History Trivia: Presidential Pardons Through History

History Trivia: Presidential Pardons Through History

If you’re interested in history, you may find this post about Presidential Pardons and Commutations interesting. For eons, presidents have dished out loads of pardons and commutations on their last day in the Oval Office. Some good, some pretty darn odd, and some that are jaw-dropping questionable.

Make sure to check out “Presidential Pardons That Made the News” and “Which president started the tradition of pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey?” at the end of the post.

First off—what’s a pardon, and what’s a commutation?

PARDON: The President’s power to pardon is not restricted by any temporal constraints except that the crime must have been committed.

COMMUTATION is the mitigation of the sentence of someone currently serving a sentence for a crime pursuant to a conviction, without vacating the sentence itself. So it’s a good thing for the recipient, but not a full pardon.

Interesting fact: Barack Obama holds the record for the biggest single-day use of the clemency power on his last day in office.

President George Washington pardoned, commuted, or rescinded the convictions of 16 people. Among them were: Philip Vigol (or Wigle) and John Mitchel, convicted of treason for their roles in the Whiskey Rebellion*.

Abraham Lincoln pardoned, commuted or rescinded the convictions of 343 people during his term, including 264 Dakota Indians who attacked white settlers in the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862**.

Andrew Johnson fully pardoned every soldier who fought for the Confederate Army on Christmas day, 1868. Though many thought he was being far too lenient to people who were considered traitors to the Union, Johnson believed it was time for the country to reconcile with the past.

Franklin D. Roosevelt granted 3,687 pardons in his four terms in office.

John F. Kennedy pardoned, commuted, or rescinded the convictions of 575 people.

Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon–this decision won him a lot of enemies. He also offered conditional amnesty to over 50,000 draft resisters. I had a boyfriend back then who fled to Canada to avoid the draft. He was able to return and eventually became a professor.

Ronald Reagan pardoned, commuted, or rescinded the convictions of 406 people.

Bill Clinton pardoned, commuted, or rescinded the convictions of 459 people, including his younger half-brother, Roger. In the mid-1980s, Roger was caught on videotape trying to sell cocaine to an undercover cop. He was arrested, pleaded guilty, and served a year in prison.

Another notorious Clinton pardon was Marc Rich who was indicted in 1983 for evading over $48 million in taxes. He was also charged with 51 counts of tax fraud. And he was also accused of making illegal oil deals with Iran while it was holding U.S. citizens hostage. He was living in Switzerland at the time of his pardon.

Clinton also pardoned Patty Hearst—read more below.

Barack Obama granted 330 commutations on January 19, 2017, his last full day in office. During his presidency, he issued more commutations than the past 13 presidents combined.

In a letter to 46 people whose sentences he commuted in 2015, he wrote: “The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States. It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”

Presidential Pardons That Made the News

Jimmy Hoffa, 1971

The Teamsters leader had been serving a prison sentence for jury tampering and fraud when President Nixon pardoned him in December 1971. There was a condition: Hoffa should not engage in any management of any labor organization until at least March 1980. Hoffa may have been trying to reassert his power over the Teamsters when he disappeared in 1975. We may never know.

Patty Hearst, 2001

The granddaughter of publisher William Randolph Hearst made headlines in 1974 when an urban guerilla group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped her from her Berkeley, Calif., apartment. Two months later, the 19-year-old was photographed robbing a San Francisco bank while brandishing an assault rifle. Apparently, she had taken up her captors’ cause. At her trial, her lawyer asserted that she’d been brainwashed. She was convicted and imprisoned for almost two years before President Jimmy Carter commuted her seven-year sentence and freed her from jail. President Bill Clinton granted her a full pardon on the last day of his presidency, January 20, 2001.

John Forté, 2008

In 2000, recording artist, Forté was arrested at Newark International Airport after accepting a briefcase containing $1.4 million worth of liquid cocaine. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to distribute. He was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of 14 years after being found guilty. Carly Simon and her son, Ben Taylor (son of James Taylor) were advocates on Forté’s behalf, believing he didn’t receive a fair trial. They fought to appeal the mandatory minimum drug laws that remove a judge’s discretion in a case.

With Senator Orrin Hatch’s help, Forté’s prison sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush on November 24, 2008. —Wikipedia

Alice Marie Johnson, 2020

She was convicted in 1996 for her involvement in drug trafficking. Johnson received a life sentence even though it was her first offence. Years later, her cause was taken up by celebrity Kim Kardashian West***. In June 2018, after serving 21 years in prison, she was released after President Trump commuted her sentence. In August 2020, he granted her a full pardon.

Which president started the tradition of pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey?

Actually, it started with Christmas dinner in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln’s clemency to a turkey was recorded in a dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks, who noted, “a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but Lincoln’s son, Tad, interceded in behalf of its life and the turkey’s life spared.”

The formalities of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when President George H.W. Bush remarked, “Reprieve,” “keep him going,” or “pardon”: it’s all the same for the turkey, as long as he doesn’t end up on the president’s holiday table.—Whitehousehistory.org

President Harry S. Truman pardoning a 35-pound tom turkey
in the White House Rose Garden on Nov. 18, 1952


*Whiskey Rebellion

**Want to know more about the Great Sioux Uprising? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_War_of_1862

***Kim Kardashian West has said she’s studying to become a criminal justice lawyer and is planning to take her exams in 2022. The reality star began a four-year apprenticeship with a law firm in San Francisco around the time she played a role in the release from prison of Alice Marie Johnson



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