Vast Early America

The First Presidential Cabinet

Historian Lindsay Chervinksy is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of An American Institution.

Historian Lindsay Chervinsky is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of An American Institution (Harvard University Press, 2020).

Who is Lindsay Chervinsky?

Thanks so much for having me! I’m a historian, speaker, and writer. I’ve always loved history! When I was a kid, I consumed historical fiction like oxygen. I’ve always been fascinated by how people lived in other places or centuries, especially what the details of day life looked like or how average people felt during important moments.

My family visited a lot of historic sites when I was little, which definitely sparked my imagination and helped me envision the daily life of people I read about. 

Introduce The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of An American Institution

On November 26, 1791, President George Washington convened the first cabinet meeting with his department secretaries: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.

Washington did not enter the presidency intending to create a cabinet, but he realized that he needed more support than the Constitution provided. When faced with constitutional questions, domestic rebellions, or international crises, Washington realized that he needed to hear multiple perspectives and created the cabinet.

When he gathered together the secretaries, Washington borrowed many of the leadership practices he had employed in councils of war during the Revolution.   

How did Lindsay Chervinsky come up with the idea for The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of An American Institution

Lindsay Chervinsky: I went looking for books and articles on the creation of the cabinet and couldn’t find any!

There is a ton of great work on Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and their relationships with each other, but I couldn’t find anything that explained how the institution was formed.

So I set about trying to answer that question. 

Is the president’s cabinet in the constitution? 

Article II gives the president the right to request written advice from the department secretaries, but the delegates were very specific that the advice should be written to provide a paper trail about who advocated which position.

The First Federal Congress created the departments, but passed no additional legislation to form the cabinet. It was really Washington’s creation. 

What are the main purposes of a presidential cabinet? 

The cabinet debates also forced Hamilton and Jefferson to defend their positions, allowing Washington to observe the strengths and weaknesses of each side. 

How did George Washington experiment with creating a presidential cabinet? 

Washington initially tried several other types of advising systems:

  • He worked with James Madison as a sort-of Prime Minister.
  • He visited the Senate to get advice on foreign affairs.
  • He even asked for input from the Supreme Court.

But he dismissed those options for various reasons before turning to the cabinet.

Washington met with the cabinet up to five times per week in 1793, but meetings declined in his final years in office. Maybe Washington felt that he needed less cabinet support because he trusted his judgment and had established so many precedents already, but I think the decline reflected his relationships with the new department secretaries. They simply didn’t match up against the originals and Washington didn’t think much of their abilities.

But the decline of cabinet meetings left a very important precedent: the secretaries didn’t have an institutionalized or legal right to participate in the decision-making process. They could offer their opinions when Washington invited them to his office, but he didn’t have to listen to their advice.  

How did the Jay Treaty influence the presidential cabinet? 

The Jay Treaty is a really remarkable case study for Washington’s cabinet. Washington received the treaty in the spring of 1795, shared it with Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, and they decided to convene an emergency session of the Senate.

Until the Senate received the treaty, Randolph and Washington kept the treaty a secret from everyone else, including the other secretaries—which NEVER would have happened when Jefferson and Hamilton were in office. So the secrecy demonstrates how much cabinet interactions had changed in just a few years. 

After the Senate ratified the treaty, Washington signed it at the end of the summer. A clause in the treaty required the U.S. government to create a commission to adjudicate prewar debts Americans owed to British merchants. Because the commission required money, the House of Representatives got its hands on the treaty. Republicans in the House hated the treaty and saw the commission as an opportunity to scuttle it, so they requested all executive papers pertaining to the negotiations.

Washington rejected this request and asserted executive privilege for the first time, which was a critical presidential precedent. 

What is an outstanding research question Lindsy Chervinsky would like to see someone tackle about presidential cabinets? 

I’d love for someone to look at why cabinets fail. It’s easy to say corruption or greed or conflict, but it’s actually a breakdown in leadership when an administration is overshadowed by bad cabinets. That would be a great project. 

If Lindsay Chervinsky could go back in time and observe any single event associated with her book, what would it be? 

The events surrounding Edmund Randolph’s resignation. I’d love to know what he actually said to the French minister in 1794 and how he was feeling when Washington, Timothy Pickering, and Oliver Wolcott, Jr. and accused him of treason the following year.

There’s very little documentation about what actually happened in that meeting and I wish I knew what they felt and said.

I’d love to know for sure whether Randolph did it—I don’t think so, but there is no way to know for sure. 

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By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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