Presidents have granted a pardon for various offenses since the dawn of the Republic. With few exceptions, the country has been well served by the exercise of the power. President George Washington initiated the use of the pardon authority in 1795 when he issued a proclamation of amnesty to participants in the Whiskey Rebellion. Since then, pirates who have assisted United States military causes, participants in insurrections, deserters, federal officials and polygamists, among others, have received clemency. An occasional pardon—to Jefferson Davis and the Confederate soldiers, or to Richard M. Nixon, or to Vietnam War draft evaders, for example—has excited intense controversy and heightened public interest in the power; but a great many pardons have been issued without fanfare to federal prisoners who have reached the late stages of their lives and are near death. The frequency and volume of pardons granted, moreover, are perhaps greater than most Americans would suppose. During the Civil War and its aftermath, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson issued amnesties to some 200,000 persons. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt exercised the power to restore the civil rights of about 1,500 persons who had completed prison terms for violating the draft or for espionage acts during World War I, and in 1945 he restored citizenship rights to several thousand former convicts who had served at least one year in the military and subsequently had earned an honorable discharge. In 1946, President Harry S. Truman granted pardons to more than 1,500 people who had been sentenced to prison for violating the Secret Service Act, and on Christmas Day, 1952, he restored civil rights to 9,000 people who had been convicted of desertion during peacetime. In addition to the more than 10,000 beneficiaries of the Viet Nam War clemency and amnesty programs of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, some 4,600 pardons and 500 commutations were granted between 1953 and 1984 by Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Reagan issued about 380 pardons during his eight years in the White House.
Until the Civil War, the exercise of the pardoning authority had not provoked controversy or question. But the stresses or that war, the vindictive mood of many Northerners, and the desire for retribution among some in Congress raised concerns about the use of the power. Some members of Congress objected to the inconsistent consideration of requests for pardons and to the preferential treatment accorded Kentuckians; the influence peddling of pardon brokers; and the insincerity of the recipients, who were required to take a loyalty oath to the Union. Congress even undertook an examination of Johnson’s bank account pursuant to allegations that he had been bribed to issue pardons. To some Americans, it seemed that the administration of the pardon power was as arbitrary as it had been in England.