“The Indecisions of 1789”: Prakash’s Misreading of VP John Adams (Part VIII)

This post is the eighth in a series identifying the misinterpretation and misuse of historical sources in Saikrishna Prakash’s article on the Decision of 1789. The Supreme Court relied on the unitary intepretation of the Decision of 1789, Justice Thomas cited this article in his Seila Law concurrence, and Prakash co-authored an amicus brief presenting this misinterpretation in Seila Law. My full paper is here, “The Indecisions of 1789.” The first post in this series is here.

The first set of problems in Prakash’s misinterpretation of “the Decision of 1789” is trying to find more votes for the unitary theory, attempting to imply a majority of the House voted for a presidentialist/unitary interpretation of the Constitution. However, only 16 members out of 53 can be counted for this theory (i.e., just 30%). He misreads Hartley, Cadwalader, and Laurance, and overlooks how Madison and Laurance reflect the rejection of “indefeasibility” in the unitary theory. A second set of problems is mistakenly claiming statements show mixed views or ambivalence by a pivotal bloc of members that some call “congressionalist” but Prakash called “enigmatic.” These members were actually part of the bloc Prakash assumed to be presidentialist, so this argument backfires by showing that the “presidentialist” members were actually more ambivalent themselves, and perhaps they voted strategically.

A third set of problems comes from misreading letters as descriptions of the House debate, exaggerating their description as more presidentialist. The last posts showed Prakash’s misinterpretation of Muhlenberg’s and Smith’s letters. This post addresses his exaggeration of a letter by Vice President John Adams.

Prakash quoted Vice President John Adams to support the same point in the paragraph on William Smith:

The Vice President himself complained that his “Vote for the Presidents [sic] Power of Removal, according to the Constitution, has raised from Hell an [sic] host of political and poetical Devils.” These accounts indicate that the removal language was generally understood to endorse the “constru[c]tion of the Constitution, which vests the power of removal in the President.”

– Prakash at 1066.

First of all, Adams was among the most vocal advocates of the presidentialist theory in a series of a letters after the vote. He was engaged in full spin for presidentialism. Adams is no reliable neutral observer. He was a grandstander and perhaps eager to be a martyr/hero for his vote. It is hardly surprising that others perceived his reasoning, but it is surprising that this letter is so ambiguous about whether others shared this view. The full sentence is: “My exertions for my Vote for the Presidents [sic] Power of Removal, according to the Constitution.” Letter from John Adams to John Lowell (Sept. 14, 1789), in 17 DHFFC at 1538.

The use of the word “my” are intriguing. Adams was not using “our.” It’s a stretch to claim that this language communicated a general meaning or intention. When Adams says “my vote” may have produced a backlash, he simply indicates that observers understood his stated reasons, not necessarily that they perceived a prevailing theory in the House and Senate. This is not as problematic as the other interpretations, but if this represents the best evidence of a public understanding of the Senate vote, it suggests that the evidence is weak.

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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