A Brief History of Presidential Pardons

The power bestowed upon the chief executive to excuse past misdeeds has involved a number of famous Americans

While presidents have the power to pardon, their decision to use it isn't always popular. Just look at this anti-Ford button made in response to his pardoning of Richard Nixon. Wikimedia Commons

Call it a perk of the executive office: Since the creation of the Constitution, presidents have used their “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States” to clear the federal criminal records of Americans of all stripes. This power can be used to commute a person’s sentence—like in the case of socialist Eugene Debs, a founder of Industrial Workers of the World who was convicted of sedition and had his prison sentence shortened by Warren Harding—or to offer a full pardon. Just look at former Vice President Gerald Ford who, citing the need for unity in the wake of the Watergate scandal, famously pardoned Richard Nixon of any crimes he may have committed against the United States while in office.

While Ford’s pardon of Nixon significantly reinterpreted what the pardoning power could mean, the presidential privilege has been extended in a variety of cases, from Civil War leaders to the owner of the New York Yankees. Explore the pardons below that shaped this exclusive right of our executive branch.

George Wilson—When a Pardon is Rejected
In April 1830, George Wilson was found guilty of obstructing delivery of the mail, robbery of the mail, and endangering the life of mail carriers. The court sentenced Wilson and his partner, James Porter, to death. While Porter was hanged in July, President Andrew Jackson issued a pardon to Wilson, thanks to friends lobbying on his behalf. But for inexplicable reasons, Wilson refused the pardon. At that point the case went before the Supreme Court: Did a citizen even have the right to reject a pardon? The court ruled that it had no power to impose a pardon on a citizen: “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered…” In the end, Wilson was hanged.

Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres—The Pearl Incident
Although 1840s Washington, D.C. had a sizable free black population, it was also home to slave trading. Securing freedom often required running away, and on April 14, 1848, a family of free black citizens (who had run into legal trouble defending their free status) paid $100 for transportation to be organized by Captain Daniel Drayton, who then hired Captain Edward Sayres to pilot the schooner Pearl. They were joined by many more enslaved persons, bringing their number to 77 to make it the largest slave escape in U.S. history. But the weather forced the ship to make harbor before they could reach the next transfer point in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. A steamship captained by authorities quickly caught them. The runaways were sold back into slavery, and the incident caused rioting by pro-slavery mobs across the city. Only white abolitionists Drayton and Sayres made it through the incident relatively unscathed. Both served four years of their prison sentences before being pardoned by President Millard Fillmore, who was petitioned by abolitionist senator Charles Sumner.

Brigham Young—The Mormon War in Utah
In 1832, Brigham Young became an early convert to Joseph Smith’s newly formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After Smith was murdered, Young helped the Mormons move to Utah to escape religious persecution from violent mobs like the one that killed Smith. Things went swimmingly at first; Young was appointed governor of Utah (then an organized territory) and head of the Mormon Church. But in 1857, President James Buchanan sent soldiers to Utah with a new governor for the state over concerns that the territory that Young was running the territory as a theocracy; Young did indeed give church doctrine preference in civil issues in a number of cases.

But Buchanan failed to warn Young his replacement was coming, and the short-lived “Mormon War” broke out. There were no battles (Young directed his troops to choke off federal supply lines rather than engage in combat), though the church did massacre 120 unarmed people in a wagon train in 1857. By 1858 the conflict ended, with Buchanan partly to blame. Embarrassed, Buchanan offered a pardon to all the Utah Mormons, including Young, on the condition that they accept the sovereignty of the United States. Although some Mormon church leaders disapproved of Buchanan’s accusations of treason and sedition, Young accepted the pardon, saying, “I have no character—no pride to gratify—no vanity to please.”

Jefferson Davis—President of the Confederacy
Plantation owner and slaveholder, Jefferson Davis enjoyed a political career that started in the U.S. House of Representatives and ended with becoming president—of the Confederacy. But when the Civil War ended and Andrew Johnson became president following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson offered a mass pardon of Davis and hundreds of other officials for treason, for those who would ask for it. In the ensuing years, laws permitting former Confederates to run for political office and restoring their citizenship passed Congress, but the latter still excluded Davis. In 1881, Davis said, “It has been said that I should apply to the United States for a pardon, but repentance must precede the right of pardon, and I have not repented.”

It wasn’t until 1978 that President Jimmy Carter, facing a divided electorate still recovering from Watergate and the Vietnam War, issued a posthumous pardon that restored Davis’s full citizenship, asserting, “Our Nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our Nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded.”

Captain Van Schaick—Sinking of the General Slocum
Billed as the “largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York,” the General Slocum was making its way up the Long Island Sound on June 15, 1904, when the paddleboat burst into flames, leaving only 321 of its 1,358 passengers alive. The death count wouldn’t be surpassed in New York City until the 9/11 attacks. When his crew reported the fire, Captain William Van Schaick continued to steer the Slocum upriver for two minutes before beaching, allowing survivors to jump to safety. But before reaching shore, many passengers threw themselves into the water to escape the flames, only to drown because they couldn’t swim. Van Schaick was found guilty of criminal negligence. He served four years in Sing Sing, failing to get a pardon from Theodore Roosevelt despite having a petition with 200,000 signatures. But in 1911, President Taft offered Van Schaick a pardon, and the captain was released. Decades later, some family members of the survivors still blamed the captain for not doing more to prevent the high death toll, though others had forgiven him.

Iva Toguri D’Aquino—The Treasonous Tokyo Rose
When Japanese-American Iva Toguri D’Aquino got stranded in Japan during World War II during a trip to visit relatives, she was coerced into a new job by the Japanese government: A radio D.J. meant to read demoralizing messages to U.S. troops. After the war ended, she tried to return to the U.S. only to learn listeners had combined several female propaganda broadcasters into a single entity, Tokyo Rose—and said Toguri was her. Soldiers reported her broadcasts hurt troop morale, though their claims were largely refuted by the FBI. But enormous public outcry over Toguri's return contributed to belief in her guilt, and she was convicted of treason and sent to prison. In 1977 Toguri was pardoned by President Gerald Ford, becoming the only American convicted of treason to also receive a full pardon.

George Steinbrenner—Illegal Campaign Donations
Something was rotten in the state of campaign finance during Nixon’s 1972 reelection—and the owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner, got caught up in the mess. In 1974 he was charged with making illegal political contributions to Nixon’s campaign and obstructing justice; two weeks after Nixon’s resignation that August, Steinbrenner pleaded guilty and paid a $15,000 fine. But in 1989 President Ronald Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner, generating enormous criticism. “It was unfair and unjust,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “The pardon reinforced a double standard of justice that cuts through our criminal justice system—one for the street thug and one for the corporate thug.”

Patty Hearst—From Kidnapped Teen to Bank Robber
When 19-year-old Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the domestic terrorist group Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, the event was an immediate sensation—in part because she was granddaughter of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. But the kidnapping grew even stranger when Hearst was captured on camera helping the SLA rob a bank. Hearst participated in other crimes with the SLA and was arrested in September 1975, having suffered physical and psychological abuse by the group. Although some believed her crimes were committed under psychological coercion, Hearst was convicted of robbery and sentenced to 35 years in prison. President Carter commuted the sentence, and President Bill Clinton pardoned her on his last day in office, a controversial move due to its timing.

Isaac Toussie—The One-Day Pardon
In 2001 and 2002, New York real estate developer Isaac Toussie pleaded guilty to mail fraud and using false documents to receive mortgages from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Toussie was “detested by many working-class people” in New York City, reported the New York Times, especially after President George W. Bush issued him a pardon. But only a day later, that pardon was rescinded when it was uncovered that Toussie’s father had made a recent $30,800 donation to Republicans. “Some people would argue that as soon as the president signs a warrant, that the pardon is effective, others could just as plausibly argue that there also has to be some form of communication or delivery to the person who’s pardoned,” legal expert Dan Kobil told NPR. In the end, the Justice Department said the pardon wasn’t binding because Toussie never received formal notification.

And one...not-quite pardon: William Calley—The My Lai Massacre
The Vietnam War was filled with horrific violence, but the massacre at My Lai became one of the most infamous incidents—and the blame for it fell upon a single man. The 1968 massacre involved three platoons, one of which was commanded by Lieutenant William Calley. U.S. soldiers killed at least 300 civilians, but only Calley was convicted for the murders. Nixon didn't bestow a pardon upon Calley, but did intervene and allowed the lieutenant to serve out a three-year term under house arrest, rather than be imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Before the pardon, there were numerous public demonstrations on Calley’s behalf and Terry Nelson and C-Company even wrote a song about him—but the massacre also spurred more fervent anti-war protests.

Editor's note, July 8, 2021: This article originally listed President Nixon's involvement in the William Calley matter as a pardon. He only intervened to ensure a more lenient sentence for the lieutenant. We regret the error.

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