Presidential history: Who signed the most executive orders?

U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, after his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States, U.S., January 20, 2021.

(Tom Brenner, Reuters, File)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — President Joe Biden made noise on his first day when he signed over a dozen executive orders into law just hours into his presidency.

He's continued to sign a few other executive orders. The Federal Register lists 21 that Biden's signed during his first full week in the Oval Office. He's also issued four proclamations.

That's raised questions about executive orders that existed when President Donald Trump was in office, and President Barack Obama before that. That is, it's not a popular method of crafting policy among people of opposing parties of the president in office.

Here's a look at the history of executive orders and who holds the crown for most orders in history.

What are executive orders?

Most of us remember learning about executive orders and proclamations in grade school — whether it was in civics or history class. Here's a quick refresher.

The American Bar Association summed it up best on its website: "An executive order is a signed, written, and published directive from the President of the United States that manages operations of the federal government."

They range in all sorts of different topics. In Biden's first week, he issued orders that ranged from ordering face coverings be worn at all federal buildings and in interstate public transit to dealing with climate change. The latter included a section about reviewing changes to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which Trump shrank during his presidency.

When did executive orders become so popular?

Executive orders have gained a lot of attention with Biden and his recent predecessors. It's true that there are many more presidential executive orders in the 21st century than there were in the first few decades of the country; however, the age of executive orders remains the early-to-mid 20th century.

University of California-Santa Barbara's American Presidency Project compiled the number of executive orders signed by the first 45 presidents in U.S. history. Every president — aside from William Henry Harrison, who died from pneumonia one month into office — has issued at least one.

There were three presidents who issued just one order: John Adams, James Madison and James Monroe. George Washington issued eight during his time in office. His first executive order — the first-ever issued — came on June 8, 1789, when he addressed the acting secretary for foreign affairs about treasury bonds.

Andrew Jackson, the country's seventh president, was the first to issue 10 or more. He was also the first to average at least one per year.

So, when did executive orders really gain traction?

The first real jump of executive orders came during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. While Lincoln issued what was at the time a record of 48 himself, Andrew Johnson issued 79 in less than four years after Lincoln. Ulysses Grant then issued 217 in eight years.

Yet the use of executive orders then still pales in comparison to their use at turn of the 20th century. Theodore Roosevelt became the first to issue at least 1,000; he was also the first to issue an average of over 100 a year. Only four presidents issued more than 100 prior to him, and three were the last to hold office before Roosevelt.

The trend continued before another Roosevelt made it an art. Franklin D. Roosevelt still holds the record for most executive orders issued and most on average. He issued 3,721 during a span lasting a little over 12 years; that's an average of 307 per year.

His successor, Harry Truman, would go on to issue 907. Since then, the 12 presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Trump averaged just under 300 total orders throughout their individual presidencies.

From then versus now

Of five presidents before Biden, George H.W. Bush ordered the fewest at 166 in his one term, followed by Trump (220), Obama (276), George. W. Bush (291) and Bill Clinton (364). Of those five, Trump — who also served one term — had the most executive orders per year in office at 55, but that is still nowhere near the average of the presidents in the first half of the 20th century.

It shows that executive actions are again a hot-button issue, but they aren't quite as prevalent as they used to be.

Sharece Thrower, an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, wrote about the history of executive orders in a piece for The Conversation published earlier this week. She wrote that there are likely fewer orders now because they aren't very unilateral and they can be overturned by the courts if they don't follow Constitutional law.

"Congress is another barrier, as they give presidents the legal authority to make policy in a certain area," she wrote. "By withholding that authority, Congress can deter presidents from issuing executive orders on certain issues. If the president issues the order anyway, the courts can overturn it."

On top of that, as was seen during the Trump era and now Biden era, executive orders can be retracted. All of it is why she argued why they aren't very durable legislation and less popular than it would seem by partisan rhetoric.

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