10 Landmark Presidential Executive Orders

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Following President Barack Obama’s announcement of 23 executive orders to combat gun violence in the wake of the Newtown shootings, some critics have questioned the president’s rights to issue such orders. Conservative politicians and pundits contend President Obama is overstepping his powers in an attempt to circumvent Congress. Yet every president in history has exercised this authority (with the exception of William Henry Harrison, who died shortly after taking office). And with 147 executive orders (as of Jan. 20, 2013), President Obama has issued the fewest such directives of any president dating to the 1880s. To put this in perspective, President Ronald Reagan issued 381 such orders, President George Bush issued 166, and presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush issued 364 and 291, respectively.

The vast majority of presidential executive orders cover incredibly mundane matters, such as President Andrew Jackson’s order to honor a deceased French military officer as a “friend of liberty.” But a few, like the following 10 examples listed in chronological order, shaped the very essence of the United States … for better or for worse.


10. Lincoln Suspends Prisoners’ Rights to Trial During Civil War (1861)

President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus several times during the Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan at Antietam, Maryland, Oct. 3, 1862.

The writ of habeas corpus is a constitutional right assuring U.S. citizens aren’t imprisoned without cause indefinitely. But that right — for a person to appear before a judge who can determine if they can be held legally — was suspended many times during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln in a series of executive orders. The most notable involved John Merryman, a Maryland rebel arrested for “insurrectionary activities” such as burning bridges to hamper Union troops’ movement from Pennsylvania through his home state. Merryman petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted by Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney.  Lincoln ignored the court and ordered that Merryman’s right to be seen before a judge be suspended. The justice became furious and claimed that Lincoln’s actions were unconstitutional.


9. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Sets Stage For Freeing Slaves (1862, 1863)

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation led the way to ending slavery.

President Lincoln shows the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet; Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864.

This famed executive order consists of two parts: the first, in September 1862, established the deadline for the Confederacy to end the Civil War and rejoin the union. If that didn’t occur by the new year, all slaves in the Confederacy “would be free.” The second, at the dawn of 1863, laid out the specific states that were subject to the aforementioned order, which included parts or all of 10 Confederate states. While many people have the misconception these orders ended slavery, that wouldn’t happen until December 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment. Importantly, Lincoln strategically established that those Union allies or states under Union control, while being slave states, were not subject to the proclamation. These states included Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky and parts of Tennessee, Virginia and Louisiana. The proclamation had a profound impact in changing the war from one with the sole aim of restoring the nation’s unity to one of attaining basic freedom.


8. Roosevelt Establishes the Works Progress Administration (1935)

President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration left behind a rich legacy.

New York City’s LaGuardia Airport is a legacy of the Works Progress Administration; Dino Abatzidis

A hallmark of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Program, the Works Progress Administration came about courtesy of Executive Order 7034 in 1935. The body tasked with overseeing this work relief program carved out job opportunities for more than 8.5 million people who were paid an average of $41.57 a month until the program ended in 1943. The program left a lasting legacy around the country, in many bridges, roads, airports, hospitals, parks and other infrastructure still in use today. Some of the most notable WPA projects include the presidential retreat of Camp David and New York’s LaGuardia Airport.


7. Roosevelt Orders Japanese-Americans Held in Concentration Camps (1942)

President Roosevelt's executive order to detain Japanese-Americans is one of the darkest chapters in American history.

A Japanese family awaits transportation to a relocation camp.

This executive order is a black mark for an administration dedicated to social welfare and justice. Two separate executive orders (9066, 9102), established that the military could create zones whereby persons perceived as “threats” to national security could be forcibly relocated and held — feeding off of the hysteria following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, while also highlighting long-held bias toward certain ethnic groups. The aforementioned succeeding order went further toward actually enforcing the relocation and ensuing interment camps, by creating the War Relocation Authority to oversee this alarming process. While Americans of Italian and German ancestry were also targeted, by and large these relocation efforts were focused on Japanese-Americans. More than 110,000 such citizens were forced from their homes to ill-defined areas, primarily in the Southwest and along the West Coast. Eleanor Roosevelt, in her memoirs, recalled being “floored” by her husband’s actions but, in an attempt to change his mind, he interrupted her and told her to never mention the issue again. President Ronald Reagan would issue a formal apology and authorize reparations on behalf of the U.S. government to those Japanese and their families who had been uprooted from their homes so many decades before.


6. Truman Desegregates the Armed Forces (1948)

President Truman's 1948 executive order desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces.

African-American and white soldiers during World War II.

President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 proved pivotal in addressing racial inequalities. During World War II, nearly 1 million African Americans had enlisted in the military, with close to half of those individuals serving oversees. Truman recognized the hypocrisy in preaching democracy and acceptance worldwide, while his troops were still segregated. The president also felt pressure from Civil Rights leaders who threatened to organize a draft boycott if Truman didn’t address segregation. A month after this threat, on July 1948, Truman issued the order, stating that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” While racial integration didn’t happen overnight among military ranks, by the close of the Korean War in 1953, only 10 percent of African-Americans were serving in segregated units; a year later, the final all-black military unit was disbanded.


5. Eisenhower Commands National Guard to Enforce School Desegregation (1957)

President Eisenhower ordered the Arkansas National Guard to help desegregate Little Rock High School in 1957.

U.S. troops escort black students into all-white Little Rock High School in Arkansas in 1957.

While Brown vs. the Board of Education had deemed that segregated schools were “inherently unequal” and ordered all public schools to be segregated “with all deliberate speed,” three years later, the law remained challenged when nine African-American students tried to enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., at the start of the 1957 school year. Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the state’s National Guard to block the black youth from entering; however, in a phone call with President Dwight Eisenhower, Faubus agreed to follow the law and let the students enroll. Eisenhower said the National Guardsman could remain stationed at the school to maintain order. Faubus instead withdrew the troops, which resulted in a riot when the black students entered the building. In Executive Order 10730, Ike not only placed the Arkansas Guard under his command but he sent another 1,000 federal troops to Little Rock to restore order in what has become known as the Little Rock Crisis.


4. JFK Orders Equal Opportunity in Employment, Affirmative Action (1961)

President Kennedy led efforts to end discriminatory hiring practices.

President Kennedy’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity evolved into the EEOC.

President John F. Kennedy is remembered for many bold moves, such as his resolve during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but some of his other presidential decisions also left a legacy. One of his most underrated actions took aim at discriminatory hiring practices. Executive Order 10925 established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity — the forerunner to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Kennedy directed the committee “to scrutinize and study employment practices of the Government of the United States,” and “recommend additional affirmative steps which should be taken by executive departments and agencies to realize more fully the national policy of nondiscrimination.” The order also established that federal government employees were to be treated without regard to the aforementioned characteristics, including race.


3. Ford Pardons Nixon (1974)

President Gerald Ford's pardon of former President Richard Nixon angered many people.

President Ford announces his decision to pardon former President Richard Nixon in September 1974.

The Watergate scandal tainted the office of the U.S. president. Now imagine how bad the fallout might have been had President Richard Nixon been forced to stand trial for his misdeeds. Fortunately, the man who seceded him in the Oval Office, Gerald Ford, understood well the damage such legal proceedings could have on the office. One month after Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974, Ford issued a full pardon for the former president. Critics blasted the decision. The New York Times called the pardon, “a profoundly unwise, divisive and unjust act” that ruined Ford’s “credibility as a man of judgment, candor and competence.” Ford himself always stood by his decision, and most historians now look favorably on the pardon.


2. Carter Creates the Federal Emergency Management Agency (1979)

President Jimmy Carter's executive order created FEMA.

FEMA Search and Rescue teams conduct operations after Hurricane Katrina. Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Before President Carter issued Executive Order 12127 in the spring of 1979, emergencies were addressed by more than 100 disparate federal agencies, with many parallel programs and policies thrown into the mix at the state level. The order sought to simplify disaster response by centralizing federal emergency functions under the banner of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A few months later, Executive Order 12148 went another step closer to making FEMA a reality by transferring and reassigning duties to the new group. FEMA, of course, is now part of the Department of Homeland Security.


1. George W. Bush Creates the Department of Homeland Security (2001)

An executive order by President George W. Bush led to the Department of Homeland Security.

President George W. Bush signs the Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2004

Within a month of the September 11 attacks, George W. Bush ordered the creation of the Office of Homeland Security and the Homeland Security Council to, borrowing from order No. 13228’s language, “to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks.” What ensued was the integration of all (or some) of 22 federal agencies and departments into one department which, with the passage of the Homeland Security Act a year later, would become a stand-alone, cabinet-level department known as such — the Department of Homeland Security. The department has been a frequent target of criticism through the years, from controversial practices at airport security checkpoints to issues involving the violation of rights to privacy.

Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.