10 Fascinating Cases of US Presidential Pardons


All but two of America’s Presidents have exercised the power, granted them in Article 2 of the Constitution of the United States, to pardon individuals for various federal crimes. William Henry Harrison and James Garfield are the exceptions; both died during short terms in office. Beginning with George Washington and continuing through the administration of Benjamin Harrison, the President wrote out the pardon by hand, addressing it to the recipient. Washington pardoned 16 people during his two terms in office, including two for the crime of treason for participating in the Whiskey Rebellion. Before and since his use of the pardon, the ability has been challenged in Congress, by public sentiment, and in the courts, though no President has had a pardon overturned.

Several have been highly controversial, such as Jimmy Carter’s blanket pardon of draft evaders, (though Truman pardoned draft evaders after World War II) and Gerald Ford’s pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon. In the 21st century the President’s every action is highly scrutinized and dissected by the 24-hour news cycle, but prior to the late 1960s most Presidential pardons went mostly unnoticed by the general public. Here are 10 examples of Presidential pardons from American history which generated considerable discussion in Congress and the press.

10. James Madison pardoned the pirate brothers, Jean and Pierre Lafitte

In February 1815, President Madison granted pardons to Jean and Pierre Lafitte, for their crimes of smuggling and piracy prior to and during the War of 1812. The brothers, both of whom it is believed had been born in France, aided the Americans under Andrew Jackson during the New Orleans campaign. During the preliminary phases of the fighting around New Orleans, the brothers’ pirate base at Barataria was destroyed by American gunboats and troops. The pirates under Lafitte also received Presidential clemency. The Lafitte brothers received their pardons with grace, after which they returned to piracy and smuggling from a base near Galveston, Texas.

The brothers also operated as Spanish spies during the Mexican Revolution, continued to smuggle goods and slaves into New Orleans and other Gulf ports, and Jean preyed on ships of several nations. He claimed to be a valid privateer, licensed by an unknown country, but his indiscriminate attacks on shipping indicate he was a pirate. Madison’s pardon covered crimes committed prior to February 1815, not those which followed, and in 1821 the US Navy forced Jean to abandon Galveston, which was then in Mexico. He died, likely in combat with a Spanish ship or ships, in 1823. It is believed Pierre died in 1821, probably in the Yucatan Peninsula while spying for Spain.

9. Andrew Jackson had a pardon rejected by its intended recipient

In 1829, George Wilson and James Porter were charged with six counts of robbery of the US mail, and endangering the life of the mail carrier. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging, scheduled for July 2. On that date, James Porter went to meet his maker. George Wilson did not. Influential friends lobbied the President, Andrew Jackson, to pardon him. Jackson did so, and his death sentence was reduced to one of 20 years imprisonment for one of the lesser charges. Wilson refused to accept the pardon. The refusal generated a debate over the President’s power to issue pardons, and the dispute reached the Supreme Court.

The Court decided in favor of Wilson, reasoning that a pardon was similar to a deed, and needed to be delivered and accepted in order to be valid. “It is a grant to him: it is his property; and he may accept it or not as he pleases,” the court ruled. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “…we have no power in a court to force it on him.” After refusing the President’s clemency and prevailing in the Supreme Court, Wilson was hanged for his crimes.

8. John C. Fremont received a pardon after conviction by a court-martial

John C. Fremont, known as the Pathfinder for his expeditions in the American West, served in California during the Mexican War, and took control of the territory from the short-lived California Republic in 1846. Confused and conflicting orders from the military bureaucracy in Washington created two governors in California, Fremont and Stephen W. Kearny. Both had orders assigning them as military governors, though with conflicting dates, and Kearny was superior in rank to Fremont. When Fremont disobeyed orders to submit to Kearny, the latter had him charged with mutiny and insubordination. The court martial convicted Fremont, stripped him of his rank, and dishonorably discharged him..

The court convicted him of disobeying orders and insubordination, though not of mutiny. President James K. Polk approved of the court’s finding, but pardoned Fremont anyway, citing his earlier services to his country. The powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Fremont’s father-in-law, helped sway Polk’s decision. Fremont was reinstated and restored to rank. Nonetheless, he resigned his commission as a point of honor. In 1856 Fremont, after previously serving as a Senator from California, became the first candidate for President ever nominated by the Republican Party. He lost the election to James Buchanan, after a particularly nasty campaign on both sides.

7. Brigham Young received a pardon for his role in the Utah War

Brigham Young received his appointment as territorial governor of the Utah Territory from President Millard Fillmore. In practice, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints dominated the legislature and courts in the territory. Church leaders encouraged the use of ecclesiastical measures, rather than civil procedures, to resolve disputes. Stories in eastern newspapers sensationalized many of their practices, raising the vision of a semi-monarchic state, where polygamy and religious practices replaced democratic freedoms. Attacks on settlers bound for California and Oregon also raised concerns in the east. During the election campaign of 1856, the Utah problem was exaggerated in the press, with James Buchanan and his party determined to restore order.

As President, Buchanan dispatched the US Army to Utah, ostensibly to protect settlers and ensure the rights of non-Mormons were honored. Brigham Young led a Mormon army to harass the troops, though there were no armed conflicts between Mormons and the Army. Several civilians were killed, mostly transiting settlers. Young and his militia kept the US Army undersupplied through the winter of 1857-58 by raiding cattle and supply wagons. In 1858, Brigham Young agreed to relinquish his seat as governor of the territory, and later that year Buchanan issued a pardon for his role leading the resistance to federal authority.

6. Andrew Johnson pardoned all of the Confederacy, as well as some who conspired to kill Abraham Lincoln

Both Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson offered clemency to some, though not all, members of the Confederacy, after the recipient took an oath of loyalty to the United States. On Christmas Day, 1868, Johnson rescinded the previous requirement for an oath, and issued a blanket pardon to all who had served the Confederacy in any manner. His pardon included former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens. The pardons caused considerable political backlash among those who wished to punish the Confederacy for its sins.

Johnson also pardoned three men who had been convicted in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln led by John Wilkes Booth. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s broken leg and then failed to notify authorities of the assassin’s whereabouts, received a pardon. So did Edmund Spangler, whose role in the plot was holding Booth’s horse when the actor entered Ford’s Theater. Johnson also pardoned Samuel Arnold. Arnold had participated in the earlier failed plot to kidnap Lincoln, but was in Old Point Comfort, Virginia on the night of the President’s murder. The court which convicted him reasoned he had been positioned in Virginia to aid Booth’s escape. With the pardons, all three were released from federal custody.

5. Grover Cleveland pardoned the first convicted polygamist of the Church of Latter Day Saints

Rudger Clawson was the first American to be tried and convicted of polygamy under the Edmunds Act, enacted during the Presidency of Chester Arthur. The statute survived several legal challenges, including that it invalidated marriages which had previously been legal. Clawson was prosecuted under the act in 1882. During his trial the judge locked up one of his wives for refusing to testify against the accused. When Clawson was convicted, the judge handed down the maximum sentence defined under the law, 42 months imprisonment and a fine of $1,500, almost $40,000 in today’s money.

Clawson appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which heard his case and upheld his conviction. In 1887 Grover Cleveland pardoned Clawson, who by then had served all but a few months of his sentence. In 1893 Cleveland’s successor, Benjamin Harrison, extended a blanket amnesty to all members of the Church of Latter Day Saints who had engaged in bigamy or polygamy. The pardoned included more than 1,300 men convicted under the act. No women were convicted under the Edmunds Act, as prosecutors generally regarded them as victims of predatory behavior. Some, however, went to jail for contempt when they refused to testify in court.

4. Calvin Coolidge pardoned a German World War I saboteur and spy

Lothar Witzke, a German naval officer, escaped internment in Valparaiso, Chile in 1916 and traveled under an assumed name in the guise of a common seaman to San Francisco. There he contacted the German Consul, Franz von Bopp. Recruited into espionage activities in the then neutral United States, Witzke expanded his activities to include sabotage. He participated, according to his own remarks as well as other evidence, in the infamous Black Tom Explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time. It destroyed over $20 million worth of ammunition and TNT waiting to be shipped to Europe, and killed at least four American citizens.

Witzke was arrested by American authorities in February, 1918. With the US then at war, he was tried as a spy, convicted by a military court, and sentenced to death. Before the sentence could be carried out the Armistice was signed, and the German’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, by Woodrow Wilson in 1920. In 1923, with Witzke in custody at the federal prison at Leavenworth, Germany’s Ambassador to the United States lobbied President Coolidge for his release. Coolidge pardoned the spy in 1923, and deported him to Germany. He received the Iron Cross upon his return to Germany, and served in the Abwehr under Wilhelm Canaris during the Second World War.

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt issued over 3,600 pardons during his 12 years in office

FDR exercised the power of pardon with considerable gusto during his administrations. Several went to bootleggers convicted under the Volstead Act once Prohibition ended in 1933. Among the men he pardoned was Roy Olmstead, a former Seattle cop who became one of the Northwest’s most successful bootleggers. Like many bootleggers, his activities were well known to local authorities, though bribes and blackmail kept him out of the hands of the law. With few willing to testify against him, federal agents applied the relatively new technique of using wiretaps on his phones. The evidence obtained led to his, and 21 others, indictment and convictions. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment.

Olmstead stayed out of jail while his appeals, based on the argument that wiretaps amounted to self-incrimination in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights, worked through the courts. The Supreme Court disagreed, in a landmark decision in 1928. Olmstead served his sentence. In 1935, on Christmas Day, FDR pardoned the former bootlegger, which had the effect of eliminating a tax debt of over $100,000 the IRS claimed he owed in unpaid taxes on illegal liquor sales. The Supreme Court decision legitimizing wiretaps applied without judicial authority was overturned by another Supreme Court decision, Katz v. The United States, in 1967.

2. Gerald Ford pardoned the former Tokyo Rose

Iva Toguri D’Aquino, an American citizen, became famous as Tokyo Rose, a name applied to her radio broadcasts by American military in the Pacific Theater. She identified herself on air as Orphan Ann. Born in Los Angeles, she visited Japan in the summer of 1941, and was there when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred later that year. According to her many apologists she was pressured into participating in the broadcasts, and once the war ended and Japan was under military occupation, she was held only briefly by US authorities. The FBI and General MacArthur’s staff did not find any evidence she had aided the Japanese war effort. She was released, and returned to the United States.

Once back in America, pressure to convict her grew in radio broadcasts, the press, and the emerging industry of television. Walter Winchell, a powerful influence in American society led the charge against her. She was arrested, charged with treason, and tried on eight specific counts. Convicted of just one, she was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. She was the only American citizen convicted of treason as a result of activities during World War II. Paroled after serving six years, she lived quietly the rest of her life. President Gerald Ford pardoned her in 1977 on his last full day in office, after evidence emerged that several witnesses at her trial perjured themselves against her.

1. Ronald Reagan pardoned the man who was Deep Throat during the Watergate Investigation

During the Washington Post’s investigation into the complexities of the crimes known as Watergate to posterity, Bob Woodward relied on a confidential Informant he called Deep Throat. Deep Throat’s true identity wasn’t formally revealed until 2005, when Mark Felt, Associate Director of the FBI at the time of the investigation, admitted he was the informant. Many people involved, including Nixon, suspected Felt, but he had several times denied it over the years. During the 1970s Felt directed numerous illegal searches and break-ins during investigations into the Weather Underground. When the extent of the FBI’s illegal activities came to light during Congressional investigations, Felt was charged with conspiracy to violate the rights of American citizens.

Felt publicly admitted ordering numerous illegal searches and break-ins, and in November, 1980 he was convicted at trial. The conviction occurred two days after the 1980 Presidential election elevated Reagan to the Presidency. Ironically, several of the men brought down by Felt’s contributions to the Watergate investigation – which began over an illegal break in – testified on Felt’s behalf. Among them was Richard Nixon. Felt appealed his conviction, which included a $5,000 fine. He faced a potential ten-year sentence in prison, but the judge ordered no time served. Before the appeal was heard Ronald Reagan pardoned Felt on March 26, 1980, though it wasn’t made public until April. When it was, Nixon sent Felt a congratulatory bottle of champagne.

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