On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 18, 1788, George Mason rose from his chair on the floor of the Virginia Ratifying Convention deeply troubled by what he thought of the convention’s failure to understand—the president of the United States might not always be someone of sound character and high intelligence. There would rarely, if ever, he reminded the delegates, be a commander in chief with the courage and rectitude displayed by George Washington during the War of Independence. There might even be a president who would try to change our form of government. The president, argued Mason,“ought not to have the power of pardoning, because he may frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself. It may happen, at some future day, that he will establish a monarchy, and destroy the republic. If he has the power of granting pardons before indictment, or conviction, may he not stop inquiry and prevent detection? The case of treason ought, at least, to be excepted. This is a weighty objection with me.”Some of the most famous men in American history were there that day as delegates to the Virginia convention. Patrick Henry, afraid that a national government would destroy the states, was leading the fight to reject the Constitution. John Marshall, who, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, would do more than anyone to make the Constitution the foundation for the kind of strong national government Henry feared, was one of the leaders in the fight to ratify it. But there was no one—no one in Virginia, nor in the country—with a deeper understanding of the Constitution and what it meant than James Madison.
Madison understood immediately the force of Mason’s objection, but he had a response—a response in which he described limitations on presidential power that, to our great misfortune, have for too long been forgotten. Was there a danger in giving the president the power to pardon? “Yes,” replied Madison, but there was a remedy for the danger in the Constitution as drafted.“There is one security in this case to which gentlemen may not have adverted: if the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty.”
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Sunday, November 5, 2023
Debate on the Pardon Power
DW Buffa at Brookings, 2018: