The country’s Founders did not intend for the clemency power to be used as a prize. Article II of the Constitution allows the president to forgive any federal crime, but just because he can does not mean he should.

The Founding Fathers had their own ideas about how the process should work; Alexander Hamilton provided the most famous rationales for the clemency power. In “Federalist No. 74,” he noted how the president must be able to make exceptions for “unfortunate guilt”; otherwise, the justice system would be “too sanguinary and cruel.” Additionally, Hamilton pointed out that presidents may need to use clemency to quell unrest or rebellion and thereby “restore the tranquillity of the commonwealth.”

President George Washington pardoned two men charged with treason after the whiskey rebellion. On December 8, 1795, in his annual address to Congress, he said he was motivated to both show mercy and serve the public good.