9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History

Stephanie Schoppert - September 26, 2017

Presidential pardons have been a part of American history since the days of George Washington. He granted amnesty to the people who participated in the Whiskey Rebellion in 1795. This pardon came 70 years after the event occurred but it was done for a political purpose. Pardons have been done over the years for mostly political means. Andrew Johnson pardoned the soldiers who fought in the Confederate Army as a way to help the country move forward and come back together. There were similar reasons given for the pardon of Richard Nixon as will be addressed later.

Pardons are absolute and they are a power of the presidency that cannot be overturned by Congress or the courts. It seems like a power that oversteps the bounds of the President but it was created with a very specific purpose, and it was that purpose that George Washington first used it. The idea was that a presidential pardon would be able to restore peace after the insurrection. This was why early presidents used the power of the pardon, but modern presidents have used the pardon to repay favors or to curry political capital with their target base. Here are just a few of the shocking presidential pardons over the years that may or may not have been done in order to restore tranquility to the commonwealth.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
President Andrew Jackson. Biography

George Wilson

George Wilson comes early on the list not necessarily because his pardon was shocking but because of what happened after he was granted a pardon. In 1892, George Wilson and James Porter robbed a U.S. mail carrier. They were later arrested and tried. Both men were found guilty on six charges including “putting the life of the driver in jeopardy” and robbery of the mail. The men were sentenced to death by hanging which was scheduled for July 2nd, 1830.

Wilson, unlike his partner in crime, had some very powerful friends in Washington. These friends beseeched then President Andrew Jackson to pardon George Wilson of his crimes or least the death sentence. With many requests coming to him, Andrew Jackson decided to give George leniency. In 1830, Andrew Jackson pardoned Wilson for the crimes that led to his death sentence but let the rest stand. George Wilson would live but he would have to spend twenty years in jail to pay for the crimes he was not pardoned from.

On the surface, this seems like a good day for George Wilson, but then he did something that no one expected. He refused the pardon. This was unheard of and no one knew what to do about it. Andrew Jackson felt that George Wilson had no choice but to take the pardon and Wilson argued that the pardon had no value if he did not accept it. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Justices weighed the arguments and decided that a pardon was a piece of property just like anything else.

They ruled that Wilson could not be forced to take the pardon and if Wilson did not accept the pardon then it did not have any value. Therefore, Wilson’s original conviction stayed and his death sentence was carried out. George Wilson was hanged for his crimes just like his accomplice and the efforts of his friends and President Jackson failed. There is no clear explanation for why Wilson preferred to be hanged rather than spend 20 years in prison but he is not the only person to reject presidential leniency. Arnold Ray Jones refused to have his sentence commuted by President Obama in 2016 because it came with the condition of enrolling in a residential drug treatment program.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
Richard Nixon whittiermuseum.org

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon is one of the most well-known pardons in American history. It was one that people either agreed with or were completely against, there was very little in-between and it affected the political culture of the country until the next election. Gerald Ford was put in a tough position in which his friend and the former president was facing punishment for crimes against the country and a trial that could threaten the stability of the country. A trial in which an American president was shown to be a criminal could have lasting repercussions in and out of the United States.

Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974 and when Gerald Ford took the presidency one of his first decisions was what to do with Nixon. He knew that a pardon would be largely unpopular but still felt that it was the right thing to do. He contacted Nixon who was initially unsure of whether or not to accept the pardon and he refused to sign a statement of contrition. Nixon still felt that he had not done anything wrong and therefore did not want to sign anything that stated he was guilty. Ford agreed with Nixon and on September 8, 1974, he issued a full pardon which removed any possibility of indictment.

The pardon drew scrutiny and even led to Gerald Ford being called to testify before the House of Representatives. Many believed that a corrupt bargain had been struck in which Nixon agreed to resign so that Ford could take the presidency in return for a full pardon. This was denied by Ford and Nixon but the rumors continued and Ford’s approval rating never recovered. Ford would later admit that the pardon was a major reason why he lost the election in 1976.

Gerald Ford would always be haunted by the outcome of the pardon. He would carry around a portion of the text of Burdick v. the United States in his wallet. The case was a Supreme Court decision which suggested that pardon carried an “imputation of guilt” and that accepting a pardon was the same as admitting guilt. By Nixon accepting the pardon, he was, in some small way, admitting his guilt to the crimes that he was likely to be incriminated for. Gerald Ford would later get the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for issuing the pardon. Ted Kennedy admitted that he was against the pardon when it happened but later stated that it was the right move.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
Junior Johnson. nascar.com

Junior Johnson

Junior Johnson is known by most for his career in NASCAR. He was a successful driver who was nicknamed “The Last American Hero.” He won 50 races during his career as a driver and he retired in 1966. He next went on to be a NASCAR team owner with racing legends like Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. He now owns a line of fried pork skins and country ham. In 2007, he returned to his family roots and began working with Piedmont Distillers of Madison, North Carolina to introduce their Midnight Moon Moonshine.

It is his last venture that points to the reason for his pardon. He was born in Wilkes County, North Carolina to the Johnson family of moonshiners. His father was a life-long bootlegger and spent twenty years in prison for his crimes. The Johnsons were so well known for their moonshine that their home was constantly raided by revenue agents. His family was even part of the largest alcohol raid in United States history with 400 gallons of moonshine being removed from the house.

Junior Johnson was part of the family business. It was his role that landed him a future in NASCAR. He would take to the highway in a souped-up car that would be filled with the family’s moonshine. Johnson was known to be a natural on the road and there was never a revenue agent that could catch him once he hit the highway. It was a point of pride with him that he was never caught while behind the wheel. He would eventually get caught during a revenue raid at his father’s home when his father sent him to the still to light a fire.

Johnson spent a year in prison and lived the rest of his successful life with a felony charge. It was on December 26, 1985 that he was granted a full pardon by President Ronald Reagan. The pardon did not erase the conviction or suggest that Johnson was innocent. Rather the pardon restored the civil rights that had been taken from Junior Johnson when he received the felony charge. Johnson was amazed by the pardon and said that he could not imagine anything better.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
Samuel Mudd. floridamemory.com

Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, and Samuel Arnold

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was one of the most devastating moments in American Presidential history. To this day the death of the beloved president is remembered as an American tragedy. Therefore, it was pretty shocking when several people who were convicted of conspiring against the president were pardoned by Andrew Johnson in 1869. The three men were all believed to be directly involved in the assassination of President Lincoln but it was due to the efforts of Dr. Mudd’s wife, John Ford (Spangler’s former boss) and attorney Thomas Ewing Jr. that President Johnson agreed to the pardon.

Samuel Mudd was a noted doctor and farmer in southern Maryland. He was home with his wife and four young children when John Wilkes Booth came to his home. The man was on the run with a broken leg after having just shot a bullet through President Lincoln’s head. Dr. Mudd knew only that a wounded man was on his doorstep and proceeded to set the leg and care for the man. Mudd was arrested and though he proclaimed his innocence in the matter, it was proven at his trial that he had been in contact with Booth at least once before the assassination. With that Mudd’s fate was sealed and he was given a life sentence in federal prison.

Samuel Bland Arnold was not directly involved in the assassination attempt but he did plot to kidnap the President. In 1865, he conspired with John Wilkes Booth, David Herold, Lewis Powell, Michael O’Laughlen and John Surratt. The plan was to kidnap the President and force him to release Confederate prisoners. There were two attempts and both failed. Arnold left the conspiracy group when a prisoner-exchange program started and there was no need to force the President to release Confederate prisoners. After President Lincoln’s assassination, he was arrested and tried for being complicit in the murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Edmund Spangler was as a carpenter and scene shifter at Ford’s Theater when he became acquainted with John Wilkes Booth. He was dazzled by Booth’s fame and was eager to do whatever the actor asked of him. On the night of the assassination, Booth asked Spangler to hold his horse. Spangler was busy and asked another employee Joseph Burroughs to hold the horse for him. After the assassination, there was commotion backstage and a man who worked at the theater, Jake Rittersbach attempted to chase Booth. Spangler hit him in the face and told him not to say which was Booth had gone. He was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
Brigham Young. Wikimedia

Brigham Young

Brigham Young is most known for being the second President of the LDS Church. He was a renowned church leader and is sometimes referred to as the American Moses. He led thousands of religious refugees across the Western frontier of the United States in order to create new religious settlements. He and his followers traversed harsh lands and found areas that were suitable for cultivation in order to create his settlements. His first group of refugees came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and after traveling 1,300 miles they set to work turning the arid wasteland into a hub for religious refugees.

He personally supervised the trek of more than 60,000 pioneers and founded hundreds of settlements. He was known to travel to his settlements often. Young’s Mormon colonies were then incorporated into the United States as part of the Mexican Cession. Young tried to have Congress create the State of Deseret for him and his followers as their settlements were scattered about. The Compromise of 1850 created the Utah Territory and Young was put in place as governor.

Young’s position as governor and religious leader of Utah was enough to keep him satisfied but it became clear that he was running his territory more like an autocratic leader. President Buchanan received word that there was widespread obstruction of federal officials in Utah. Believing that Young was getting too powerful and was not loyal to the Union he decided it would be best to replace Brigham Young with a more secular governor. President Buchanan sent federal troops to escort the new governor to Utah but Young was not willing to go quietly. He called out his own militia and rallied them to ambush the federal forces.

The militia force managed to hold off the federal troops for an entire winter. The Mormons would burn wagons and kill cattle in order to keep the federal troops from being supplied. Young even planned to burn Salt Lake City and bring his followers to Mexico. In 1857, Mormons killed 100 civilians in a California-bound wagon train. Some of them claimed that they did so under Young’s orders. The confrontation between Young and federal troops continued until he agreed to step down as part of a compromise. As part of the agreement Young and his followers were given full pardons by President Buchanan.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
Anti-Vietnam War Protest. wearethemighty.com

Draft Dodgers

Donald Trump was far from the first president to issue a pardon early on in their presidency. Jimmy Carter on his first day in office issued hundreds of thousands of pardons. The Democratic candidate ran his campaign for president with the promise that he would pardon anyone that had dodged the draft for the Vietnam War. It was a risky move but it worked out as Jimmy Carter was elected president.

When the draft for the Vietnam war was issued many men refused to serve. Many were afraid because of the stories they had heard from the war and some did not believe in the war. So they ignored their draft notices or left the country in order to get out of being forced to serve in the military. It was estimated that about 100,000 Americans left the United States between the late 1960s and early 1970s. About 90% of them were accepted into Canada as legal immigrants.

The United States government went to great effort during and after the war to prosecute draft dodgers. Over 209,000 men were accused of violating draft laws and other 360,000 were not formally charged. With so many men and their families concerned over the fate of draft dodgers, they were happy to vote for Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was happy to fulfill his campaign promise on his first day in office. Carter was not the first person to show mercy on the draft dodgers. President Gerald Ford offered conditional amnesty to draft dodgers and military deserters. Any man seeking amnesty was required to reaffirm his allegiance to the United States and serve two years in public service.

While many were for the action there were others who were angry at the mercy being offered the draft dodgers. Many veterans groups protested the move believing that those men had betrayed their country by refusing to serve. There were some restrictions to the pardon as those who had deserted the military were not eligible for the pardon. The pardon also did not apply to those who had engaged in violent protests against the war effort.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
Patty Hearst after her arrest. www.fbi.gov

Patty Hearst

Patty Hearst was the woman of 1974. She was all over every paper and no one could get enough of the tragic story of the American Heiress. Patty Hearst is the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst and she was just 19 years old when she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. The world waited to see if the young heiress would be rescued but then the story took a strange turn. It was soon after that Patty Hearst herself announced that she had joined the SLA and began working within their criminal operation.

She began robbing banks and extorting money for the group, including about $2 million from her own father. In 1975, she was captured by the FBI. She had spent more than 19 months with the SLA and was party to numerous crimes. Her family insisted that she had been beaten and brainwashed by the organization and therefore she should not be held liable for her actions. Hearst would later say that she had been kept blindfolded in a closet for weeks and threatened with death. Eventually, she was given the choice to die or join them, so she accommodated her thoughts to coincide with theirs.

The efforts of her family and her own testimony about being forced or threatened to join the SLA were not enough to save her at trial. Hearst stated that her captors had told her that she had to look enthusiastic during her robberies or she would be killed. There was also evidence that she had suffered brain damage at the hands of her captors and that she was now drinking and smoking heavily. She was convicted of bank robbery and using a firearm during a felony. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison but at her final sentence hearing, it was reduced to seven years.

President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence to 22 months and she was released 8 months before she would have had her first parole hearing. She was put under stringent conditions and put on probation. President Ronald Regan later gave consideration to giving Hearst a full pardon but never did so. It was President Bill Clinton in 2001 who pardoned Patty Hearst on his very last day in office. After her release from prison Patty Hearst married and had two children, she became active with several charities and was involved with a foundation that helped children with AIDS.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
Marc Rich. nypost.com

Marc Rich

Marc Rich was perhaps one of the most scandalous pardons in recent history. Marc Rich was known for being a successful businessman through mostly unscrupulous means. He made billions dealing oil with countries that were embargoed by the U.S. He was known to trade with Iran, Libya, Cuba, and apartheid South Africa and with rebels that were known for violence. He also made sure that he never paid taxes on his ill-gotten gains by concealing his assets from the IRS.

It was in 1983 that the hammer came down on the billionaire. He faced charges of tax evasion, wire fraud, trading with the enemy, and racketeering. The charges were more than enough to put him in prison for the rest of his life. So he did what any other wealthy man would do, he fled the country. He found himself a mansion in Switzerland and there he remained at large from the FBI for nearly 20 years. Even though he was able to avoid arrest and extradition to the U.S., he still wanted to make the charges against him go away. To that end, he started paying off any politician he could find.

He gave money not only to American politicians but also to a number of Israeli causes. He hoped that officials in Israel would petition the United States on his behalf. It was not until 2000 when Rich’s money reached Eric Holder that he started to see a return on his investments. Eric Holder was the deputy attorney general and he was in charge of advising the president on the merits of various petitions for pardons. Eric Holder hoped that cooperating with Rich (whose lawyer had ties to presidential candidate Al Gore) would pay off later on, perhaps with a promotion to attorney general.

The problem was that Eric Holder knew that the justice department would never sign off on a pardon for an active fugitive who had been using his money to evade justice. So Holder brought the pardon directly to President Clinton himself and advised the President to sign it. On the last day of his presidency, President Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich. It was a move that had many believing the president had been paid off (Marc Rich had donated $450,000 to the presidential library) and both Democrats and Republicans saw it as an abuse of power. Bill Clinton later admitted it was a bad pardon and was not worth the permanent damage to his reputation.

9 Controversial Pardons Issued by POTUS Throughout History
Peter Yarrow. drmichaelwayne.com

Peter Yarrow

Peter Yarrow is best known for being part of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. The group was very popular during the 60s and one of their most well-known songs is “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Peter Yarrow actually co-wrote that song with Leonard Lipton. He continued to write a number of hits for the group and their fame grew as some of their songs became anthems for the growing civil rights movement of the time. He even turned “Puff the Magic Dragon” into three CBS television specials.

Aside from his music he is an activist for a number of social and political causes. He coordinated a number of events as part of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the folk trio performed on stage during the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King. He started Operation Respect in 2000 in order to combat bullying in schools. He has worked with a number of politicians on different causes including performing for volunteers for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

However, his choices were not always the best. In 1970, he was convicted of taking “improper liberties” with a 14-year-old girl. The young girl had come up to his hotel room with her older sister in order to ask for an autograph. He answered the door naked and made sexual advances toward the girl, stopping just short of intercourse. Peter Yarrow later admitted that what he did was wrong but that it was an “era of real indiscretion and mistakes by male performers. I was one of them. I got nailed. I was wrong. I am sorry for it.” He served three months in prison for the crime and learned his lesson.

In 1981, President Jimmy Carter bestowed a pardon on Yarrow for the crime. However, the incident continues to haunt the performer. In 2004, Peter Yarrow was set to appear at a fundraiser for a Democratic Representative but his appearance was canceled when an ad campaign run by the Republican candidate exposed Yarrow’s past crime. The pardon was somewhat controversial in that Yarrow’s apology was not quite accepted by some but still, numerous organizations have since recognized him for his contribution to social issues.


Sources For Further Reading:

White House History – The History of the Pardon Power

Smithsonian Magazine – A Brief History of 10 Essential Presidential Pardons

Mental Floss – Can a Person Refuse a Presidential Pardon?

Washington Post – Five Myths About Presidential Pardons

National Geographic Channel – The Contentious History of U.S. Presidential Pardons

NYTimes – Presidential Pardons Through History

ThoughtCo – Number of Pardons by President

USA News – A History of Presidential Pardons

Smithsonian Magazine – The Pardon

History Channel – President Ford Explains His Pardon of Nixon To Congress

Time Magazine – Michael Cohen Would ‘Under No Circumstances’ Accept a Pardon from Trump

USA Today – Obama Grants Clemency to Inmate — But Inmate Refuses

The Conversation – How the Mormon Church’s Past Shapes Its Position on Immigration Today

Hoodline – The Wayback Machine: When Patty Hearst Robbed a Sunset Bank

ABC News – Clinton Pardon Finds Controversy in N.Y.

Fox News – Peter Yarrow’s Presidential Pardon Masked ‘Indecent Liberties’ Conviction, Victim Says Amid Sex Abuse Lawsuit