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The Executive Order: A History of Its Rise and Slow Decline

President George Washington was the first to issue proclamations or executive orders. Their use peaked under Franklin Roosevelt, but they have been used fewer times in recent presidencies. Will Biden reverse the trend?

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Franklin Roosevelt issued more executive orders than any other president, 3,721, an average of 307 per year. (U.S. National Archives)
In the first 100 days of every administration, there’s always lots of discussion about executive orders and unilateral presidential action. President Joe Biden is no exception, and any evaluation of his first few months in office will include a conversation about his executive orders. Yet, the history of the executive order isn’t a story of consistent expansion, and understanding its role in some of the biggest moments of our nation is essential to evaluating the presidency.

The Constitution does not articulate a presidential right to issue proclamations or executive orders. Indeed, they aren’t even mentioned. But almost from the very beginning, George Washington understood that presidential authority had to include activities that weren’t specifically defined in the Constitution in order to lead the nation. On June 8, 1789, President Washington issued his first directive. Congress had not yet established the new executive departments, so the secretaries of the existing Confederation departments had remained in office in acting fashion. Washington asked John Jay, acting secretary of foreign affairs, to provide “a clear account of the Department at the head of which you have been, as may be sufficient … to impress me with a full, precise and distinct general idea of the United States.”

Over the next eight years, Washington issued seven additional proclamations or orders, such as a proclamation declaring a day of thanksgiving on Nov. 26, 1789, and the Neutrality Proclamation on April 22, 1793, declaring the United States neutral in the war between France and Great Britain. In the 21st century, we wouldn’t necessarily consider letters requesting information or proclamations of thanksgiving to be executive orders, but they established an important precedent for Washington’s successors.

Executive orders have precipitated many of the most significant events in our nation’s history. For example, on Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered “all persons held as slaves” in the Confederate states “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” On July 26, 1948, President Truman also used executive orders to expand citizenship and civil rights for Black Americans by ordering the desegregation of the military in Executive Order 9981.

While Presidents Lincoln and Truman utilized executive orders for good, Executive Order 9066 undermined citizenship rights for minorities. After Japan attacked the American naval base in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans living in western states.

Finally, on Sept. 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford issued “a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed” while serving as president of the United States. While many Americans are familiar with Ford’s pardon, not many know that it technically counts as an executive order, officially classified as Proclamation 4311.

Although executive orders have played a central role in these key moments and many others, not all presidents have relied on this tool equally. In fact, contrary to our current political narrative, there has not been a steady increase in the reliance on executive orders. A brief statistical overview actually shows that executive orders have declined since the mid-twentieth century.

After Washington issued eight orders during his presidency, the next five presidents made little use of this presidential tool. In fact, Andrew Jackson was the first president to issue executive orders in the double digits. In the 1850s, executive orders began a steady uptick and accelerated during President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, when he relied on unilateral executive action to enforce Reconstruction measures. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, executive orders peaked during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented 12 years in office. Roosevelt issued 3,721 orders to tackle the Great Depression, implement New Deal programs and wage World War II. After FDR, Woodrow Wilson came in second with 1,803 orders and Theodore Roosevelt in third with 1,081 orders.

While FDR relied on executive orders more heavily than any other president, he also issued the highest number of orders per year with an average of 307. Analyzing executive orders per year can be a more interesting and helpful way to get a better sense of pace. For example, Reagan issued 381 orders and Carter issued 320, but that number is much more revealing when we consider that Reagan served for two terms, and thus issued an average of 48 orders per year, whereas Carter issued an average of 80 orders per year.

Critically, since President John F. Kennedy’s administration, the annual average has actually continued to decline, with two exceptions. Carter issued an unusually high number of orders per year (80) and Trump’s presidency represented a significant uptick as well. He issued 220 orders total, for an average of 55 orders per year. While Trump’s pace did not match Carter, it far surpassed the 35 orders per year for Obama, 36 per year for George W. Bush, 46 per year for Clinton and 42 per year for George H.W. Bush.

In his first week in office, President Joe Biden issued 22 executive orders — more than any other president issued in their first week. Although many of Biden’s early orders overturned his predecessor’s actions, and he’s issued far fewer in recent weeks. We will have to wait and see whether he will overturn recent precedent by relying heavily on executive orders in order to govern, or whether he will follow his predecessors' examples and try to work with Congress to pass legislation. 

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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