Early in our republic, it was considered crass and imperial for a president to issue too many executive orders. Remember, our political experiment was the first in the world to unite a federal system of states with a central government elected by popular vote—even the title that George Washington would assume was a matter of intense study and debate. Finally they settled on the unassuming “Mr. President”.
President Washington issued a total of eight executive orders in his two terms in office. And this was a president with a mandate. His election was unanimous. Before the Civil War, a total of 143 executive orders were issued by 15 presidents (William Henry Harrison having issued none at all in his one month in office). Lincoln himself issued 48, and Andrew Johnson another 79, before Ulysses Grant topped them all with 217 during Reconstruction.
The most prodigious use of executive orders was by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who penned 3,721, more than double the first runner-up, Woodrow Wilson. Comparing our current president’s term in office to Roosevelt, President Obama is relatively barren at only 33 orders per year against Roosevelt’s 307. Obama is also comparable to most of the presidents since Carter, who average between 36 and 47 orders per year.
What’s the proper use of an executive order? We know what it isn’t: presidents cannot rule by edict or make proclamations of law. Only congress can pass laws; that’s basic U.S. Constitution 101. Presidents also cannot accept any title or compensation. Article I, Section 9:
No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
President Obama is the third sitting president to receive a Nobel Prize. No U.S. president can receive this prize, at least in the monetary sense. Obama donated his prize money to charity. The other two serving presidents who were Nobel laureates also used the presidential pen of the executive order, and were very much progressives—Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. You might say they were progenitors of Obama as believers in “getting things done in Washington”. They issued a combined 2,884 orders.
George Washington and the other framers of our Constitution would have much to say about our enormous, centralized bureaucracy, our unending appetite for spending the treasury dry, and the near-imperial powers we’ve imbued into the office of president.
President Washington’s first executive order is one that should be familiar to our hearts this week. Issued on October 3, 1789, from Washington’s executive office in New York City, here it is in full.
By the President of the United States of America
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and
Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A. D. 1789.
This is a proper executive order. Not an edict from one who would be our king.