PROCLAMATIONS. American government proclamations antedate independence. For example, on 16 March 1776, the Second Continental Congress, at the time of "impending calamity and distress when the Liberties of America are imminently endangered," issued a Proclamation "publicly to acknowledge the overruling providence of God." A "Day of Public Worship" was called for. Many proclamations like this followed in the centuries since then, including days of prayer and thanksgiving.
A far more recent example was President Bush's traditional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of November 2001. Calling attention to the tradition, Bush mentioned that the Pilgrims gave thanks in 1621 and that President Washington's Proclamation in 1789 recounted "the blessings for which our new nation should give thanks." President Bush recalled that on "this day of Thanksgiving," we take note of those of "our fellow citizens who are grieving unimaginable loss" after the attack on 11 September 2001.
Not all proclamations, however, were appeals for God's grace or related to ceremonial occasions. The instrument was invoked often, sometimes with extraordinary and very visible results. Perhaps the first example of this occurred on 22 April 1793 when Washington issued his Neutrality Proclamation, reminding both Europe and the American citizens that the United States would follow "a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent powers" locked in a struggle over the French Revolution.
While presidents, governors, and even mayors have always issued proclamations, most of these fall into the categories of trivial and even frivolous. They tout local products or pride or elevate some week—"Hog Calling Week," for example—to an official level. But the meaningless overuse of this executive authority, whatever the level of execution, should not diminish the supreme importance of the proclamation as an expression of executive might. Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January 1863 is a case in point. While it only freed the slaves in areas yet unconquered by the Union Army, its symbolism was huge as the first official act of the Civil War government to end slavery, and its stature has only grown over the years as a starting point in changing race relations. President Andrew Johnson's Proclamation of Amnesty in 1865, shortly after Lincoln's assassination, restoring the civil rights of most Confederate officials and belligerents, conversely touched off a firestorm of protest that resulted in the triumph of Radical Reconstruction (1867–1877), which also moved the nation to confront realistically its racial problems.
One of President Franklin Roosevelt's first acts of office during the Great Depression was to issue the Bank Holiday Proclamation of 1933. Not waiting for Congress to act, Roosevelt signaled a strong presidential response to the suffering that the American people confronted. He closed all the banks, stopping further failures in their tracks; they wouldn't open until Congress protected the deposits of the working classes through the Federal Deposit Insurance Act. The proclamation thus achieved a symbolic level of response that immediately began the process of restoring confidence in the American government. It was not unlike President Bush's reminder in November 2001 that the United States government was acting to redress an assault on the nation. The presidential proclamation can instantly do that, and it has over the course of American history.
Leuchtenberg, William. In the Shadow of FDR: From Harry Truman to George W. Bush. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.
McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.
"Proclamations." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/proclamations
"Proclamations." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/proclamations
J. A. Cannon
"proclamations." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/proclamations
"proclamations." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/proclamations