The Presidential Cabinet: An Invention of America’s First President


“Washington and His Cabinet” lithograph by Currier & Ives / Library of Congress, Public Domain

How George Washington shaped the group of advisors as an institution to meet his own needs.


By Dr. Karin Wulf
Professor of History
Director, The Omohundro Institute
William & Mary


The President’s cabinet, the heads of the executive branch departments, is one of the most constant and durable parts of the United States government. From George Washington to Donald Trump, the chief executive has used the institution to collect information, get advice, and then carry out his policies.

As historian Lindsay Chervinsky details in her new book, The Cabinet, Washington’s decision to establish this group of advisors has proved integral for every presidential administration since. In the wake of the structural weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first governing document that relegated too much authority to the individual states, Washington took charge as the first chief executive—the president—under the new U.S. Constitution. During the course of his eight years in office, Washington was faced with a range of complex foreign and domestic policy challenges. The country struggled to negotiate alliances with Britain and France; at home, the Americans who just fought for independence chafed at a new centralized government demanding, among other things, direct taxes. Washington’s cabinet proved critical to how the new federal government responded to these dynamics.

Yet despite its importance, the Cabinet isn’t even included in the Constitution. In the middle clause of a sentence in Article II, Section 2, it states only that the president “may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.” That’s it!

Chervinsky, a historian at the non-partisan White House Historical Association, spoke with Smithsonian about Washington’s precedent-setting experiment with a group of what he called the “gentlemen of my family,” and how his use of this cabinet shaped the young country.

Neither the Constitution nor Congressional legislation created key structures of the U.S. government like the President’s Cabinet. So how did the Cabinet first come into existence?

Keith Lance / Getty Images

So much of our government requires people following what the person before them did. The early government was a great example of this because if we look at the text of the Constitution, it’s description of the presidency is really quite limited. Article II is very short. There’s not a whole lot of guidance about what day to day governing should look like.

Maybe the delegates to the [1789?] Constitutional Convention expected Washington to just figure it out. Maybe Washington was in the room, and they were uncomfortable discussing limitations to his activities. It’s hard to say because they didn’t necessarily write it down, but whatever the reason, much was left up to him to determine what to do once he was in office and to figure out what worked best.

The delegates basically gave the president two options: One was that he could consult with the Senate on foreign affairs, the other was that he could request written advice from the department secretaries about issues pertaining to their departments.

Washington very quickly concluded that those options just weren’t sufficient or prompt enough. They didn’t allow for the complex dialogue that was necessary to deal with the issues in front of him. So he created the cabinet to provide the support and advice that he needed. No legislation, no constitutional amendment created any of these things.

The idea of direct reports is pretty common, and it would have been the management style that Washington was familiar with as a general. Why wasn’t that the obvious way to proceed from the beginning?

The government form that these people were familiar with at the time was the British system, which had ministers that held seats in Parliament, while at the same time they were serving as the king’s advisors. They had a seat in power in the legislature while also serving as advisors. That was something that Americans were very cautious to try and avoid.

They really thought of the department secretaries as being mini-bureaucrats that would help take care of some details and would report on those issues to the president. Initially, they didn’t want the secretaries meeting with the president secretly and providing advice because they thought that that would encourage corruption and might allow them to avoid taking responsibility for their decisions.

If decisions were made behind closed doors, there wouldn’t be transparency at the highest levels of government. So the delegates put very clearly [in the Constitution?] that the president could request written advice, and it would force people to be held accountable for the positions they were promoting.

Washington, of course, came from a military background and so the idea that when he would go meet with the Senate and they would say, “Well, we’d really like to refer the issue back to committee,”—that didn’t really fly with his desire for efficient and speedy answers. He wanted a system where he could issue an order, and the secretaries would give him their opinions or at least if they needed more time, then they would write a written opinion. He needed something that was more immediate, because the issues facing the executive were incredibly complicated and unprecedented.

When historians write about this period of the United States, after the Constitution was adopted and the formative years of Washington’s administration, they often use terms like energy and efficiency. Is that to draw a contrast with the old, baggy, loose central government under the Articles of Confederation?

Page I of the Articles of Confederation / Wikimedia Commons

Under the Articles of Confederation, legislators(?) were sort of stuck in the mud. So Washington and many of the initial office holders, including many members of the cabinet, were really pushing for an executive that had the ability to put forth a solution and pursue that solution with energy. They felt that in times of crisis, you needed that energetic, quick moving president.

They had a great sense that having most power delegated to the states on a day-to-day basis was fine and made sense, but in times of crisis, they couldn’t have 13 governors competing to establish policy because then [the nation would] have this very conflicting approach to what’s going on. In times of war, when you’re talking about diplomacy, if you’re talking about negotiation and trade or disease, you need one voice speaking for everyone.

What makes the 1790s such a critical decade for the survival of the nation?

The decade begins the expansion of what the government is actually going to look like. The people in office are faced with constitutional questions that had never come up before. They’re faced with the first international crises. They’re trying to figure out what diplomacy is going to look like, what neutrality is going to look like.

They’re faced with the first domestic insurrection, the Whiskey Rebellion, which is a huge challenge. They’re faced with the first presidential elections, which will turn over power. So when we look back on all of the hundreds of years of precedent that has built out the United States and what it is, so many of those original precedents took place in that first decade. They continue to govern how we interact and see the government today.

The clashes between Thomas Jefferson, who was Washington’s Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, who was the Secretary of Treasury, have now been enshrined in popular culture with the two “Cabinet Battles” from the musical Hamilton, but how did their conflict shape the nascent nation?

When they entered into the first administration, Hamilton and Jefferson had pretty different visions of what the nation should be. Hamilton favored a more merchant trade, urban industrial focus for the future. Jefferson really prioritized the farmer citizen. So they were already predisposed to disagree with each other. Hamilton really admired the British system. Jefferson was famously pro-French. Jefferson enslaved hundreds of people. Hamilton was surrounded by slavery but didn’t seem to own individuals himself, and certainly spoke occasionally on behalf of abolitionists. They just had wildly different views.

That was really Washington’s goal whenever he brought together people that he wanted advice from. He started the practice in the councils of war during the Revolution, where he would bring together his officers, sending them a list of questions ahead of time, and use those questions as his meeting agenda. Then they would discuss them and debate them. Washington liked that polite conflict because it allowed him to stress test the different positions that he was contemplating. It allowed him to see how different arguments held up against each other.

If they disagreed, then he would ask for written opinions and then go home and consider all the evidence in his own time and make a decision. That decision-making process was really productive for him because it allowed him to get every perspective that he might not have had himself or expertise that he didn’t have himself. He sought to emulate that in the cabinet, and Hamilton and Jefferson were perfectly positioned to provide different perspectives.

Jefferson came from a diplomatic background where if voices are raised, you’re doing something wrong. He’s used to having conversations at Versailles or other beautiful homes, and his enslaved servants are there providing food and wine to smooth over the conversation. The way Washington approached the cabinet meetings, he would allow there to be this open debate, which Jefferson found absolutely horrendous and he hated the conflict.

Whereas Hamilton, as a lawyer, sort of relished that form of verbal combat?

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1806 / White House, Wikimedia Commons

He did. There are these amazing notes where Jefferson says like Hamilton gave a jury speech for three-quarters of an hour. Imagine them being locked in a room that’s about 15-by-21 feet, filled with furniture, and not particularly roomy. Washington had a very large desk and a comfortable chair, but the rest of them were squished around this temporary table and chairs, and Hamilton goes on for 45 minutes. You can just envision Jefferson’s head exploding.

And it’s really hot!

Yes, they were obviously more used to heat than we were, but still, it’s unpleasant. Then they go back the next day, and Hamilton does it again. He goes on for another 45 minutes. You can just tell that these conflicts suits Washington because he gets all perspectives, but, depending on who was in the cabinet, sometimes they found it incredibly uncomfortable.

Later on in his administration, Washington reduced the number of meetings; he felt like he didn’t need them anymore. He wanted individual advice, but it really left a legacy that the president would meet with the cabinet as he saw fit, and they were not entitled to be a part of the decision-making process.

Yours is the first history of the cabinet in a long time, really long time, right? Since the early 20th century?

Henry Barrett Lennard wrote a book in 1912 that was looking at what the legislative origins were for each of the executive branch departments. When people in the 1960s started writing about where executive power came from, and when did it really emerge, they were coming from this perspective of the New Deal and the military-industrial complex.

By looking at the cabinet’s support for executive power as opposed to competing with the president for authority, I found that Washington and the cabinet made a conscious decision to try and carve out presidential authority over key areas of policy, diplomatic policy, in particular, domestic policy in times of crises. It didn’t have to go that way had Washington taken a much more hands-off approach.

How did the digitization of the important editions of the founders’ papers help your process?

Sometimes, if I had an idea about something, I would start with a word search, and then I branch off from there. One of the things that I discovered using that word search is that during his presidency, Washington refused to use the word cabinet.

He obviously knew what it was. It was in the political lexicon. The minute he retires, he says, “John Adams’ cabinet,” so he was very familiar with this framework, but for some reason, and I have some hypotheses, he refused to use it. He referred to the secretaries as either the “gentlemen of my family” or the secretaries. That is something that had I just been flipping through a volume, I might not have been able to pick up on.

We tend to think about the early United States as being a very Article I government—Congress-led– but what you’re showing is really this very powerful executive right from the beginning.

One of the biggest challenges Washington faced was the rebellion of farmers in western Pennsylvania protesting new federal taxes. He relied heavily on his Cabinet for advice and support as he managed this crisis. (“The Whiskey Rebellion,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Part of it was their proclivities from their time during the war, but it also was a reflection of 18th-century society. Congress was only in session for a short part of the year. Once they left, it was really hard to get them back. So they often just weren’t around, and Washington and the cabinet felt like they couldn’t wait for them to come back to make a decision. In some ways, it was their natural inclination. In some ways, it was a product of what life looked like.

You select three case studies to explain this adoption of executive power so early in the nation’s history. What made the Whiskey Rebellion a compelling example for you?

The Whiskey Rebellion because it’s the primary domestic case study [the other two are the neutrality crisis and the Jay Treaty.] Early on in Washington’s presidency, in 1791, Hamilton worked with Congress to pass a series of excise taxes. One of them is on homemade or home distilled whiskey. This makes a lot of good political sense. It doesn’t tax imports coming in from other nations, so it’s not going to cause a diplomatic issue. It’s not taxed on property, so people who owned enslaved laborers or had very large tracts of land weren’t going to be targeted. It wasn’t a head tax, so it wasn’t unfairly burdensome on the poor. It was a direct tax, so it’s not like a tax collector had to go to each home inflected. It was a very good political decision, except that it tended to unfairly target people in places like western Pennsylvania, Kentucky and North Carolina.

From the beginning of the tax, Kentucky just refused to recognize it. They wouldn’t put anyone in office who supported the tax, and they wouldn’t bring any cases forward against tax evasion. North Carolinians also protested, but the real problem was Pennsylvania. I think Pennsylvania was so problematic because it was where the seat of government was (in Philadelphia), and one of the cradles of liberty where the Continental Congress had met, where the Declaration of Independence had been written, all of these things.

By 1794, the situation had really escalated when the rebels burned down the house of John Neville, the local tax inspector. Edmund Randolph, who was the secretary of state at the time, advocated for sending out negotiators first to try and come up with a peaceful solution. Secretary of War Henry Knox and Hamilton advocated for sending troops out immediately. The attorney general, William Bradford, advocated for sending negotiators out but getting the troops ready if the negotiations failed and this was what Washington did.

It was good politics to appear to be doing everything in their power to avoid the military, but one of the really interesting parts of this whole incident is Washington’s negotiations with Pennsylvania officials. The governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Mifflin, had been one of Washington’s aides de damp, but they had a falling out. When Washington is president, they continue to squabble over a bunch of different things. So Washington meets with all of these Pennsylvania officials and says, “This is what we want to do.” They all they think it’s this huge usurpation of executive authority, unconstitutional, and terrible.

The cabinet worked together to essentially bully the Pennsylvanians into submission through a series of absolutely glorious letters that Hamilton drafted, and Randolph reviewed and then sent to Mifflin. In terms of correspondence, it really can’t be beat, because they are so punchy, and at times, so sarcastic. When it becomes clear that negotiations are not going to work, Washington calls up the militia of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and waits to be sure that everyone approves of this decision before marching out to western Pennsylvania. The rebellion collapses. Then Washington turns around and grants them clemency. When Congress comes back into session, they don’t really do anything, which is tacitly giving all of this authority to the president in moments of crisis to determine both policy and then enforcement, which is remarkable.

So much of what you describe in this book seems like Washington constructing norms and precedents that would be followed for administrations to come.

A couple of things are really important to note. One is that every president had a cabinet after Washington did; that was not required. There’s nothing that was passed after Washington’s time that insisted that presidents meet with their secretaries. Yet I found no evidence that Adams or Jefferson really ever considered abandoning this model. Once they had continued to work with a cabinet, then it becomes this custom that is many years in the making.

Obviously, the cabinet has changed. It’s a lot larger. It’s institutionalized. But Washington’s legacy is that each president gets to decide who their closest advisors are going to be, and how he or she is going to relate to them (hopefully it will be she before too long). They get to decide what those relationships are going to look like, how frequently they’re going to ask for advice, whether they’re going to take that advice. That flexibility can be really great for a president who knows how to manage personalities and bring out the best in their advisors.


Originally published by Smithsonian Magazine, 04.07.2020, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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