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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Given the high profile of the president’s cabinet today, it is remarkable to note that this advisory body is an entirely extra-legal institution.
By Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky
Mention of the cabinet cannot be found in the text of the United States Constitution, nor was it created by congressional legislation after the nation was founded. Instead, the cabinet was created after the fact by President George Washington as a means of responding to the perils and pitfalls of governing in an uncertain time.
The concept of a presidential cabinet was explored at some length during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Delegates considered potential options—a council of revision, a council of state, and an advisory council—but, after repeated debate, rejected all three. Instead, the ratified Constitution included two methods for the president to obtain advice: he could attend a meeting of the Senate to discuss an issue in person, or he could request written opinions from his department secretaries.
The cabinet’s omission from the Constitution stemmed from the fact that delegates feared enabling the president to meet privately with a group of unaccountable advisers would obscure responsibility for the president’s decisions and increase the likelihood of corruption in the executive branch. The delegates blamed the British cabinet for polluting the monarchy and reasoned that, if the president could only obtain advice during Senate hearings and in documented written opinions from his department secretaries, nothing untoward would escape the eyes of the public.
Washington was intimately familiar with the delegates’ rationale for omitting a cabinet from the Constitution. He served as president of the Constitutional Convention, attended every session, and—according to the other delegates—observed the debates with vigilance. Washington also counted many delegates as his close friends. Outside of the convention, he regularly drank tea with them, attended the theater with them, and took day trips outside of Philadelphia with them. Washington likely used these opportunities to further discuss the delegates’ opinions, and by the time he left Philadelphia in September, he knew how they felt about a cabinet.
When Washington first assumed the presidency, he endeavored to honor the delegates’ decision and comply with the strict letter of the Constitution. In September 1789, he planned to send commissioners representing the federal government to a summit attended by the Cherokees, the Creeks, and the State of North Carolina. In preparation for the summit and before providing instructions to the commissioners, Washington chose to consult with the Senate for the first time. On Saturday, August 22, Washington arrived in the Senate chambers in New York City, bearing a prepared address and accompanied by Henry Knox, his secretary of war. Washington handed the speech to Vice President John Adams, who read it aloud to the senators. Unfortunately, due to the summer heat, the doorkeeper had opened the windows in search of a breeze, and the cacophony of pedestrians, horses, and carriages drowned out Adams’s voice. After several complaints, the windows were closed and Adams recited the speech a second time.
The address summarized the current diplomatic relationship between the United States and the Cherokees and Creeks, closing with a list of questions to which the Senate was meant to answer “yes” or “no.” But when Adams was through, the senators sat mute. A few of them shuffled papers or cleared their throats, but offered no advice—in the estimation of Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay, Washington’s presence had intimidated his fellow senators into silence. Convinced that the Senate would lose its right to advise the president if he did not speak, Maclay stood and recommended that the issue be referred to a committee where it could be studied more fully. Washington, well known for his impeccable composure, exploded: “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” On his way out of the building, Washington reportedly swore that he would never return to the Senate for advice. He kept his word.
After this episode, Washington began developing closer relationships with his department secretaries. Initially, Washington only requested their advice in writing, as required by the Constitution. But the realities of governing soon convinced Washington that written advice was not enough. He started calling individual secretaries to his office to follow up on their letters. Then, while he toured the southern states in 1791, he authorized his secretaries to hold meetings in his absence.
Washington fully embraced the cabinet as an integral part of the executive branch during the Neutrality Crisis of 1793. On February 1, France declared war on Great Britain and the Netherlands. Washington learned of the outbreak of war on April 5 while at home at Mount Vernon. He sent dispatches to Alexander Hamilton, his secretary of the treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, his secretary of state, asking them to brainstorm strategies for maintaining American neutrality. When Washington arrived in Philadelphia on the evening of April 17, one of his first actions was to request an in-person meeting with his secretaries.
Over the next eight months, the cabinet met regularly, pausing only when a yellow fever outbreak forced most government officials to flee Philadelphia. The cabinet typically gathered one or two times per week, but when circumstances called for it, increased up to five times per week. The cabinet agreed that the United States could not afford to fight another war, but establishing and enforcing rules of neutrality for the first time as an independent nation was no easy task. Frequent cabinet meetings provided Washington the immediate advice he needed to make precedent-setting decisions about neutrality, privateers, ambassadors, and embargoes.
After the Neutrality Crisis ended, Washington continued to meet with his cabinet consistently for the remainder of his presidency. When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, he immediately assembled his cabinet, sending a letter to his department secretaries on November 6 outlining their responsibilities as cabinet members. In the letter, Jefferson wrote that Washington’s cabinet had “formed a central point for the different branches, preserved [a] unity of object and action among them, exercised that participation in the [conduct] of affairs which his office made incumbent on him, and met himself the due responsibility for whatever was done.” The size, form, and character of the cabinet continue to evolve, but the president’s selection of his advisers remains a personal, intimate decision—and a lasting legacy of Washington’s vision for the nation.
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a presidential historian and a past fellow of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution and An Honest Man: The Inimitable Presidency of John Adams.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More