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Pardon Me, Mr. President

On Friday, August 25, 2017, President Donald Trump issued the first pardon of his presidency to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of a misdemeanor count of contempt of court last month. Like many other presidential pardons, the motivations behind Trump’s pardon of Arpaio are larger than the crime itself, and inextricably linked to the political and social climate of the time. The presidential pardon is a tool that presidents have used throughout history, particularly in times of rebellion or discord (those that do not involve Thanksgiving Turkeys, that is). It is a unique power that rests with the executive, despite the founders’ fear of monarchy and corruption in one person holding so much authority.

This lesson explores the foundations of the presidential pardon in the U.S. Constitution, as well as how and why this power has been exercised throughout history. Students will explore various presidential pardons from Washington to Clinton to gain an understanding of the motivations behind pardons and the impact of pardons on society. For extra practice, be sure your students play Kahoot with us LIVE from 9AM – 5 PM on Friday, September 8!


Students will be able to explore the motivations for and effectiveness of presidential pardons throughout history in order to argue for or against the continued necessity of the presidential pardon as a constitutional right.


Students should individually answer this question on Handout A: Exploring the Presidential Pardon: “Can you think of an example of a time when it would be fair to excuse someone for doing something wrong?” Answers may include:

  • A friend who yelled at you after getting in a fight with their parent/boyfriend
  • A teacher forgiving a student for not having their homework when the power went out at their house
  • A criminal pleading insanity and being let off from a crime
  • A parent who stole prescription medication for their sick child because they couldn’t afford it
  • A small child who uses a bad word before they’ve been taught that it is inappropriate
  • An employee who is consistently late because they need to drop their children off at school

Ask students to share their examples. After 5 or 6 students have shared their response, continue the discussion with follow-up questions such as:

  • Imagine if this power rested in the hands of the entire [family, class, school, community, etc.]. What difference would this have in the “excusing” of the accused?
  • Why might the authority to decide this better rest in the hands of one individual?
  • What might be dangerous about one person having this kind of authority?

Ask a student to read the excerpt from the Constitution that gives the president the right to pardon on Handout A: Exploring the Presidential Pardon. Ask students: “Why would the Framers of the Constitution have given this power to the president? Why is this power necessary?”


In groups of 2-3, students should read the excerpts from the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers on the debate surrounding the power of the pardon on Handout A: Exploring the Presidential Pardon. Students should answer the discussion questions that follow. Facilitate a discussion with students, focusing on questions 5, 6, and 7:

  • What was the intended purpose of granting the power of pardoning to the president?
  • What is the danger of this power? What other purposes might it be used for, if a president so chooses?
  • What impact does this power have on the authority of the legislative & judicial branches?


Depending on your classroom space, the stations from Handout C: Presidential Pardon Stations can be hung on the walls or set on particular tables around the room. This should be done ahead of class time. Divide students amongst the five stations. Students will use Handout B: Stations Graphic Organizer to collect information at each station about specific acts of presidential pardons throughout history. Remind students that the goal is to evaluate each act to determine why the president pardoned that party, and what the impact of the pardon on society was.

If the class is large or if time allows, or if a challenge station is desired, other presidential pardons can be included and the graphic organizer can be expanded to allow for a greater selection of presidential pardons.

Students will read the articles at each station, found in Handout C: Presidential Pardon Stations. Ensure that students have a set amount of time at each station, and rotate students when the allotted time is up.


Students will answer the conclusion questions found on Handout B: Stations Graphic Organizer.

If time allows, ask students to share their responses to the conclusion questions in a group discussion.

For further practice, students can participate in the LIVE Kahoot quiz game on Friday, September 8!