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Opinion: The Truth About Pardons

The power of a president to pardon people for crimes has always been controversial. Some early American leaders thought it smacked too much of royalty.

But Alexander Hamilton argued the law should have avenues for mercy, or "justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel." He thought one person was more likely to use such power with conscience than a committee.

The history of presidential pardons is often surprising. George Washington pardoned two men who led the Whiskey Rebellion. He didn't condone a tax collector being tarred and feathered but thought the men responsible should not be hanged for treason.

President Millard Fillmore pardoned the two white captains of The Pearl, a schooner that tried to help 77 enslaved people escape to freedom. But most of the Black people on the ship were sold back into slavery. President Abraham Lincoln pardoned 265 members of the Dakota Tribe for their roles in the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862. But he allowed dozens more to be hanged, after what historians agree were unconvincing trials. On Christmas Day of 1868, President Andrew Johnson offered pardons to everyone who fought for the Confederacy.

President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974, for any crimes he might have committed as president— a decision that may have cost Ford reelection but is now widely praised for helping the country move on from Watergate. President Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam-era draft evaders in 1977 and commuted the sentences of Puerto Rican nationalists who had opened fire on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives 25 years earlier, wounding five members of Congress.

President Bill Clinton pardoned 140 people on his last day in office, including his brother, Roger, who served a year for cocaine trafficking, and Marc Rich, a financier who had fled the country to avoid tax-evasion charges and whose wife made generous contributions to the Democratic Party and the Clinton Library fund.

President Trump has pardoned Alice Marie Johnson, who served 21 years of a lifetime sentence for being an intermediary in a drug trafficking operation. He also pardoned three ex-service members accused of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his onetime national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who admitted he lied to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. It's sheer speculation as to what other pardons Trump might issue as he leaves office. But a president's personal power to pardon can change lives — and reveal what they value.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.