The Power of the President to Grant Pardons

Regarding the power of the President to grant pardons – Hamilton argued that such power should be granted to a single executive (the President).

This was not an easy position to argue – particularly since pardons were deemed appropriate for individuals who deserve mercy on humanitarian purposes.

Such consideration does not seem to be the criteria currently in use by our President.

At the Virginia Ratifying Convention held on June 18, 1788, George mason rose from his chair to make his point – ultimately rejected.

He said, “The President ought not to have the power of pardoning, because he may frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself. It may happen, at some future day, that he will establish a monarchy, and destroy the republic. If he has the power of granting pardons before indictment, or conviction, may he not stop inquiry and prevent detection? The case of treason ought, at least, to be excepted. This is a weighty objection with me.”

James Madison understood immediately the force of Mason’s objection, but he had a response—a response in which he described limitations on presidential power that, to our great misfortune, have for too long been forgotten. Was there a danger in giving the president the power to pardon? “Yes,” replied Madison, but there was a remedy for the danger in the Constitution as drafted – IMPEACHMENT.

In Federalist Paper #74, Alexander Hamilton articulated his position – ultimately accepted and written into the Constitution of the United States.

Although Hamilton considered the advantages that may be had from requiring pardons to receive legislative support, Hamilton ultimately decided that questions of mercy are best decided by a single executive.

Hamilton implied that if pardons were to be decided by a group of individuals, they may feel less pressure to either grant mercy on humanitarian terms or to uphold justice when the circumstances of the case demand it. Furthermore, the judgment of Congress might be colored by partisanship. He furthermore imagined situations in which it will be essential to the national interest for the president to be able to grant pardons swiftly. For example, in order to “restore the tranquility of the commonwealth,” it may be necessary for the president to grant a pardon to rebel leaders. If this process were delayed by the need to obtain congressional approval, important opportunities might be lost.

It appears that the abuse articulated by George Mason is happening right before our eyes.

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