When the first American Constitution was written in 1781, the Articles of the Confederation were included to disseminate federal power and avert mirroring the British monarchy. The laws were changed in 1787 when the Constitutional Convention finalized their decisions in giving the federal government and the president additional powers.

One of the debated mandates during the convention was the section where it gives the president power for to grant pardons. Similar to the British monarchy’s “royal prerogative of mercy,” the elected US president was given the right to grant absolution to offending criminals.

1st Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s influence on the draft


The Federalist leaders and founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton strongly influenced the constitutional convention in the inclusion of the presidential pardon. He and several other political leaders wanted to instill a strong and central executive power. They argued that it could provide justice when punishment was to “wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel,” as he argued.

President Abraham Lincoln was the first president to flex this power when he pardoned all low-ranking soldiers  of the Confederate soldiers of the Confederacy, opting instead to prosecute the highest-level officials after the Civil War.

How the President’s pardon powers work

A federally convicted criminal who wants to be pardoned for his criminal offense can do so by sending a request to the president’s assisting agency, the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. The request usually stands for around five years after the court has released its decision or the criminal has been released from prison.

The pardon office will make a recommendation regarding the case and whether clemency is warranted. Several factors determine the decision, including the person’s behavior during detainment and his acceptance and responsibility over the crime, or new evidence that wasn’t available during the time of the trial and conviction.