Number of Pardons by President

President Barack Obama

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Presidents have long used their authority to issue pardons to Americans who have been charged with and convicted of federal crimes. A presidential pardon is an official expression of forgiveness that removes the civil penalties—restrictions on the right to vote, hold elected office, and sit on a jury, for example—and, often, the stigma attached to criminal convictions.

Here's a look at how many pardons were granted by presidents dating back to 1900, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Pardon Attorney. This list is sorted by the number of pardons issued from highest to lowest. These data cover only pardons, not commutations and remissions, which are separate actions.

Presidential Pardons Through the Years
 President Years in Office Pardons
 Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933-1945 2,819
Harry S. Truman 1945-1953 1,913
Dwight D. Eisenhower 1953-1961 1,110
Woodrow Wilson 1913-1921 1,087
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963-1969 960
Richard Nixon 1969-1974 863
Calvin Coolidge 1923-1929 773
Herbert Hoover 1929-1933 672
Theodore Roosevelt 1901-1909 668
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981 534
John F. Kennedy 1961-1963 472
Bill Clinton 1993-2001 396
Ronald Reagan 1981-1989 393
William H. Taft 1909-1913 383
Gerald Ford 1974-1977 382
Warren G. Harding 1921-1923 383
William McKinley 1897-1901 291
Barack Obama 2009-2017 212
George W. Bush 2001-2009 189
Donald J. Trump 2017-2021 143
George H.W. Bush 1989-1993 74

A Controversial Practice

But the use of the pardon is controversial, particularly because the constitutionally granted power has been used by some presidents to forgive close friends and campaign donors. At the end of his term in January 2001, President Bill Clinton issued a pardon to Marc Rich, a wealthy hedge-fund manager who contributed to Clinton campaigns and who faced federal charges of tax evasion, wire fraud, and racketeering, for example.

President Donald Trump, too, faced criticism over his first pardon. He forgave the criminal contempt conviction against a former Arizona Sheriff and campaign supporter Joe Arpaio, whose crackdown on illegal immigration became a flashpoint during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump said:

"He’s done a great job for the people of Arizona. He’s very strong on borders, very strong on illegal immigration. He is loved in Arizona. I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly when they came down with their big decision to go get him right before the election voting started...Sheriff Joe is a patriot. Sheriff Joe loves our country. Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated by the Obama administration, especially right before an election—an election that he would have won. And he was elected many times."

Still, all modern presidents have used their power to pardon, to varying degrees. The president who issued the most pardons is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, according to data kept by the U.S. Department of Justice, which helps to evaluate and execute applications for forgiveness. Part of the reason Roosevelt leads in the number of pardons by any president is that he served in the White House for such a long time. He was elected to four terms, in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. Roosevelt died less than a year into his fourth term, but he is the only president to have served more than two terms.

President Barack Obama's use of his pardon power was relatively rare compared to other presidents. But he granted clemency—which includes pardons, commutations, and remissions—more times than any president since Harry S. Truman. Obama pardoned or commuted the sentences of 1,927 convicts during his two terms in the White House.

According to the Pew Research Center:

"Barack Obama ended his presidency having granted clemency to more people convicted of federal crimes than any chief executive in 64 years. But he also received far more requests for clemency than any U.S. president on record, largely as a result of an initiative set up by his administration to shorten prison terms for nonviolent federal inmates convicted of drug crimes. Looking at the same data another way, Obama granted clemency to only 5 percent of those who requested it. That’s not especially unusual among recent presidents, who have tended to use their clemency power sparingly."

What Is a Presidential Commutation?

In some cases, a president may choose to commute a person's sentence rather than pardon them. A commutation is a reduction in sentence, rather than a full pardon. While a full pardon essentially "erases" the crime legally speaking - reversing the criminal conviction itself, as well as the consequences - a commutation addresses only the sentence, leaving the conviction as it was on the offender's record.

Like pardons, the power to issue a commutation for a federal crime rests with the president. It is considered an offshoot of the president's pardoning power; the president may grant any sort of pardon, commutation, or other "reprieve" for any federal crime except impeachment.

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Murse, Tom. "Number of Pardons by President." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/number-of-pardons-by-president-3367600. Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). Number of Pardons by President. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/number-of-pardons-by-president-3367600 Murse, Tom. "Number of Pardons by President." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/number-of-pardons-by-president-3367600 (accessed October 19, 2021).