Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1

[Volume 4, Page 17]

Document 22

James Iredell, North Carolina Ratifying Convention

28 July 1788Elliot 4:110--14

Another power that he has is to grant pardons, except in cases of impeachment. I believe it is the sense of a great part of America, that this power should be exercised by their governors. It is in several states on the same footing that it is here. It is the genius of a republican government that the laws should be rigidly executed, without the influence of favor or ill-will--that, when a man commits a crime, however powerful he or his friends may be, yet he should be punished for it; and, on the other hand, though he should be universally hated by his country, his real guilt alone, as to the particular charge, is to operate against him. This strict and scrupulous observance of justice is proper in all governments; but it is particularly indispensable in a republican one, because, in such a government, the law is superior to every man, and no man is superior to another. But, though this general principle be unquestionable, surely there is no gentleman in the committee who is not aware that there ought to be exceptions to it; because there may be many instances where, though a man offends against the letter of the law, yet peculiar circumstances in his case may entitle him to mercy. It is impossible for any general law to foresee and provide for all possible cases that may arise; and therefore an inflexible adherence to it, in every instance, might frequently be the cause of very great injustice. For this reason, such a power ought to exist somewhere; and where could it be more properly vested, than in a man who had received such [Volume 4, Page 18] strong proofs of his possessing the highest confidence of the people? This power, however, only refers to offences against the United States, and not against particular states. Another reason for the President possessing this authority, is this: it is often necessary to convict a man by means of his accomplices. We have sufficient experience of that in this country. A criminal would often go unpunished, were not this method to be pursued against him. In my opinion, till an accomplice's own danger is removed, his evidence ought to be regarded with great diffidence. If, in civil causes of property, a witness must be entirely disinterested, how much more proper is it he should be so in cases of life and death! This power is naturally vested in the President, because it is his duty to watch over the public safety; and as that may frequently require the evidence of accomplices to bring great offenders to justice, he ought to be intrusted with the most effectual means of procuring it.

I beg leave further to observe, that, for another reason, I think there is a propriety in leaving this power to the general discretion of the executive magistrate, rather than to fetter it in any manner which has been proposed. It may happen that many men, upon plausible pretences, may be seduced into very dangerous measures against their country. They may aim, by an insurrection, to redress imaginary grievances, at the same time believing, upon false suggestions, that their exertions are necessary to save their country from destruction. Upon cool reflection, however, they possibly are convinced of their error, and clearly see through the treachery and villainy of their leaders. In this situation, if the President possessed the power of pardoning, they probably would throw themselves on the equity of the government, and the whole body be peaceably broken up. Thus, at a critical moment, the President might, perhaps, prevent a civil war. But if there was no authority to pardon, in that delicate exigency, what would be the consequence? The principle of self-preservation would prevent their parting. Would it not be natural for them to say, "We shall be punished if we disband. Were we sure of mercy, we would peaceably part. But we know not that there is any chance of this. We may as well meet one kind of death as another. We may as well die in the field as at the gallows." I therefore submit to the committee if this power be not highly necessary for such a purpose.

We have seen a happy instance of the good effect of such an exercise of mercy in the state of Massachusetts, where, very lately, there was so formidable an insurrection. I believe a great majority of the insurgents were drawn into it by false artifices. They at length saw their error, and were willing to disband. Government, by a wise exercise of lenity, after having shown its power, generally granted a pardon; and the whole party were dispersed. There is now as much peace in that country as in any state in the Union.

A particular instance which occurs to me shows the utility of this power very strongly. Suppose we were involved in war. It would be then necessary to know the designs of the enemy. This kind of knowledge cannot always be procured but by means of spies--a set of wretches whom all nations despise, but whom all employ; and, as they would assuredly be used against us, a principle of self-defence would urge and justify the use of them on our part. Suppose, therefore, the President could prevail upon a man of some importance to go over to the enemy, in order to give him secret information of his measures. He goes off privately to the enemy. He feigns resentment against his country for some ill usage, either real or pretended, and is received, possibly, into favor and confidence. The people would not know the purpose for which he was employed. In the mean time, he secretly informs the President of the enemy's designs, and by this means, perhaps, those designs are counteracted, and the country saved from destruction. After his business is executed, he returns into his own country, where the people, not knowing he had rendered tham any service, are naturally exasperated against him for his supposed treason. I would ask any gentleman whether the President ought not to have the power of pardoning this man. Suppose the concurrence of the Senate, or any other body, was necessary; would this obnoxious person be properly safe? We know in every country there is a strong prejudice against the executive authority. If a prejudice of this kind, on such an occasion, prevailed against the President, the President might be suspected of being influenced by corrupt motives, and the application in favor of this man be rejected. Such a thing might very possibly happen when the prejudices of party were strong; and therefore no man, so clearly entitled as in the case I have supposed, ought to have his life exposed to so hazardous a contingency.

The power of impeachment is given by this Constitution, to bring great offenders to punishment. It is calculated to bring them to punishment for crime which it is not easy to describe, but which every one must be convinced is a high crime and misdemeanor against the government. This power is lodged in those who represent the great body of the people, because the occasion for its exercise will arise from acts of great injury to the community, and the objects of it may be such as cannot be easily reached by an ordinary tribunal. The trial belongs to the Senate, lest an inferior tribunal should be too much awed by so powerful an accuser. After trial thus solemnly conducted, it is not probable that it would happen once in a thousand times, that a man actually convicted would be entitled to mercy; and if the President had the power of pardoning in such a case, this great check upon high officers of state would lose much of its influence. It seems, therefore, proper that the general power of pardoning should be abridged in this particular instance. The punishment annexed to this conviction on impeachment can only be removal from office, and disqualification to hold any place of honor, trust, or profit. But the person convicted is further liable to a trial at common law, and may receive such common-law punishment as belongs to a description of such offences, if it be punishable by that law. I hope, for the reasons I have stated, that the whole of this clause will be approved by the committee. The regulations altogether, in my opinion, are as wisely contrived as they could be. It is impossible for imperfect beings to form a perfect system. If the present one may be productive of possible inconveniences, we are not to reject it for that reason, but [Volume 4, Page 19] inquire whether any other system could be devised which would be attended with fewer inconveniences, in proportion to the advantages resulting. But we ought to be exceedingly attentive in examining, and still more cautious in deciding, lest we should condemn what may be worthy of applause, or approve of what may be exceptionable. I hope that, in the explanation of this clause, I have not improperly taken up the time of the committee.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1, Document 22
The University of Chicago Press

Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.

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