The form, substance and numbers of presidential orders has varied dramatically in the history of the US Presidency. Numbering of Executive Orders began in 1907 by the Department of State, which assigned numbers to all the orders then in their files dating from 1862 (Lord 1944, viii). Through those efforts, the frequency of unnumbered orders declined sharply. President Hoover attempted to bring further order and regularity to the processing and documenting of Executive orders (ibid).
But it was not until the Federal Register Act in 1936 that a more thorough contemporaneous documentation of Executive Orders began. Before then, and occasionally afterwards, a later discovery of another order has resulted in assigning a number already in use together with an associated letter (e.g., 7709, 7709-A). This practice explains why the total number of orders issued may be greater than the result that would be obtained by subtracting a president’s first order number from his last (and adding 1).
Today virtually all numbered Executive Orders are published. However, the Federal Register Act specified that such orders need not be published if they had “no general applicability and legal effect.” Thus, the text of some orders is not available.
In addition to the numbered executive orders, there are many unnumbered orders (see Lord 1943). The best known compilation includes “over 1500” unnumbered orders, but the editor notes that the true total is unknown. Estimates have reportedly ranged as high as 50,000. The editor, Lord, notes emphatically that “no distinction can be made between numbered and unnumbered Order on the basis of subject matter, general applicability, public interest, or legal effect.”
There have always been many forms of Presidential orders in addition to the numbered Executive Orders and Executive Orders included in the published "unnumbered series". Currently, these commonly are called “Memorandums” but can have many titles. Decades ago, such documents were commonly titled “Letters.”
In this table we present the total number of Executive Orders issued by presidential term (not calendar year). Thus, this table does not include other forms of written presidential orders (such as memorandums), or discretionary executive actions not accompanied by a published presidential directive.
The table below is modified and updated from time to time. This table includes our own original tallies for the first FDR term based on Lord (1943, 1944). Our numbers still differ slightly from the numbers posted in the NARA Executive Order Disposition Tables. But we are confident that we have correctly counted the Lord entries (and the NARA figures are very close to ours).
Our APP document collection of numbered Executive Orders is complete with respect to published Orders starting in 1945. We are adding earlier orders to the collection as possible, and welcome (and will gladly acknowledge) contributions to this effort. We will also be adding our independent tallies for unnumbered orders.
Lord, Clifford L., ed. 1944. Presidential Executive Orders, Numbered 1-8030, 1862-1938. Prepared by the Historical Records Survey, New York City. New York: Books Inc.
Lord, Clifford L., ed. 1943. List and Index of Presidential Executive Orders (Unnumbered Series, 1789 – 1941). New Jersey Historical Records Survey, Works Progress Administration, Newark, NJ