While the current presidential cabinet includes sixteen members, George Washington’s cabinet included just four original members: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. Washington set the precedents for how these roles would interact with the presidency, establishing the cabinet as the chief executive's private, trusted advisors.
(April 30, 1789 -
March 4, 1797)
SECRETARY OF STATE
SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY
* John Jay, Secretary of State, September 26, 1789 - March 22, 1790
Historian Ron Chernow discuses Washington's style in administering his cabinet.
Washington Library Founding Director Douglas Bradburn discusses Washington's method of forming his cabinet.
A cabinet is not mandated by either the Constitution or established law.
While there are currently sixteen cabinet level positions, George Washington’s original cabinet consisted of only four members.
In order to establish both credibility and balance, George Washington chose a cabinet that included members from different regions of the country.
On September 11, 1789, George Washington sent his first cabinet nomination to the Senate. Just minutes later, the Senate approved the appointment of Alexander Hamilton unanimously as the Secretary of the Treasury.
The group came to be known as the cabinet based on a reference made by James Madison who described the meetings as “the president’s cabinet.”
The constitutional reference utilized to serve as justification for the creation of the cabinet reads 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.”
When Washington signed the Judiciary Act of 1789, he not only created the federal judiciary but also founded the office of Attorney General. Unlike Washington’s other cabinet officials, the Attorney General did not head an executive department.
Washington held his first full cabinet meeting on February 25, 1793, with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
One prominent individual who did not attend cabinet meetings was Vice President John Adams. In fact, Adams found his role as vice president to be so tedious that he once referred to it as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."
The cabinet was often filled with tension, particularly between Jefferson and Hamilton, surrounding the question of a national bank. Despite the acrimony, Jefferson believed that the tone had little impact on governance, explaining that "The pain was for Hamilton and myself, but the public experienced no inconvenience."