“Vesting” Uses Spreadsheet, 1776-1789

I have updated “Vesting,” posting the results of a search for “Vested” in UVA Founding Era Collection, 1776-1789, with over 1,000 uses. The spreadsheet is on SSRN here. An updated paper is here.

Special thanks to my research assistants Michael Albalah, Anne Brodsky, Xinni Cai, Chloe Rigogne, Emily Rubino, Tatum Sornborger, and Colin Shea.

Bottom line: The use of “all” in Art I & its absence in Art II both may be significant, in favor of non-delegation but against unitary executive.

“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” The Executive Vesting Clause is one of three originalist pillars for the unitary executive theory: The president possesses executive powers exclusive from congressional limitations (i.e., they are indefeasible). Many originalists assume that “vest” means a formalist approach to separation of powers, rather than more functional Madisonian check-and-balances.
This Article offers a close textual reading of the word “vesting” and an examination of its eighteenth-century usage and context, with the first survey of the available dictionaries from the era and the word’s usage in early colonial charters and American constitutions, the Convention, and ratification debates. The word “vest” did not connote exclusivity, indefeasibility, or a special constitutional status for official power. Its ordinary meaning was most likely a simple grant of powers without signifying the impermissibility of legislative conditions, such as a good-cause requirement for removals.
Other words used in the Constitution or by the framers to convey exclusivity or indefeasibility (e.g., “all,” “exclusive,” “sole,” “alone,” or “indefeasible”) are missing from the Executive Vesting Clause.
Modern assumptions about “vesting” for official powers are likely semantic drift from property rights and ahistoric projections back from the later Marshall Court doctrine of “vested rights.” However, the era’s available dictionaries from 1640 to 1846 defined “vest” without reference to exclusive or indefeasible powers, but instead in terms of individual property rights (usually limited to landed property, not offices or powers). Other legal documents and a database of founders’ papers indicate a usage ranging from “fully vested” to “partly vested,” so that the “vesting” by itself would signify less completeness.
If the Executive Vesting Clause did not convey indefeasibility, it is unclear what remains of the unitary theory’s originalist basis. On the other hand, the “all” in the Legislative Vesting Clause may be more legally meaningful for non-delegation.

Author: Jed Shugerman

Legal historian at Fordham Law School, teaching Torts, Administrative Law, and Constitutional History. JD/PhD in History, Yale. Red Sox and Celtics fan, youth soccer coach. Author of "The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America" (2012) on the rise of judicial elections in America. I filed an amicus brief in the Emoluments litigation against Trump along with a great team of historians. I'm working on "The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians," a history of prosecutors and political ambition (a cause of mass incarceration), and "The Imaginary Unitary Executive," on the myths and history of presidential power in America.

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