The Indecision of 1789: Misreading Thomas Hartley (Part II)

This post is the first in a series identifying the misinterpretation and misuse of historical sources as part of an originalist revival of the unitary executive theory and the Decision of 1789. The full paper is here, “The Indecisions of 1789.” The first post in this series is here. A paper on the misuse of Blackstone in the unitary executive Seila Law amicus brief and scholarship is here.

The problem for the ostensible “Decision of 1789” is that it depends on a majority of the House subscribing to the presidentialist/unitary interpretation of the Constitution, but only 16 members out of 53 fit this bill. In an effort to revive this theory, Saikrishna Prakash in “New Light on the Decision of 1789” (2006) suggests that there may have been more. But his effort to identify more depended on a series of misinterpretations and clear errors. The first on this list is Thomas Hartley.

Prakash describes Rep. Thomas Hartley as “a member of the enigmatic faction” who “was not opposed to the executive power theory.” Prakash at 1054. Prakash asserts, “Nothing in Hartley’s earlier speeches indicated a clear endorsement of the congressional-delegation theory. Nor is there a clear opposition to the executive-power theory.” Prakash at 1055 n. 223. This reading of Hartley’s speeches is inaccurate. Prakash cites Hartley’s speech on the pivotal day, Monday, June 22. The short speech is here, and it is clear:

Now here is Prakash’s misleading description of Hartley’s speech and false claims about Hartley’s later letters:

For more analysis, see the Appendix in my article, “The Indecisions of 1789: Inconstant Originalism,” 171 University Pennsylvania L. Rev. (forthcoming 2022), at SSRN.

Author: Jed Shugerman

Jed Handelsman Shugerman is a Professor at Fordham Law School. He received his B.A., J.D., and Ph.D. (History) from Yale. His book, The People’s Courts (Harvard 2012), traces the rise of judicial elections, judicial review, and the influence of money and parties in American courts. It is based on his dissertation that won the 2009 ASLH’s Cromwell Prize. He is co-author of amicus briefs on the history of presidential power, the Emoluments Clauses, the Appointments Clause, the First Amendment rights of elected judges, and the due process problems of elected judges in death penalty cases. He is currently working on two books on the history of executive power and prosecution in America. The first is tentatively titled “A Faithful President: The Founders v. the Unitary Executive,” questioning the textual and historical evidence for the theory of unchecked and unbalanced presidential power. This book draws on his articles “Vesting” (Stanford Law Review forthcoming 2022), “Removal of Context” (Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 2022), a co-authored “Faithful Execution and Article II” (Harvard Law Review 2019 with Andrew Kent and Ethan Leib), “The Indecisions of 1789” (forthcoming Penn. Law Review), and “The Creation of the Department of Justice,” (Stanford Law Review 2014). The second book project is “The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians: Race, War, and Mass Incarceration,” focusing on California Governor Earl Warren, his presidential running mate Thomas Dewey, the Kennedys, World War II and the Cold War, the war on crime, the growth of prosecutorial power, and its emergence as a stepping stone to electoral power for ambitious politicians in the mid-twentieth century.

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