The Most Infamous Executive Orders in American History

Presidential executive orders have existed since George Washington used one to declare a national day of thanksgiving for the signing of the Constitution. Using powers granted by that document, laws that presidents pushed through on their own have ranged from monumental to minutiae. Many famous executive orders, like the Emancipation Proclamation or the desegregating of the armed forces, did things that Congress was unable to do, while a few were massive overreaches of power, and got slapped down by Supreme Court decisions.

In terms of President Obama, while his critics have ascribed "thousands" of executive orders to him, he's signed comparatively few in relation to other presidents. FDR signed over 3,700 orders, most related to his role as Commander in Chief in the Second World War. Presidents Wilson, Harding, and Hoover also signed hundreds per year, far more than any post-war president.

Here are some of the most surprising and important executive orders in presidential history. Not all were beneficial to the public, but all were vital to American history.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

  • The Emancipation Proclamation

    The Emancipation Proclamation
    Photo: E.G. Renesch / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    While executive orders have existed since the Washington administration, they weren't named or numbered until the early 1900s. So, the most famous one has no official designation, only a name - the Emancipation Proclamation. Issued on January 1, 1863, the proclamation was a declaration by President Lincoln, issued in his role as Commander-in-Chief, that declared over three million slaves living in the Confederacy as free.

    The impact of the Proclamation has been hotly debated since the moment it was issued. Initially, it only freed about 30,000 Blacks in areas that the Union had taken from the Confederacy. It had no effect on enslaved Blacks actually in the South, nor did it free slaves in the Union border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia. But as the Union took more territory, the slaves in it were immediately free, as were runway slaves who crossed the border of the Union.

    It also clarified the moral cause of the Union, and explicitly marked the Confederacy as a slave state, ending any hope of British intervention on their side.

  • The Manhattan Project

    The Manhattan Project
    Photo: U.S. federal government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Presented with the need to beat Nazi Germany to an atomic bomb, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8807 on June 28, 1941. It established the Office of Scientific Research and Development, which was given unlimited resources, and its director, Vannevar Bush, answered only to Roosevelt himself. The OSRD conducted research and development work in a variety of war-related areas, creating everything from guidance systems to new radar.

    But the most important aspect of the OSRD was the S-1 Uranium Committee, which later came under the command of General Leslie Groves, was renamed the Manhattan Engineering District, and established a number of sites around the country for the mining and refinement of uranium, as well as the Los Alamos site - where the atomic bomb was researched, built, and tested.

  • Japanese-American Internment

    Japanese-American Internment
    Photo: Dorothea Lange / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One of the most notable executive orders in American history is 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, it ordered the removal and internment of all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast for fear of enemy spies and saboteurs. As a result, over 120,000 people - 70,000 of whom were American by birth - had to present themselves for transport and internment in a network of camps across the Southwest. The camps were often collections of shacks, surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire.

    Less well-known is that about 14,000 ethnic Germans and Italians were interned, as were a number of Jewish refugees of German origin. After over two years of harsh confinement, EO 9066 was cancelled in December, 1944. Japanese-Americans were slowly allowed to return to their lives, but many had lost their homes and jobs. It took four decades before the US government made reparations to their families - in the form of a $20,000 payment.
  • Suspension of Habeas Corpus

    With the Civil War raging, President Lincoln took a drastic and controversial step to sign an executive order that suspended habeas corpus, the right of the accused to report unlawful detention. This was done in the guise of Commander in Chief, to stop a Southern-sympathizing legislator from blocking the movement of Union troops to Washington, which was virtually undefended at the start of the war. While the initial order only allowed for warrant-less arrest between New York City and Washington, two years later, a Congressional act expanded it to the entire country. The Union army now had the right to arrested almost anyone without a warrant, and imprison them without a trial.

    The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court declared Lincoln had no military right to suspend habeas corpus, but Lincoln persisted. The suspension was only overturned five years later, when SCOTUS ruled that civilians were not subject to military law.
  • The Creation of FEMA

    The Creation of FEMA
    Photo: Bill Koplitz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    By signing Executive Order 12148 on on July 20, 1979, Jimmy Carter kicked off the stuff of a thousand conspiracy theories. Authorizing the transfer of duties to the newly created Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the order was deemed necessary to combine disaster preparedness agencies spread across the entire federal government, putting it under the control of one director who wouldn't be hamstrung by administrative blocks or conflicting rules.

    Meanwhile, conspiracy theories abound regarding FEMA using a network of secret camps to imprison US citizens in preparation for martial law and the presidential abolishment of freedom. None of this is included in the executive order.
  • Ford Pardons Nixon

    Ford Pardons Nixon
    Photo: Thomas J. O'Halloran / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    With controversy raging over a possible trial for Richard Nixon, President Gerald Ford issued Proclamation 4311, giving a full pardon to the former president for any offenses he might have committed during his presidency. On September 8, 1974, Ford addressed the nation and cited the variety of reasons he felt it was prudent to use his executive power to pardon Nixon. These reasons included the national stress of the former president going on trial, the difficulty of Nixon being fairly represented, and his declining health.

    Reaction to the pardon was merciless. As Ford had been named by Nixon to the vice presidency after Spiro Agnew's resignation, many pundits openly wondered if Nixon knew he was going to resign, and offered Ford the VP job in exchange for clemency. Ford would be blamed for the sins of the Nixon years, and lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976.