The hyperbole-free New York Times described a contemporary January 1918 government decision as “Probably no executive order in this country ever aroused such a unanimity of expression.”
What was this controversial decision that had the entire nation on edge? “Fuel Administrator Garfield’s recent five-day closure of industry and business east of the Mississippi River.”
Harry Garfield, son of former president James A. Garfield, was serving as president of Williams College when he was named by President Wilson as the first Administrator for the Fuel Administration, a new agency created to better manage American resources during World War I.
As this article from 1914-1918-online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War details, a massive coal shortage was causing many homes and businesses to go without heat, energy, and light. The problem was distributional rather than supply-based, as railcars intended to transport coal were halted or even abandoned due to backlogs on the railways.
Since this problem was primarily on the east coast, Garfield ordered most factories east of the Mississippi River closed for five days, from January 18-22, 1918, and then again every Monday thereafter. The plan generated massive outcry of government overreach, and indeed the policy was abandoned mere weeks later.
Even at the time it seems hard to imagine that executive order being considered more controversial and significant than, say, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. There have certainly been a wealth of more controversial presidential administration executive decisions since then, ones whose controversy hasn’t dimmed over the decades as Wilson’s/Garfield’s did — from Roosevelt’s Japanese internment camps to Ford’s blanket pardon of Nixon.
Some Good in the Garfield Shock: Ex-Judge Lacombe Analyzes the Situation — Workless Days Order May Yield Eventual Benefits in Spite of Almost Unanimous Criticism
From Sunday, January 27, 1918
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