Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1

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Document 17

William Blackstone, Commentaries 4:397--402


This is indeed one of the great advantages of monarchy in general, above any other form of government; that there is a magistrate, who has it in his power to extend mercy, wherever he thinks it is deserved: holding a court of equity in his own breast, to soften the rigour of the general law, in such criminal cases as merit an exemption from punishment. Pardons (according to some theorists) should be excluded in a perfect legislation, where punishments are mild but certain: for that the clemency of the prince seems a tacit disapprobation of the laws. But the exclusion of pardons must necessarily introduce a very dangerous power in the judge or jury, that of construing the criminal law by the spirit instead of the letter; or else it must be holden, what no man will seriously avow, that the situation and circumstances of the offender (though they alter not the essence of the crime) ought to make no distinction in the punishment. In democracies, however, this power of pardon can never subsist; for there nothing higher is acknowleged than the magistrate who administers the laws: and it would be impolitic for the power of judging and of pardoning to center in one and the same person. This (as the president Montesquieu observes) would oblige him very often to contradict himself, to make and to unmake his decisions: it would tend to confound all ideas of right among the mass of the people; as they would find it difficult [Volume 4, Page 15] to tell, whether a prisoner were discharged by his innocence, or obtained a pardon through favour. In Holland therefore, if there be no stadtholder, there is no power of pardoning lodged in any other member of the state. But in monarchies the king acts in a superior sphere; and, though he regulates the whole government as the first mover, yet he does not appear in any of the disagreeable or invidious parts of it. Whenever the nation see him personally engaged, it is only in works of legislature, magnificence, or compassion. To him therefore the people look up as the fountain of nothing but bounty and grace; and these repeated acts of goodness, coming immediately from his own hand, endear the sovereign to his subjects, and contribute more than any thing to root in their hearts that filial affection, and personal loyalty, which are the sure establishment of a prince.

Under this head, of pardons, let us briefly consider, 1. The object of pardon: 2. The manner of pardoning: 3. The method of allowing a pardon: 4. The effect of such pardon, when allowed.

1. And, first, the king may pardon all offences merely against the crown, or the public; excepting, 1. That, to preserve the liberty of the subject, the committing any man to prison out of the realm, is by the habeas corpus act, 31 Car. II. c. 2. made a praemunire, unpardonable even by the king. Nor, 2. Can the king pardon, where private justice is principally concerned in the prosecution of offenders: "non potest rex gratiam facere cum injuria et damno aliorum." Therefore in appeals of all kinds (which are the suit, not of the king, but of the party injured) the prosecutor may release, but the king cannot pardon. Neither can he pardon a common nuisance, while it remains unredressed, or so as to prevent an abatement of it; though afterwards he may remit the fine: because, though the prosecution is vested in the king to avoid multiplicity of suits, yet (during it's continuance) this offence favours more of the nature of a private injury to each individual in the neighbourhood, than of a public wrong. Neither, lastly, can the king pardon an offence against a popular or penal statute, after information brought: for thereby the informer hath acquired a private property in his part of the penalty.

There is also a restriction of a peculiar nature, that affects the prerogative of pardoning, in case of parliamentary impeachments; viz. that the king's pardon cannot be pleaded to any such impeachment, so as to impede the inquiry, and stop the prosecution of great and notorious offenders. Therefore when, in the reign of Charles the second, the earl of Danby was impeached by the house of commons of high treason and other misdemesnors, and pleaded the king's pardon in bar of the same, the commons alleged, "that there was no precedent, that ever any pardon was granted to any person impeached by the commons of high treason, or other high crimes, depending the impeachment;" and therefore resolved, "that the pardon so pleaded was illegal and void, and ought not to be allowed in bar of the impeachment of the commons of England:" for which resolution they assigned this reason to the house of lords, "that the setting up a pardon to be a bar of an impeachment defeats the whole use and effect of impeachments: for should this point be admitted, or stand doubted, it would totally discourage the exhibiting any for the future; whereby the chief institution for the preservation of the government would be destroyed." Soon after the revolution, the commons renewed the same claim, and voted, "that a pardon is not pleadable in bar of an impeachment." And, at length, it was enacted by the act of settlement, 12 & 13 W. III. c. 2. "that no pardon under the great seal of England shall be pleadable to an impeachment by the commons in parliament." But, after the impeachment has been solemnly heard and determined, it is not understood that the king's royal grace is farther restrained or abridged: for, after the impeachment and attainder of the six rebel lords in 1715, three of them were from time to time reprieved by the crown, and at length received the benefit of the king's most gracious pardon.

2. As to the manner of pardoning: it is a general rule, that, wherever it may reasonably be presumed the king is deceived, the pardon is void. Therefore any suppression of truth, or suggestion of falshood, in a charter of pardon, will vitiate the whole; for the king was misinformed. General words have also a very imperfect effect in pardons. A pardon of all felonies will not pardon a conviction or attainder of felony; (for it is presumed the king knew not of those proceedings) but the conviction or attainder must be particularly mentioned: and a pardon of felonies will not include piracy; for that is no felony punishable at the common law. It is also enacted by statute 13 Ric. II. st. 2. c. 1. that no pardon for treason, murder, or rape, shall be allowed, unless the offence be particularly specified therein; and particularly in murder it shall be expressed, whether it was committed by lying in wait, assault, or malice prepense. Upon which sir Edward Coke observes, that it was not the intention of the parliament that the king should ever pardon murder under these aggravations; and therefore they prudently laid the pardon under these restrictions, because they did not conceive it possible that the king would ever excuse an offence by name, which was attended with such high aggravations. And it is remarkable enough, that there is no precedent of a pardon in the register for any other homicide, than that which happens se defendendo or per infortunium: to which two species the king's pardon was expressly confined by the statutes 2 Edw. III. c. 2. and 14 Edw. III. c. 15. which declare that no pardon of homicide shall be granted, but only where the king may do it by the oath of his crown; that is to say, where a man slayeth another in his own defence, or by misfortune. But the statute of Richard the second, before-mentioned, enlarges by implication the royal power; provided the king is not deceived in the intended object of his mercy. And therefore pardons of murder were always granted with a non obstante of the statute of King Richard, till the time of the revolution; when, the doctrine of non obstante's ceasing, it was doubted whether murder could be pardoned generally: but it was determined by the court of king's bench, that the king may pardon on an indictment of murder, as well as a subject may discharge an appeal. Under these and a few other restrictions, it is a general rule, that a pardon shall be taken most beneficially for the subject, and most strongly against the king.

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A pardon may also be conditional: that is, the king may extend his mercy upon what terms he pleases; and may annex to his bounty a condition either precedent or subsequent, on the performance whereof the validity of the pardon will depend: and this by the common law. Which prerogative is daily exerted in the pardon of felons, on condition of transportation to some foreign country (usually to some of his majesty's colonies and plantations in America) for life, or for a term of years; such transportation or banishment being allowable and warranted by the habeas corpus act, 31 Car. II. c. 2. §. 14. and rendered more easy and effectual by statute 8 Geo. III. c. 15.

3. With regard to the manner of allowing pardons; we may observe, that a pardon by act of parliament is more beneficial than by the king's charter: for a man is not bound to plead it, but the court must ex officio take notice of it; neither can he lose the benefit of it by his own laches or negligence, as he may of the king's charter of pardon. The king's charter of pardon must be specially pleaded, and that at a proper time: for if a man is indicted, and has a pardon in his pocket, and afterwards puts himself upon his trial by pleading the general issue, he has waived the benefit of such pardon. But, if a man avails himself thereof as soon as by course of law he may, a pardon may either be pleaded upon arraignment, or in arrest of judgment, or in the present stage of proceedings, in bar of execution. Antiently, by statute 10 Edw. III. c. 2. no pardon of felony could be allowed, unless the party found sureties for the good behaviour before the sheriff and coroners of the county. But that statute is repealed by the statute 5 & 6 W. & M. c. 13. which, instead thereof, gives the judges of the court a discretionary power to bind the criminal, pleading such pardon, to his good behaviour, with two sureties, for any term not exceeding seven years.

4. Lastly, the effect of such pardon by the king, is to make the offender a new man; to acquit him of all corporal penalties and forfeitures annexed to that offence for which he obtains his pardon; and not so much to restore his former, as to give him a new, credit and capacity. But nothing can restore or purify the blood when once corrupted, if the pardon be not allowed till after attainder, but the high and transcendent power of parliament. Yet if a person attainted receives the king's pardon, and afterwards hath a son, that son may be heir to his father; because the father, being made a new man, might transmit new inheritable blood: though, had he been born before the pardon, he could never have inherited at all.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1, Document 17
The University of Chicago Press

Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765--1769. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.