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Pardon me? Barrack Obama has issued the most what?

November 24, 2016
U.S. President Barack Obama, with daughters Sasha and Malia, pardons 'Apple,' the National Thanksgiving turkey, November 24, 2010.--Pete Souza/White House

U.S. President Obama, with daughters Sasha and Malia,, grants pardon to ‘Apple’, the National Thanksgiving Turkey, in 2010.—Pete Souza/White House

While I was having my restaurant breakfast this morning (November 24), someone sitting one window seat away from me, made a sort of derisive snort and looked up from the newspaper that he was reading. He declared to no one in particular that U.S. President Barrack Obama had granted more pardons than any other president!

I couldn’t say what triggered the outburst (was there an item in the paper about Obama’s pardoning the turkeys Tater and Tot?). And I could only guess that he was getting his facts from some fake Facebook news feed but he was wrong, I was sure of that.

While my eggs grew cold, I searched the Internet and double- and triple-checked the historical record for presidential pardons.

Taking data from an infoplease webpage listing presidential pardons—specifically to show my seatmate—I quickly graphed the number of pardons granted by U.S. presidents since 1789—from numero uno, George Washington—who had the 3rd lowest total, of only 16 pardons—through to the 44th and current U.S. President, Barrack Obama—who was 6th from the bottom with a mere 64 pardons.

All the presidents’ pardons


Chronological chart of pardons issued by all 44 U.S. Presidents.

It turned out that the most prolific presidential pardoner, by far, is Franklin D. Roosevelt (term: 1933-1945); he tops all U.S. presidents with 3,687 pardons issued. FDR’s 3rd-term Vice-President and successor, Harry Truman (term: 1945-1953) is third with 2,044 pardons. And, with 2,480 to his credit, the all-time second-highest issuer of pardons is Woodrow Wilson (term: 1913-1921).

It may be notable to some that the above trio were all Democrats but it’s more notable to me that all three were presidents during and/or immediately after declared wars involving the United States—the Second World War (1939-1945) in the case of FDR and Truman and the First World War (1914-1918) in the case of Wilson.

For whatever reason, the easiest association to make, for the casual observer (and blogger), is between presidential pardons and war.

Wartime seems to be pardon time

The first big spike in presidential pardons is during the administration of fifth U.S. President James Monroe (term: 1817-1825), which began three years after the War of 1812 (1812-1814) between the United States and the United Kingdom.

During this war, which was fought very much on the high seas, the privateers licensed by the U.S. government to harass and wage war against British shipping often behaved little better than pirates and many of Monroe’s 419 pardons were apparently for people convicted of piracy.

Presidential pardons rise again significantly during and after the American Civil War (1861-1865)—to 343 during the administration of Abraham Lincoln (term: 1861 to 1865); 654 under Andrew Johnson (term: 1865 to 1869) and then to a whopping 1,332 during the Reconstruction Era presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (term: 1869 to 1877).

The number of pardons fall back to 893 during the post-Reconstruction presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (term: 1877 to 1881) and then to 0 (goose egg) under his successor James A. Garfield, who was only president for 6 months before he was assassinated on September 19, 1881.

The only other U.S. President to issue no pardons was William H. Harrison, who died of complications from pneumonia on April 4, 1841, after only 32 days in office.

The spike of 1,107 pardons issued by Grover Cleveland (terms: 1885 to 1889, 1893 to 1897) is a bit of an outlier as he had no war during his term (the Spanish-American war of 1898 happened just after Cleveland left office). However, his blanket pardon of polygamous Mormons in 1894 may help explain why he ranks as such a prolific pardoner.

From here on in, presidential pardons do not fall below triple digits, with two notable exceptions in the late 20th century.

The next significant jump after Cleveland, as mentioned earlier, is the 2,180 pardons issued by Woodrow Wilson (term: 1913 to 1921). Wilson was the U.S. President during the First World War (1914-1918).

Following the all-time highest number of presidential pardons, which occurred during and just after the Second World War, the next jump occurs during the Vietnam War-era presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson (term: 1963 to 1969) and Richard Nixon (term: 1969 to 1974): LBJ issued 1,187 pardons and Nixon 926.

The Vice-President in Nixon’s second term and successor as President, Gerald Ford, issued only 409 presidential pardons but the one that he granted to Nixon himself was a biggie.

The most notable thing about presidential pardons in the last 39 years, between 1977 and 2016, is how the numbers are historically low and getting lower.

No U.S. President after Richard Nixon has issued even 600 pardons, let alone over 1,000. George Herbert Walker Bush (term: 1989 to 1993), who waged Gulf War I (1990-1991), handed out a mere 77 pardons.

Not counting the two presidents mentioned earlier who issued no pardons, Bush, Sr. is one of only 5 U.S. Presidents to issue under 100 presidential pardons—the other 4 being George Washington (term: 1789 to 1797)—16, John Adams (term: 1797 to 1801)—21 and Zachary Taylor (term: 1849 to 1850)—38.

Finally, there is the incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama (term: 2009 to 2017) who, with a little over a month to go, has only issued 64 presidential pardons (at least 8 of them to real turkeys).

From → Turkeys

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