed, he was granted a full pardon by new President Gerald Ford only weeks after stepping down. Ford’s offer of clemency came before Nixon had officially been charged with any misdeeds, and covered all federal crimes the former president had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” during his terms in office.


To view more information about the number of presidential pardons and commutations per presidential administration, visit this Justice Department page. It has data from the McKinley administration through the Obama administration.

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