Lesson Plan: Presidential Pardons

Presidential Pardons and Commutations

Samuel Morison talked about the President's power to issue pardons, the constraints to this power and the process in which people seek pardons.


Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives the President the power to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment. While this power serves as an important check on the other branches of government, the use of this power throughout history has often been controversial. This lesson explores the Constitutional foundations of this power, the restrictions and processes involved with pardons and historic examples of presidents granting pardons and commutations.


  • WARM-UP:

    Have the students answer the following question before beginning class.

    • What powers does the President have?

    Have the students view the following video clips and answer the questions associated with each using the Presidential Pardons Handout. Review the responses with the students to clarify any misconceptions.

    Handout: Presidential Pardons (Google Doc)

    Video Clip: Presidential Pardons and Commutations (3:24)

    • Explain the powers of pardon and commutations.
    • What are the constraints or restrictions to the power of pardon?

    Video Clip: Clemency, Commutations and Pardons (:49)

    • Explain the differences between clemency, commutations and pardons.

    Video Clip: The Role of the Justice Department in the Pardon Process (2:36)

    • What is the process the review and processing pardons in the Department of Justice?
    • Explain the potential political problems with granting pardons.

    Video Clip: How Specific do Pardons Have to be? (1:05)

    • How specific do pardons have to be? What are limitations to this power?

    Video Clip: Constitutional Foundations of the Power of Pardon (:55)

    • How is the power of pardon an example of separation of powers and checks and balances?

    Video Clip: The Number of Presidential Pardons in History (1:56)

    • How have the number of pardons changed in the last 30 years?
    • Why have the number of pardons changed recently? According to Professor Crouch, what are ways to fix this?

    Using the Presidential Pardon Handout, have the students view each of the videos about examples of presidential pardons and complete the chart. Students will summarize the offense, explain the reasoning for the pardon and give their opinion about the decision. After students have completed this, have the students share their responses and opinions with the class.

    Video Clip: President Andrew Johnson's Pardons of Former Confederates (1:35)

    Video Clip: 1976 Election: Ford's Pardon of Nixon (2:30)

    Video Clip: President Carter and the Presidential Pardon Power (1:30)

    Video Clip: Obama's Clemency Initiative (1:38)

    Video Clip: Representative Steve King on President Trump's Pardon of Joe Arpaio (1:47)


    Using the evidence from the video clips, have the students debate or provide a written response to the following writing prompt.

    • Should the president's power to pardon be limited? Explain your answer.

    Historical Examples- Research additional examples of presidential pardons and commutations. Summarize these examples and evaluate whether you feel they were an appropriate use of the power to pardon.

    Can the president pardon himself?- View the following clip about the president's power to pardon himself. Give your opinion on if the president should have the power to pardon himself.

    Video Clip: The President's Power to Pardon Himself (2:16)

    Additional Writing Prompts-

    • What are benefits and disadvantages of presidents having the power to pardon?
    • In your opinion, are there be any crimes that should not be pardonable? Why or why not?
    • Should the legislative branch have the power to pardon also?
    • Should the president's power to pardon be extended to state crimes?

Additional Resources


  • Checks And Balances
  • Clemency
  • Commutations
  • Constitution
  • Crime
  • Pardons
  • President
  • Separation Of Powers


Constitutional FoundationExecutive Branch


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