The first Secretary of the Treasury, and Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton famously called Article II, Section 2 of the US Constitution the ‘benign prerogative’. This is what the article says:
“he [the President] shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment”.
Yet there have been times in US History where the prerogative has been anything but benign. The number of pardons issued by different Presidents varies greatly. The highest number was issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt who pardoned 3,687 individuals, many of whom had fought in the Second World War. Contrarily, Presidents William Harrison and James Garfield both issued a grand total of zero pardons.
What are the most famous Presidential Pardons?
- President Gerald Ford Pardons President Richard Nixon – September 8th 1974
In 1974 President Nixon became the only US President in History to resign. Nixon was facing impeachment by the US Senate in a what would almost certainly have seen him removed from office. Upon Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford ascended to the Presidency. On September 8th 1974, just one month after becoming President, Ford issued Proclamation 4311 which gave Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for crimes committed against the United States. This saved Nixon from a criminal prosecution which may have seen him imprisoned.
Nixon resigned on August 9th 1974, he left the White House in Marine One, striking this pose.
Ford was immediately criticised for his actions and some people said that it was a conspiracy, with Nixon promising to resign in return for a pardon from Nixon. Indeed, many historians have pointed to the pardon as a key reason why Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.
President Ford appeared in front of the House Judiciary Committee to defend his actions in pardoning Richard Nixon
History, however, has judged the pardon much more kindly. Historians have recognized the political courage that it took to issue what would inevitably be such a controversial pardon. They have noted that the pardon allowed America to move on from the Watergate Affair, which had damaged the American Presidency more than any other scandal in History.
2. Chelsea Manning
Chelsea Manning (who then identified as Bradley Manning) was a US Soldier who leaked classified documents to the wikileaks. These documents were extremely embarrassing the US Government. For example, a video showed US Helicopters firing on unarmed Iraqis. Also leaked were diplomatic messages sent between the United States and other countries, some of which undermined America’s relationships around the world. By leaking these documents, she was found to have breached the Espionage Act and was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. The sentence was extremely controversial. For many liberals, Manning had done little more than expose the negative actions of the US Government and Armed Forces.
While Manning was convicted as a traitor, to many she was a hero.
On January 17th 2017 Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence meaning she would be released after only 7 years. This is slightly different to a pardon, as a pardon excuses the crime that has been committed. Manning was released from Fort Leavenworth on May 17th 2017 – much to the ire of current President Donald Trump:
3. Roger Clinton
In January 2001, just days before leaving the Presidency, Bill Clinton issued a controversial pardon to his younger brother, Roger. In 1985 Roger Clinton was convicted of possession of cocaine and drug-trafficking. He had served time in Federal Prison. By issuing his pardon, President Clinton ensured that his brother’s conviction would no longer appear on his criminal record.