Commander-in-Chief: U.S. Presidents and their Executive Power

Today’s post was written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

How has a Commander-in-Chief used his executive power to help shape a diverse nation?  With the stroke of a pen, he has used this power to command, appoint, veto, remove, and pardon. This year, the National Archives Exhibits Division’s Outgoing Loan program teamed up with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and lent several original documents for a special exhibition in conjunction with the upcoming 2016 Presidential Election, entitled Powers of the President. The exhibition explores the president’s executive power under the Constitution and how many of them have exercised it.  Included in the original documents relating to presidential power in Black history are President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message nominating Earl Warren to be Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and President Ronald Reagan’s veto of S. 557, Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987.



Many of the 44 presidents played a role in shaping African-American history.  They have signed and vetoed laws, proclamations, executive orders, and made appointments.  It all began when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which declared that all slaves were “forever free.”  During Reconstruction, President Ulysses S. Grant signed several laws protecting the rights of African Americans, such as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875.  However, some acts had been vetoed during that era, such as President Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Third Reconstruction Act in 1867, a resolution that would have provided more efficient government in the Rebel States.  

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 It was not until 1941, when another U.S. President used his executive power to help African Americans regain their equal rights.  In June 1941, four months before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. involvement in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Practice in Defense Industries, which prohibited discrimination in defense programs and government agencies.  It was signed in response to a threat of a widespread March on Washington organized by A. Philip Randolph, to protest discrimination in the military and defense industries.  Although discrimination ended in the defense industry, it was not until 1948 that it ended in the military.  In July of that year, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the Armed Forces.  Up until that signing, African Americans served in segregated units.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed his nomination for Earl Warren to be Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in January 1954, he had no idea he appointed someone who would change the course of civil rights for African Americans.  In May 1954, four months after he was nominated, Chief Justice Warren ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional in his judgement of Brown v. Board of Education.  Three years later in September 1957, President Eisenhower also use his executive power to settle the unrest in Little Rock, Arkansas, by signing Executive Order 10730 and the Presidential Proclamation 3204.  These powers allowed nine African American students to attend Central High School.

 The 1960s saw major actions by two U.S. presidents, who left their mark in the civil rights movement.  In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy went on national television and declared his support of civil rights for African Americans by proposing legislation be created in Congress.  This was in response of recent violence among peaceful demonstrations across the South, especially in Alabama.  After President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, the torch was passed onto President Lyndon B. Johnson to fulfill his predecessor’s promise of civil rights legislation.  In July 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave full protection of civil rights for all minorities.  One year later, in August 1965, and in response to the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.      

All the public laws, proclamations, and executive orders can be found in RG 11 General Records of the United States Government in the following series: Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-2011 (NAID 299811); Presidential Proclamations, 1791-2011 (NAID 299955); and Executive Orders, 1862-2011 (NAID 299999).  Presidential messages and vetoes are found at the Center for Legislative Archives in both RG 46 Records of the United States Senate and RG 233 Records of the United States House of Representatives.  For more information on these records, please visit Also visit to learn about the Presidential Libraries and Museums operated under the National Archives.

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Images taken from the following series: Johnson White House Photographs, 11/22/1963-1/20/1969Photographs of Official Activities of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953 – 1961Abbie Rowe White House Photographs, 12/6/1960 – 3/11/1964

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