How Presidential Pardons Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Why Do Presidential Pardons Become Controversial?

President George Washington pardoned those responsible for the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1794. The Whiskey Rebellion was a reaction to the excise tax of 1791 introduced by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Kean Collection/Getty Images

Pardons have the potential to provoke controversy, because they allow a president to undo the decision made by the nation's legal system — or, in the case of preemptive pardons, to prevent a person from being prosecuted at all. That can lead to accusations that a president is playing politics, favoring his supporters or even trying to cover up a scandal.

Here are some of the most controversial clemency actions in U.S. history.


  • President George Washington in 1795 pardoned two of the organizers of the infamous Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, which required 13,000 soldiers to suppress [source: Blakemore].
  • President Thomas Jefferson pardoned 10 people who had been convicted under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had been passed during the administration of his predecessor, John Adams [source: Onuf].
  • President James Madison in 1815 pardoned notorious pirate Jean Laffite, who captured and plundered American, British and Spanish ships in the early 1800s, and others involved in piracy who resided on the island of Barataria off the Louisiana coast. The clemency repaid Laffite for declining to help the British and instead fighting alongside U.S. forces in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 [source: Wegmann].
  • President Andrew Jackson in 1833 pardoned George Wilson, who had been sentenced to death for stealing mail and jeopardizing the life of a mail carrier. Wilson, for reasons that remain mysterious, refused the pardon and the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled the felons had the right to turn down clemency. Wilson eventually was hanged [source: Blakemore].
  • President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 pardoned Arthur O'Bryan, who had been convicted in the District of Columbia of attempted bestiality back in 1857, after he had an exemplary record in prison [source: Gilder Lehrman].
  • In 1865, President Andrew Johnson granted amnesty to more than 13,000 former Confederates, including many high-ranking officials in the Confederate government. After the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, many of those Confederate leaders became involved in taking away Blacks' rights and re-establishing white supremacy in the South [source: Blakemore]
  • In 1971, President Richard Nixon pardoned Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa, who had been convicted of jury tampering and fraud, with the provision that he stay out of the union movement. Hoffa subsequently endorsed Nixon in his 1972 reelection bid [source: Time].

Nixon himself was the recipient of a very controversial pardon as we'll see on the next page.