In this short paper, Hamilton defends the power of the president to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and to grant reprieves and pardons. Hamilton argues that the demands of war require a single supreme leader. A distribution of military authority among multiple, supreme executives could lead to disaster.
Although Hamilton considers the advantages that may be had from requiring pardons to receive legislative support, Hamilton ultimately decides that questions of mercy are best decided by a single executive. He implies that if pardons were to be decided by a group of individuals, they may feel less pressure to either grant mercy on humanitarian terms or to uphold justice when the circumstances of the case demand it. Furthermore, the judgment of Congress might be colored by partisanship. He furthermore imagines situations in which it will be essential to the national interest for the president to be able to grant pardons swiftly. For example, in order to “restore the tranquility of the commonwealth,” it may be necessary for the president to grant a pardon to rebel leaders. If this process were delayed by the need to obtain congressional approval, important opportunities might be lost.
The anti-federalists were deeply concerned that the presidential pardon would be misused just as royal pardons were frequently abused in Europe. The first high-profile pardon was issued by President Washington to the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion in return for their renouncement of violent opposition to US law. Therefore this early use of the pardon affirmed Hamilton’s claim that this particular power of the president would at times be essential to restoring peace and public order during times of domestic upheaval.
Since the early days of the republic, the presidential pardon has at times been highly controversial with some claiming that pardons tend to be issued for political reasons rather than concerns about mercy or justice. Today, applications for pardons are made to the office of the pardon attorney, an official of the US Department of Justice.