Politico magazine called it “the most awkward tradition in American politics.” President Barack Obama himself said, “I know some people think this tradition is a little silly. I do not disagree.” What Politico and the president were talking about was the odd tradition, practiced annually since 1989 but around on and off for a lot longer, of publicly “pardoning” a Thanksgiving turkey in front of the White House.
But as silly as the tradition may seem, it’s a reminder of the president’s very real power to unilaterally pardon anyone for any federal crime up to and including murder. It’s one of the most awesome powers of the presidency, and it’s been used by every president except two—both of whom died within six months of taking office. The power is set out in Article 2, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, and it includes the authority to both grant pardons (which absolves the recipient of guilt) and reprieves (which commute—i.e., shorten—a prison sentence without affecting guilt).
King for a day…or four years
Obama used his own clemency power sparingly during the first years of his presidency. But he got busy in 2016—and at this point he’s commuted the sentences or pardoned more than 560 federal inmates. In fact, he’s granted more commutations than any other president since Calvin Coolidge, and more in total than the past seven presidents combined.
Much of Obama’s clemency has been directed toward commuting harsh federal mandatory sentences handed out for crack cocaine, which fell especially hard on the poor and minorities. But when it comes to pardons, as opposed to commutations, Obama has been more restrained, granting just over 50. Compare that to President Franklin Roosevelt, who pardoned nearly 3,000 convicts.
If it seems odd for the American president to have a constitutional power that seems a little, well, kingly, that’s no coincidence. It’s derived from a traditional power enjoyed for centuries by English monarchs, and like that monarchial power, it carries only one limitation: neither monarchs nor U.S. Presidents can issue a pardon in cases of impeachment. Presidents can, however, pardon other presidents accused of wrongdoing but not impeached, which was exactly what Gerald Ford did in the case of Richard Nixon, bringing the Watergate scandal to a final, if inglorious, conclusion.
Keeping the peace
For the Founding Fathers, bestowing a presidential power borrowed from royalty wasn’t an easy decision. But it was a power that Alexander Hamilton championed, and Hamilton finally had his way. In No. 74 of the Federalist Papers, he argued that pardoning power would help hold the young republic together in the case of rebellion. He reasoned that if the president could pardon rebels, they might be brought peacefully back into the fold, healing simmering tensions and averting future acts of revenge.
Hamilton was right. The very first presidential pardon was made by George Washington in 1791, just two years after the power was granted, in response to a rebellion. It was a rebellion started, ironically and unintentionally, by Hamilton himself.
Trying to deal with the debt of the Revolutionary War, Hamilton, then serving as Washington’s secretary of the treasury, had imposed what he thought was a reasonable tax on distilled spirits. This didn’t go over well with Pennsylvania’s farmers, who relied on distillation to preserve the value of their crops, which were difficult to transport to distant markets in any other form.
Passions were inflamed, and the weak, young nation soon found itself with a “Whiskey Rebellion” on its hands. After a show of force by Washington at the head of the militia, the nascent rebellion was disbursed. Repeal of the hated tax and Washington’s pardon of the Whiskey Rebellion’s leaders ended the crisis for good.
Hamilton’s original intent was again exercised on a massive scale after the Civil War. That’s when President Andrew Johnson pardoned the entire Confederacy for the crime of treason against the United States. A little more than 100 years after that, the power was again exercised in a somewhat similar fashion, when President Jimmy Carter mass-pardoned those convicted of evading the draft during the Vietnam War.
Potential for abuse
Of course, not all pardons match Hamilton’s original intent, and many have been quite controversial. Bill Clinton pardoned his brother Roger for cocaine charges on his last day in office—and Roger was arrested for drunk driving just a month later. President George H.W. Bush mysteriously pardoned a major Pakistani heroin trafficker, with no explanation, two days before he left office in 1993. In 1989, Ronald Reagan pardoned New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. And in 1971, Nixon himself pardoned labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, in return for Union support from Hoffa’s successor.
These pardons represented a lot of power. But the ultimate power of the presidential pardon has never, thankfully, been used—or abused—by an American president. It’s the shocking power to order someone to kill anyone, and to pardon them after they do so. Sound unbelievable? Well, it’s happening today in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte, who enjoys the same clemency powers as American presidents, has promised absolute pardon to any police or military who kill while enforcing his violent war on drugs.
So the next time you see the president pardon a turkey, you might want to remember that the power you’re being reminded of is really the furthest thing from a joke.
Image courtesy of HuffingtonPost