Since George Washington in 1789, presidents have been issuing actions that can be described as executive orders. Washington, in particular, had the uncanny ability of being just vague enough to strike terror in his administration. The first of his directives went out to all the departments and instructed them to “impress me with a full, precise, and distinct general idea of the affairs of the United States.”
While the United States Constitution does not have a provision that explicitly permits the use of executive orders, its Article II, Section 1, Clause 1 of the Constitution from which the culture was created. "The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America and he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
Perhaps the most famous executive order came from none other than President Abraham Lincoln himself when in 1862 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war, Lincoln proclaimed "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states, are, and henceforward shall be free."
While Executive orders are just presidential directives issued to their departments, during the Civil War Lincoln used an “Executive Order Establishing a Provisional Court in Louisiana” to create a court and appoint a judge to go along with it.
It is in the presidents’ gift to appoint judges both to the federal and U.S. Supreme Court. Donald Trump, in fact, appointed 3 supreme court judges and 226 federal judges during his tenure in office, effectively shifting the U.S. judicial system to conservatism. Yet Executive Actions can and have historically been overturned by the High Court.
Harry Truman's Executive Order — placing all of the country's steel mills under federal control during WWII — was ultimately invalidated by the Supreme Court. It attempted to create a law, rather than to clarify a law, put forth by the Congress or the Constitution.
Wars have been waged via executive actions, too. The Kosovo War, in particular, was fought with Bill linton’s signature when he signed an executive order authorizing NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. Yet all wars are subject to the War Powers Resolution. While a president can declare a war, he or she needs the U.S. congress to consent to it and ultimately authorize a campaign longer than 60 days.
The early presidents, the founders, in particular, were reticent to write executive orders. Madison, Adams and Monroe all wrote just one. They were leery of kings and queens and eager to engage and nurture their new democracy. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that we see those numbers jumping into the double and triple digits. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, wrote the most executive orders with 3,522 at an unprecedented time of economic austerity. Woodrow Wilson wrote 1,803 during the Spanish Flu, and Calvin Coolidge wrote 1,203 at the outset of the Great Depression. Joseph R. Biden, Jr — during his first week in office — wrote an unpresented 43 in response to the havoc wreaked by his predecessor and the global coronavirus pandemic.
He chastened America with Racial Equity, admonishing the U.S. census to tabulate and include all of her people in the census. He admonished her to become a little more green; by cancelling the Keystone Pipeline permit, electrifying all the governments cars, and rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. He encouraged her to be more tolerant by eradicating Muslim travel bans, reversing a transgender military ban, and reaffirming the Indigenous People’s tribal sovereignty. He encouraged her to start making and manufacturing products here at home again and promised that 100 million Americans would be vaccinated by Spring. Indeed, new cases in the U.S. have fallen a sharp 35% over the past three weeks.
An executive action recognizes an event and triggers a response. Of the 13,985 that have been written since 1789, all were addressed to government officials but delivered to the soul of the nation. The New Deal, in fact, rescued the United States from the economic collapse following the Great Depression, and filled in where the U.S. Congress and banking industry had catastrophically failed. That FDR’s portrait has reclaimed center stage in the Oval reminds us that those who won’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.