5 First Things Presidents Did in Office

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This election season is notable not only for the breathtaking promises being made by the candidates, but by the number of promises for action on their "first day in office." In alphabetical order: On her first day in office, Hillary Clinton has promised to call Benjamin Netanyahu and invite him to the White House. Ted Cruz will "rescind every illegal and unconstitutional action taken by Barack Obama." Marco Rubio will withdraw the U.S. from its recent agreement will Iran. Bernie Sanders will “end the disappearance of the middle class," and Donald Trump will get rid of gun-free zones at schools. History suggests that presidents have little time to do very much of substance on their actual first day in office. Between the inauguration, the parades, the soirees, and the transformation of the White House, the president's role as head of state takes precedence over his or her role as head of government. When presidents do act, however, their actions matter quite a bit. Here are five first actions of presidents of the United States.


As first president of the United States, George Washington moved cautiously. As he wrote in 1790, "My station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." When he assumed office, Congress was new as well, and it took some time for the wheels of government to begin turning. From his first day in office, Washington had to flesh out the constitution of a government that was given only a basic framework in the Constitution. The first bill signed into law by Washington was "An Act to Regulate the Time and Manner of Administering Certain Oaths." Among other things, the bill—the first ever passed by Congress—established the oaths of various political offices: "I, A. B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States." It was a law built to last, and remains in effect to this day.


To say that Lincoln had a tough job when he assumed office is a gross understatement. Between his election and inauguration, seven states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. His journey to Washington for the inauguration was fraught with peril; he traveled part of the way in disguise so as to evade assassins who planned to stab him to death in Baltimore. His inaugural address was a vitally important act that was going to set the tone for his administration’s dealings with the South. Until the final draft, he asked the seceding states “Shall it be peace, or a sword?” Ultimately, he said:

"In view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken; and to the extent of my ability I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States... In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere."


Thirty-six hours after inauguration, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Proclamation 2039, closing all banks effective immediately. According to the order, "no such banking institution or branch shall pay out, export, earmark, or permit the withdrawal or transfer in any manner or by any device whatsoever, of any gold or silver coin or bullion or currency or take any other action which might facilitate the hoarding thereof; nor shall any such banking institution or branch pay out deposits, make loans or discounts, deal in foreign exchange, transfer credits from the United States to any place abroad, or transact any other banking business whatsoever." Banks remained closed for a week, during which time the White House and Congress worked out a way to stabilize the banking system. Banks were reopened in stages. The most stable and solvent returned to operation first, with those in need of various assistance opened gradually thereafter. In the months that followed, reform bills were passed and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was created.                                                                                                            


When Spiro Agnew resigned as vice president of the United States, Congressional leaders advised Richard Nixon to nominate Gerald Ford as Agnew's replacement. Ford was confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 92-3, and by the House 387-35. He was the first vice president confirmed under the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. The following year—before he and his family could even move into the newly-established residence of the vice president at the Naval Observatory—Richard Nixon resigned. This made him the first and only person to have served both as vice president and president without ever having been elected. His first actions as president included meetings on foreign and economic policy, bringing together a group to scout for new members of Ford’s government, and announcing that he was going to nominate a new vice president in the coming days. Three days later, Ford spoke before Congress on the need to fight inflation. Probably Ford’s most famous act, pardoning Nixon, didn't happen for an entire month.


Like Ford, Carter came into office with a divisive issue on the table that simply wouldn't go away: the Vietnam War and the fate of "draft dodgers." Ford had ended America's presence in Vietnam two years earlier, and issued a conditional amnesty for many who evaded the draft. But the issue festered. During the campaign, Carter said, "Amnesty means that what you did was right. Pardon means that what you did, whether it's right or wrong, you are forgiven for it. And I do advocate a pardon for draft evaders ... I think that now is the time to heal our country after the Vietnam war." One day after assuming office, Carter followed through, issuing a pardon to violators of the Military Selective Service Act. 

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