The Originalist Myth of the Unitary Executive

47 Pages Posted: 21 Feb 2016 Last revised: 30 Jun 2020

See all articles by Peter M. Shane

Peter M. Shane

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law

Date Written: February 19, 2016


Both Executive Power Vesting Clauses and clauses equivalent to Article II’s Faithful Execution Clause were prevalent in early state constitutions that nonetheless fractured gubernatorial control over state bureaucracies. Originalist defenders of a unitary executive reading of the federal Constitution nonetheless dismiss the interpretive significance of the pre-1787 state constitutions. These early texts supposedly paid only lip service to separation of powers principles, while presenting the Framers chiefly with examples of government structure to avoid. The core problem with this originalist stance is that state constitutions written in the first decades after 1789 persisted in using the same clauses, now found also in Article II, to describe state governments in which governors continued to lack unitary control. Close study of the state constitutions and state administrative practice under them thus belie any “unitary executive” reading of Article II that purports to be based on “original public meaning.” These findings are also consistent with the early history of federal public administration, which corroborates a common understanding that Article II’s vesting of executive power permitted substantial legislative control over the allocation of decisional authority within the executive branch.

Keywords: U.S. Constitution, original public meaning, originalism, Article II, state constitutions, administrative law, constitutional law, executive power, separation of powers, unitary executive

Suggested Citation

Shane, Peter M., The Originalist Myth of the Unitary Executive (February 19, 2016). Ohio State Public Law Working Paper No. 332, University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 19, pp. 323-68 (2016), Available at SSRN: or

Peter M. Shane (Contact Author)

Ohio State University (OSU) - Michael E. Moritz College of Law ( email )

55 West 12th Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States

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