Why Do Presidents Pardon?

Photo of President Gerald Ford
President Gerald Ford controversially pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon.

What Is a Pardon?

The President of the United States has the power to issue pardons to people who have committed federal crimes. A pardon allows a person who has perpetrated such a crime to be fully exonerated of that infraction. The pardoned person will also regain whatever civil rights were lost as a result of their conviction. The president’s authority to pardon others is stipulated in the United States Constitution under Article II, Section 2.

Why do presidents pardon? Presidents can pardon people for various reasons, including to help those who might have been convicted of certain crimes but have demonstrated they are reformed citizens. But sometimes, a president can abuse the power of a pardon, or that person might use the pardon for personal gain. Other pardons help people who are ill or might have been unfairly treated in the past.

A General Desire For Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the most prominent reason many people receive pardons from the president. The president may hold a desire to provide mercy to people who engaged in certain criminal acts. For example, George Washington issued pardons to Philip Vigol and John Mitchel for committing treason during the Whisky Rebellion.

As Part of a Plea Agreement

Presidents can often issue pardons to people in exchange for plea deals. In 1865, Andrew Johnson pardoned thousands of people who supported the Confederate States of America. Though anyone seeking a pardon from Johnson had to pledge their allegiance to the United States of America.

Sketch of President Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson pardoned thousands of Confederate supporters after the Civil War.

President Johnson required any former Confederate to verbally recite an oath to receive a full pardon for their activities during the Civil War. The oath stated that the person must support the United States Constitution and all laws relating to the emancipation of slaves.

Johnson would eventually go further in 1868, as he absolved those who fought for the Confederacy. Jimmy Carter would pardon Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis over a hundred years later.

A Need To Move On

One common reason presidents pardon people is because they want the country to move on from difficult events. The best example of this came on September 8, 1974, when President Gerald Ford issued what could be the most controversial pardon in American history. Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for crimes he committed or may have committed against the country during his presidency.

Ford’s pardon of Nixon was a means of getting the country to move past the turbulent end of his predecessor’s presidency. The move also ensured President Nixon wouldn’t be subject to further prosecution and a constant focus of the news cycle well after his resignation. But the move proved to be highly unpopular, and it is cited as the principal reason why Ford lost his reelection bid two years later.

Attempting to Change Laws

Presidents have often issued pardons as part of an effort to change various laws. President Barack Obama established a plan to shorten prison sentences for people who committed various nonviolent crimes. He pardoned close to 2,000 people during his presidency, with many of those pardons being for people who committed first-time drug offenses and were not considered threats to society.

Photo of Barack Obama
Barack Obama pardoned a number of first time drug offenders during his presidency.

John F. Kennedy also technically overturned the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 by pardoning all first-time offenders of the act. The law was designed to prevent people from smoking opiates for recreational purposes.

Campaign Promises

Occasionally pardons are issued as part of a campaign promise a candidate makes when running for president. For example, Jimmy Carter stated while campaigning that he would offer a pardon to all people who evaded the military draft during the Vietnam War. He signed a blanket pardon for nearly 200,000 people who avoided the draft during his first full day in office in 1977.

Personal Preferences

One concern surrounding the presidential pardon is that the president could use it to pardon people who have a close relationship with that person. For example, Bill Clinton pardoned relative Roger Clinton, Jr. for a cocaine possession charge. President Clinton also pardoned campaign supporter Marc Rich and his business partner Pincus Green for their crimes of tax evasion and illegally trading with Iran.

Photo of President Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton issued several controversial pardons.

Presidents may also use pardons to help people who support their political party. Ronald Reagan issued a pardon to George Steinbrenner for his crime of providing illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. George H.W. Bush issued pardons for six people in the Iran-Contra affair. These included Casper Weinberger, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense.

Pardons may also come because a president feels that the person who could be pardoned would be a strong supporter of their campaign and values. President Donald Trump has been accused of this on multiple occasions, including through his pardons of two of his most ardent supporters, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and conservative writer and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza. Arpaio was a strong supporter of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, while D’Souza has made multiple anti-liberal films that have been criticized for featuring various historical inaccuracies and misleading statements.

Fixing History

Pardons may also be an issue well after an individual has died. Presidents are often willing to offer posthumous pardons to people who are considered historically important and have prior convictions.

Donald Trump issued a pardon to boxer Jack Johnson in 2018, nearly seventy years after his death. Trump pardoned Johnson for a 1913 violation of an act that made it illegal for anyone to transport a woman across state lines for prostitution or other questionable acts. President Trump also issued a 2020 presidential pardon to Susan B. Anthony for illegally voting during the 1872 election.

To Show Mercy To the Ill

A president may offer clemency because they want to show mercy to a person who is ill and doesn’t have all of their civil rights. For instance, President Richard Nixon pardoned Angelo DeCarlo for conspiracy to murder in 1972 when DeCarlo was in poor health. DeCarlo died a year after he was pardoned and released.

Who Has Issued the Most Pardons?

In terms of pardoning specific people and not including blanket pardons like those of Jimmy Carter and Andrew Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt issued more individual pardons than any other president in history at about 3,500. Woodrow Wilson issued nearly 2,500 pardons, while Harry Truman doled out around 2,000 pardons.

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