Why Pardons Fail (RBS-Mellon Lecture)

Date: 5 October 2016
Time: 4:45 p.m.
Location: Browsing Room, Knight Library, University of Oregon
Presented by: The Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School, University of Oregon Special Collections and University Archives, the Oregon Humanities Center, the Robert D. Clark Honors College

This talk, organized by the Oregon Rare Books Initiative, was given by Cynthia Herrup, Professor Emerita of History and John R. Hubbard Chair in British History Emerita at USC Dornsife.

Whenever a presidency draws to its end, we Americans brace for the announcement of the president’s final pardons. We brace and then we complain: should George W. Bush have commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby? Was it right for Bill Clinton to pardon financier Marc Rich? Had Gerald Ford promised in advance to pardon Richard Nixon? Pardons are meant to do good—to evoke mercy and to provide a necessary remedy to the sometimes overly harsh application of the law, but it is far easier to name scandals attached to them than wrongs righted. We accept the necessity of pardons but we fret that they are unfair, socially biased and too often products of special access. We don’t lack for critiques of pardoning, but these critiques usually concentrate on the specifics of who gives pardons, who gets pardons, and who benefits from pardons. In this lecture I want to turn in a different direction, to show how the history of pardoning in the early modern era suggests that the problem with pardons lies in the concept of pardoning itself. By looking at the history of pardons in the tumultuous world of seventeenth-century England, we can begin to rethink why we have pardons and whether they can ever do what we expect of them.