Why was this power created?
The Constitution’s Article II, Section 2 gives presidents the power to grant pardons “for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” Pardons can free people convicted of crimes from jail terms, formally forgive them without expunging their criminal records, and restore certain rights—to vote, or bear arms, for example. The Founders saw presidential pardons as a last resort for people wronged by the courts. Otherwise, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers. Still, the “principal argument” for the power, he said, was to restore “tranquility” in case of armed resurrection—which motivated George Washington in granting the first pardon (see box) and Abraham Lincoln’s decision to pardon Confederate soldiers and all but the highest Confederate officials. When President Trump tweeted he had “complete power to pardon,” he wasn’t far off—chief executives have almost unlimited latitude to put aside convictions (but only of federal crimes), and they haven’t been shy about using it. “For most of American history,” says political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr., “presidents pardoned frequently, early, and often.”
Nixon: A controversial pardon