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Looking to the Founders: Thanksgiving and the Executive Order

by David Yee, published

George Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation, issued on October 3, 1789, was our nation's first executive order. Following the set examples of the Continental Congress and Congress Assembled under the Articles, the new Congress requested that Washington set aside a national day of thanksgiving.

Examining this short, 500 word proclamation and the precedents it set into motion would definitely help our understanding of the current political crisis, as well as what George Washington thought was important for a thankful people to do.

Washington's Seven Principles of Thankfulness

For our nation as a whole to truly be thankful, Washington outlined seven national and foreign policy statements that define what it means for our nation to be one of thanksgiving:

  1. Seeking Pardon for our national and personal transgressions;
  2. Performing our duties properly and punctually;
  3. To render our government a blessing to all people by " being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws;"
  4. To be an active player in world politics, "to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us);"
  5. To promote religious freedom worldwide;
  6. To promote knowledge worldwide, especially sciences;
  7. To seek worldwide prosperity.
Too often, the Founding Fathers are seen as demi-gods, who could do no wrong in their actions; yet Washington openly acknowledged the need for our nation to constantly reflect on our actions in order to right wrongs and to seek pardon when necessary. Today is no different. Part of being the most economically and militarily powerful nation on Earth is to use that power wisely -- and to adjust our actions when necessary. Unlike many of Washington's successors, Washington believed in a United States that was active in world events. While Washington wanted an active foreign policy, he also knew how to stay out of troubles that didn't concern us. Three years later, he would issue a Proclamation of Neutrality -- an executive order declaring the United States neutral in the Napoleonic wars brewing in Europe. A scholar of the Enlightenment, Washington saw religion and science as two equally valuable, mutually-exclusive, yet non-competing disciplines. Enlightenment thinkers often believed that the physical world needed to be explained through the sciences, while issues of faith remained in the realm of religion. Both disciplines can grow without bitter competition or revisionism. Most of the financial experience the Founders had was within the European system of mercantilism -- filled with protectionism, colonialism, and oppressive monetary policies. America was just entering the world stage on its own footing, trying to launch a free-market style trade by establishing treaties and trade routes. Capitalism was in its earliest of phases. Early economic writers like Smith (1776), Quesnay (1759), and Say (1794) all believed that the market economy provided increased economic prosperity to all who engaged in trade. 

The Executive Order

In short, Washington was using his first executive order as a way to highlight his political platform and ideology, something that is still done in politics today. The only president to not issue any executive orders was William Harrison, but this is almost certainly due to his short presidency of only 32 days. Of the generation of the Founders, George Washington issued the most at eight, while Adams, Madison, and Monroe only issued one executive order each. After the generation of the Founders, the usage of executive orders steadily increased, with Grant being the first president to issue more than 200 during his two terms. Teddy Roosevelt was the first to break 1,000 executive orders -- yet it was his distant cousin FDR who would hold the all-time record at 3,522. No president since Truman has issued more than 500 executive orders. But like the first executive order, all of them were a tool for the president to advance their agenda and ideology. George Washington didn't have the authority to make his first executive order, nor did Congress have the authority to give it to him, but it was merely assumed that the Constitution granted this power when it instructed the executive "to take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed." Congress meets for around 150 legislative days in modern times, yet Congress is only required to meet once per year. The executive branch is the only branch of the government that is required to work for the people year-round. The "take Care" clause of the Constitution recognized this, and gave the president considerable leeway interpreting and implementing the law. In modern politics, all three branches of government have encroached on the other branch's duties and responsibilities. Beginning with the Thirteenth Amendment, Congress gave itself enforcement powers. Marbury v. Madison (1803) introduced judicial review, where the courts gave themselves the power to "legislate from the bench." And George Washington, with a short 500-word statement about being a thankful people, set the precedent of presidential legislation. Now, 225 years later, the boundary lines between the checks and balances are not completely clear, and it's really no wonder that so many people are upset!

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