Executive Orders

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EXECUTIVE ORDERS. Originally, executive orders based their legitimacy on Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which contains the phrase "he [the President of the United States] shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." This phrase was interpreted as a management tool, a way for the president to enforce Congress's wishes. Almost immediately, presidents tried to widen the scope of the short phrase. For instance, George Washington proclaimed a "neutrality order" that declared that Americans must not be involved in disputes between foreign countries; this was not the execution of a law but the creation of a law.

Even though they chafed under the constitutional restriction in Article II, presidents found ways to abide by its spirit until the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829–1837). Perhaps the most controversial of Jackson's actions was to order the forcible removal of the Cherokees from their homes in Georgia and North Carolina to the Oklahoma Territory.

At the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, Congress granted President Abraham Lincoln wide latitude in running the government. Although Lincoln overstepped constitutional boundaries, by and large Lincoln's executive orders were upheld in federal courts because of the national crisis. It was Lincoln who began numbering executive orders, with number 1 being signed on 20 October 1862.

In the 1880s another form of executive order was created, in addition to the constitutional one: in civil service legislation, Congress said that it was up to the president to fill in the details of implementing the legislation. Thus, an executive order could depend on the president's interpretation of the legislation, and it would have the force of law. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was also allowed great latitude with executive orders during the Great Depression and World War II. By FDR's time a president could seize property and control communication. FDR used these powers to order the internment of Japanese subjects and Japanese Americans who lived in the Pacific states.

By President Richard Nixon's era (1969–1974), Congress had left enough holes in legislation for presidents to make executive orders in peacetime that had farreaching effects on America. Nixon used executive orders to implement affirmative action, including declaring ethnic quotas on hiring and in the awarding of government contracts.

President Bill Clinton used executive orders to circumvent a hostile Congress on issues such as environmental laws. His most controversial order, with incalculable consequences, was probably Executive Order 13083 on 14 May 1998 "establishing the principles and foundations of federalism," which grants the federal government powers forbidden by the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution. Executive orders become laws when published in the Federal Register, as this one was on 18 May 1998.


Clinton, Bill. "Executive Order 13083—Federalism." Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 34, no. 20 (1998): 866–869.

Mayer, Kenneth R. With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

McDonald, Forrest. The American Presidency: An Intellectual History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Murray, Frank J. "Critics Claim Exec Orders Permit Government by Fiat." Insight on the News 15, no. 36 (1999): 31.

Shafroth, Frank. "Cities & States Gain Respect in Senate." Nation's Cities Weekly 21, no. 30 (1998): 1–2.

Kirk H.Beetz

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Executive Orders

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