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The Cabinet The Cabinet by Lindsay M Chervinsky

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Washington’s First American Cabinet: The Creation of an Institution

Historian Lindsay M Chervinsky tells us about how George Washington’s Cabinet shaped the path of American political governance

Published on March 30, 2020
First published in the May-June 2020 edition of The American magazine

Thank you for your time Lindsay. Our traditional first question, where in the States are you from?

I'm was born in Northern California, just east of San Francisco. I've lived all over the country since then, but now I call Northern Virginia home, just outside of Washington, D.C.

How did you first become interested in the history of US Politics?

I can't really think of time when I wasn't! My family raised my siblings and I to read, ask questions, appreciate culture, and have opinions. Whenever we went on a trip, we always had to do at least one "cultural" activity, even if that meant walking the Freedom Trail in Boston, while wearing shorts in a snowstorm in March. My mom made sure we knew our history and cared about it! Early on, I became really fascinated with the first few presidential administrations. It seemed to me that individuals had such an incredible ability to shape policy and change the course of events. I've studied a lot of different time periods, but always came back to that one, especially as I've learned how much the early precedents shape our system today.

Your latest book is all about the origins of the US cabinet - how did the book come about, and why is it an important story to tell?

While I was in graduate school, I went looking for a scholarship that explained where the institution came from, and I couldn't find anything! There is tons of literature on Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, and their relationships with each other, of course, but I wanted to understand their relationships within the context of the government. Everything that I read sort of assumed the cabinet as inevitable or there since day one of Washington's presidency. Once I started doing my research, I realized that really wasn't the case. But the cabinet is such an important story to tell because it's still at the center of every presidential administration and the secretaries wield enormous power. Their relationships with the president shape events across the globe and their interactions occur largely outside of public or congressional oversight. That system was created by Washington - not the Constitution, constitutional amendment, or legislation. Americans should know where it came from and how it evolved.

How and why did Washington create his first Cabinet?

Most people don't know this fact, but Washington didn't convene his first cabinet meeting until November 26, 1791 - over two-and-a-half years into his presidency. Initially he tried to stick with the options outlined for him in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution: he requested written advice from the department secretaries and met with the Senate to discuss foreign affairs. But he found those options inadequate. The Senate was a legislative body and preferred to debate issues in committee before providing a recommendation, and if Washington asked for advice, he wanted immediate answers. He had the same problem with written correspondence. They were dealing with incredibly complex issues and writing back and forth with parchment and quill was time consuming, frustrating, and did not allow for the deep discussion that was often required to address a problem.

By January 1790, the secretaries frequently followed up their correspondence with in-person, one-on-one consultations. He gradually inched toward group meetings over the next two years. In 1792, he organized a handful of meetings, but it wasn't until 1793 that Washington met with the cabinet regularly - up to five times per week, sometimes for hours each day.

What does having a cabinet mean from a political perspective, and how did the British and Americans differ in their approach to a cabinet system?

Well first, people often ask where the term "cabinet" comes from! Initially, the British kings met with the Privy Council in a large chamber. Once the Privy Council grew too big and cumbersome to provide effective advice, the king started meeting with his favorite advisors in a small chamber off to the side, called the king's cabinet. As a result, this group of favorites became known as the "cabinet council" and then eventually just the cabinet. So when Washington began meeting with his secretaries, Americans borrowed the language from the British.

The main difference between the two is the British ministers hold a seat in Parliament and are members of the ruling party while they serve in the cabinet. So they are fundamentally a part of the legislative branch and make up the "government" after their party wins an election. American secretaries are prohibited from holding any other government office during their tenures. They are not elected; the president nominates them with Senate confirmation. They report directly to the president, making them members of the executive branch.

How did Washington's Cabinet change America's early diplomatic relationships with Britain and other foreign powers?

The cabinet ensured that Washington heard multiple perspectives before establishing diplomatic policy. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson favored a pro-French position, while Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton pursued a pro-British agenda. Washington usually solicited opinions from both sides to get all the facts before making a decision for himself. Usually, his final determination was somewhere in between Jefferson and Hamilton and balanced both sides.

What is the legacy of Washington's Cabinet for those Presidents who followed him?

In the final years of his presidency, the cabinet was accepted as a central part of the executive branch, but Washington moved away from regular meetings and preferred individuals consultations. He made clear that he would consult the secretaries when it helped him, but that the secretaries had no right to be a part of the decision-making process. As a result, he left a legacy that each president selects for himself or herself who their closest advisors are going to be. Sometimes that's the department secretaries, other times it's friends or family members. As I said before, those relationships take place with very little public or congressional oversight.

How has public perception of cabinets developed over the years?

That's a great question. Initially the cabinet was viewed as the president's closest advisors. The institution had expanded and institutionalized, and the National Security Council has taken on some of the responsibilities originally handled by the cabinet. Now, some presidents have close relationships with individuals in the cabinet, but it's really a case-by-case basis. Cabinets take on a very interesting political role. They serve as a very public representation of the president's priorities. If the president seems committed to promoting unity and diversity, they will appoint a cabinet that reflects the varied experiences and backgrounds of the American people. If a president seems committed to industry and trade, they will fill cabinet positions with businessmen and women.

Additionally, when they work seamlessly, their successes bring acclaim to the president and then tend to blend into the background. When they cause problems, whether it be through scandal, misdeeds, or failed programs, they become very visible and tarnish a president's reputation. For example, Presidents Grant and Harding's reputations both suffered because of unethical behavior in their cabinets. Cabinets can also serve to deflect blame from the president and take the fall for an unpopular position or legal issue.

What part of Washington's Cabinet most interested you?

I spent a lot of time trying to get in their heads. Not the ideas and feelings that they wrote down, but what they were saying in between the lines. What they might have felt at particular moments. For example, in chapter eight of my book, I write about Secretary of State Edmund Randolph's resignation and what he was feeling when the other secretaries accused him of selling state secrets. No spoilers! But to answer that question, I spent time thinking about honor culture, his relationship with Washington, and how I might have felt in that situation. I can't say with absolutely certainty, because he didn't leave a diary behind, but I gave it my best guess and I was honest with the readers about what I knew for sure and what was my hypothesis.

What projects are next on the horizon for you?

I'm going to continue to work on the cabinet. I think it's a fascinating way to examine relationships and a perspective that some historians don't take when evaluating presidents. John Adams had one of the worst cabinets, practically treasonous, while Thomas Jefferson had one of the best. The two friends and sometimes enemies have been compared before, but their cabinets haven't. I hope that it will reveal a lot about ego and ambition at the highest levels of government, presidential leadership, and what it actually takes to manage a group of highly competitive, opinionated men (and women).

Finally, our traditional closer - what's the best thing about being Lindsay Chervinsky?

Two things! I'm so grateful that people find my work relevant and interesting. Getting to share years of research with readers and audiences is so gratifying. Second, I get to be John Quincy Dog Adams's dog mom. He's hilarious, opinionated, and let's me dress him up in historical costumes. He makes every day better.

The Cabinet by Lindsay M Chervinsky is available to buy now, from the Harvard University Press website. To find more about Lindsay's work, check out www.lindsaychervinsky.com, and don't forget to follow Lindsay (and Quincy dog!) on Twitter @lmchervinsky.


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