The American president has the ability to circumvent the justice system by issuing official pardons to anyone of his choosing. Unlike most executive powers, the authority to grant clemency is unchecked by Congress and cannot be reviewed, blocked or overturned. This lack of oversight has made the pardon one of the most controversial presidential powers, but in some instances the act of pardoning has helped ease tensions, heal political wounds and even right historic wrongs. Below, check out seven famous pardon recipients who run the gamut of American history.
The first ever act of presidential forgiveness came in the wake of an armed rebellion. Fed up with a costly federal tax on distilled spirits, in 1794 a group of whiskey-producing Pennsylvania farmers took to the streets and burned the home of a local tax inspector. The attack came on the heels of several other protests and many politicians—most notably Secretary Alexander Hamilton—argued that it threatened the stability of the newly formed United States.
Faced with the possibility of a widespread uprising, President George Washington reluctantly marched a 13,000-strong militia into western Pennsylvania to quell the rebellion. Some 20 members of the mob were arrested, and two were convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging. Desperate to avoid further discontent, Washington chose to pardon both men in July 1795.
Brigham Young founded Salt Lake City and served as an early leader of the Mormon Church, but he also ran afoul of federal law for his renegade behavior on the western frontier. Young led the Latter-day Saints to Utah in the 1840s, and later served as the territory’s first governor. But while he was an excellent organizer and administrator, he was also autocratic and resistant to federal intervention. Worried that Young and the Mormons would turn Utah into a theocracy, in 1857 President James Buchanan dispatched an army expedition to retake control of the territory.
In what became known as the Utah War, Young’s followers participated in a year-long standoff with the U.S. Army. The affair was largely bloodless, but it was blighted by a September 1857 incident in which a group of Mormons killed over 100 civilian members of a California-bound wagon train. Despite this massacre—which some claimed came on Young’s orders—Young and his followers later received a full pardon from President James Buchanan as part of a peace compromise with the federal government.
In 1868, all former Confederate soldiers received a presidential pardon, but it took another 18 years before U.S. General Fitz John Porter was exonerated for his role in the Civil War. A career soldier, Porter was disgraced by his loss at 1862’s Second Battle of Bull Run. During the engagement, he was slow to react to contradictory orders from Major General John Pope, and was then forced into an ill-planned attack that resulted in devastating losses to his corps. Blamed for the Union defeat, Porter was court-martialed and then summarily dismissed from the army after a controversial public trial.
Porter believed he had been made into a scapegoat, and he spent most of the next two decades fighting to clear his name. Vindication finally came in 1879, when an official review concluded that Porter was not only innocent of any wrongdoing at Second Bull Run, but had likely prevented the defeat from being even more severe. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur commuted his sentence and restored him to the military, and President Grover Cleveland later followed up with a full pardon.
Socialist politician Eugene Debs garnered nearly 1 million votes in the 1920 presidential election, even though he conducted his campaign from the inside of a jail cell. The famed labor organizer and pacifist had been arrested in 1918 after he gave a speech questioning U.S. involvement in World War I and encouraging resistance to the military draft. Charged with sedition and violation of the Espionage Act, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and disenfranchised for life.
Debs spent the rest of World War I in jail, where he famously made his fifth and final bid for the White House. After over two years behind bars, Debs was finally freed in 1921 on the orders of President Warren G. Harding. While Harding commuted Debs’ prison sentence to time served, he also considered the elderly politician guilty of his crime and refused to issue a full pardon. Debs died in 1926, but his citizenship was later posthumously restored by a 1976 act of Congress.
One of the 20th century’s most famous labor leaders, James R. Hoffa was also the recipient of a particularly controversial presidential pardon. As president of the influential Teamster union, Hoffa scored several key victories for workers including securing a national trucking contract in 1964. That same year, after a series of government investigations in to the practices of the Teamster Union, Hoffa was convicted in two separate trials that saw him sentenced to eight years for jury tampering (he reportedly attempted to bribe a grand juror in an earlier legal case) and five years for mail fraud and his improper use of Teamster fund.
Hoffa entered jail in 1967, but only served a few years before President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence. The offer of clemency came with the condition that Hoffa would no longer participate in Teamsters activities, but critics argued it also involved a backroom deal that the union would support Nixon’s reelection campaign. Whatever its circumstances, Hoffa’s pardon was eventually overshadowed by his 1974 disappearance from the parking lot of a Detroit restaurant. Hoffa’s body has never been recovered; it is widely believed he was the target of a Mafia assassination.
Richard Nixon famously resigned from office in August 1974 amid accusations of malfeasance related to the Watergate scandal. But while there was a possibility that Nixon could have been prosecuted and even jailed, he was granted a full pardon by new President Gerald Ford only weeks after stepping down. Ford’s offer of clemency came before Nixon had officially been charged with any misdeeds, and covered all federal crimes the former president had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” during his terms in office.
At the time, many agreed that Ford’s pardon was necessary to help the nation move forward from an era of scandal and abuse of power, but others argued it had only served to stymie a much-needed investigation into presidential corruption. Pardoning Nixon would ultimately go down as one of the most controversial acts of Ford’s presidency, and may have even contributed to his defeat in his 1976 bid for reelection.
In 1974, the granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped and held for ransom by a radical guerilla group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. While the 19-year-old heiress began her ordeal as a hostage, she soon shocked the world by announcing that she had voluntarily joined the ranks of her captors. Taking the name “Tania,” she went on to wield a rifle during an SLA bank heist only days later.
The unlikely revolutionary eventually spent more than a year on the run before being captured in an FBI dragnet in September 1975. Hearst’s attorneys argued she had been brainwashed and abused during her captivity, but this was not enough to avoid a seven-year prison sentence for bank robbery. President Jimmy Carter judged the punishment too harsh, and commuted Hearst’s prison sentence after she had served only 22 months behind bars. At Carter’s urging, President Bill Clinton later issued her a full pardon in 2001.