The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution

Harvard University Press

The thesis of Lindsay Chervinsky’s excellent new book is that the U.S. Constitution of 1787 established the national government of the United States in general terms, but it did not descend to particulars. Article II, which lays out the powers and responsibilities of the executive, left so many things vague that the first presidents had in many ways to “invent” the American presidency. None played a more important role than the hero of the American Revolution, George Washington. To which we must say, thank goodness.

Washington did not particularly want to be the president of the United States. After the war of independence ended, he resigned his commission on Dec. 23, 1783, with a characteristic show of republican modesty. He had saved the country. All he wanted now was to retire to his beloved estate at Mount Vernon, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus in the pages of Plutarch’s Lives, and spend the rest of his life in the quiet enjoyment of agricultural pursuits. As early as 1776, Washington wrote to his brother John, “Nothing in this world would contribute so much to mine as to be once more fixed among you in the peaceable enjoyment of my own vine and fig-tree.”

Washington had to be cajoled — even guilted — into attending the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, and then to accept the unanimous summons of the people to serve as the first president of the United States. He wound up fulfilling two terms, mostly because his closest associates, including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, assured him that he must stay at his post long enough to secure the post-revolution settlement. By the time he left public life once and for all for Mount Vernon in March 1797, the great man was spent. He had only two years and nine months to sit under his fig tree and bask in his fame before his death on Dec. 14, 1799. Even Great Britain’s King George III had conditionally called Washington “the greatest man in the world.”

Washington assumed the presidency on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City. He was 57 years old. Because the Constitution was silent on so many questions and he had no prior American tradition on which to model himself, President Washington had to invent a large number of presidential protocols, including the cabinet. As always, he was acutely aware that he was playing a role in the theater of the world. To his friend Catharine Macaulay Graham, he wrote, “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any action, whose motives may not be subject to a double interpretation. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.”

The whole world was watching. Washington knew that history was watching, too, and the future of the American republic depended on his getting it right. He understood that if his presidency for any reason failed, the fragile American republic might not survive. As he traveled to New York City to take the oath of office, Washington wrote an astonishing letter to his friend Henry Knox: “My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”

Washington was determined to bring dignity, formality, a somewhat severe deportment and perhaps even a touch of what we would call “majesty” (a term he would have disclaimed) to the office. He did not want to behave like a king. Americans had had enough of that and Washington was genuinely committed to the creation of a sustainable American republic. But he did not want to be so informal that the American people would fail to show sufficient respect to the office, to the one individual who represented the entire country, not merely a state or a congressional district. Washington wanted the American people to look up to their president as a person of unimpeachable decorum — a man of substance who measured his words before releasing them from his pen or mouth, a person of exquisite civility, perhaps a slightly aloof civility, a man who embodied the best qualities of the American experiment, a person who carefully avoided anything that was low, vulgar, indecorous, or demagogic. He sought to be the president of all of the American people, not merely those whose political views he preferred. Washington put up with Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state for two and a half years, even though Jefferson was somewhat disloyal and already, with his closest friend James Madison, laying the groundwork for an opposition party. 

Washington had to make a dizzying number of decisions about presidential deportment and protocol with the whole world watching (and judging) his every move. How should a president travel? Should the president ever stay in a private citizen’s home? Should he shake hands with mere citizens? Should he wear a ceremonial sword? Should he have a formidable title? Who makes the first visit, the president or the other gentleman or woman? (If you’ve ever read a Jane Austen novel, you know that this was a big issue in the 18th century.) Should the president address Congress in person or through intermediaries? Should he hold public receptions, which any decently attired American could attend? What exactly did the Constitution mean by indicating that the president should seek the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate on some issues? Should the president tour the country? How does the president balance his ceremonial functions and his political ambitions? What is the role of the president’s wife (not yet known as the First Lady)? How much should the president cooperate with congressional requests and investigations; when should the president invoke executive privilege? Under what circumstances should a president veto congressional legislation? Can he do so over policy disagreements, or must he believe the legislation to be unconstitutional? Should the president write a veto message? Should the Supreme Court be consulted informally on constitutional questions? How strictly should the separation of powers doctrine be interpreted? If the country goes to war, should the president serve as commander in chief in the field?

Lindsay Chervinksy, author of The Cabinet.

One of the great strengths of Chervinsky’s book is her interest in the social behavior of the first couple. George and Martha Washington had to establish the protocols of how the presidential couple made themselves available to the government insiders and average citizens of the republic. The Washingtons erred on the side of a somewhat frigid formality. At his weekly levees (on Tuesday afternoons), Washington bowed slightly, but did not shake hands with his guests. Martha Washington hosted slightly less intimidating gatherings for women (and some men) on Friday evenings. When the “democrat” Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, he swept aside the pomposities, walked to his first inaugural, met guests in his house slippers, corresponded freely with a wide range of citizens, rich and poor, powerful and plain, and let his pet mockingbird Dick wander freely through the White House. His presidential protocol, he famously said, was pell-mell.   

The Constitution Washington had helped to create and now embodied did not establish a formal cabinet. It authorizes — but does not compel — the president to “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." The Constitution does not specify what the executive departments will be, or how many, or what their responsibilities should be. The First Congress of the United States (1789-91), which settled some of these questions, is regarded by some historians as an extension — or at least application — of the Constitutional Convention.

One reason the Constitution is silent about a presidential cabinet, Chervinsky argues, is because the Founding Fathers still had a bad taste in their mouths about the British cabinets that had preyed upon the liberties of the American people during the colonial era. Perhaps partly for that reason, Chervinsky’s painstaking research reveals that Washington was slow to establish a cabinet and that once he had put it together, he soon ceased to find it a useful or congenial way to sort out administration policy. The first cabinet meeting was held on Nov. 26, 1791, fully two-and-a-half years into his first term. The four-man cabinet met only three times in 1791, and six times in 1792, but then 51 times in 1793, a crisis year in America. Thereafter, the president convened the cabinet significantly less often. By reducing the role of his cabinet in his last years as president, Washington “ensured,” says Chervinsky, “that the cabinet developed very little institutional power.”

Today there are 15 cabinet members, each one requiring Senate confirmation. In the first few administrations, there were only four: The Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General. For Washington, these positions were filled by Jefferson of Virginia (state), Alexander Hamilton of New York (treasury), Henry Knox of Massachusetts (war), and Edmund Randolph of Virginia (AG).

Chervinsky opens the book with one of the most important pivot points in the history of the presidency. On Aug. 22, 1789, just four months into his first term, Washington appeared before the U.S. Senate to seek advice about Indian relations. He believed that such consultation was the intention of the Constitution makers, that on certain questions the president would seek advice from the Senate before acting or making a decision. Washington had sent the relevant paperwork ahead, including a specific list of questions he wished to discuss with the 22 senators. Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania, who was something of a contrarian, stood up to suggest that the matter be referred to the appropriate Senate committee for careful deliberation, after which the president would be invited to come back for a final discussion. At this, President Washington, who had a volcanic temper which he usually managed to keep under tight control, blew up and shouted, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” Says Chervinsky, “As he returned to his carriage, Washington muttered under his breath that he would never return for advice. He kept his word—August 22, 1789, was the first and last time he visited the Senate to request guidance on foreign affairs.”

If Maclay and the Senate had spent the afternoon sorting these things out with the president, American administrative history might have played out in a very different way. In this case, a negative precedent was set. Later presidents have occasionally visited Capitol Hill to meet with congressmen and senators, but Washington’s frustrating experience largely foreclosed that option and helped to cement the separation of powers doctrine at the heart of the American Constitutional system.

One of the best moments in the book is Chervinsky’s account of a cabinet meeting on April 19, 1793, as the administration attempted to find a peaceful path for the infant U.S. as the wars of the French Revolution began to disrupt the Atlantic world. The five men, Washington plus his four secretaries, met in the president’s private study on the second floor of his residence in Philadelphia, where the national government was headquartered during the 1790s. The room was modest, just 15 by 21 feet, and was dominated by the president’s 5-foot-long desk, a wood burning stove, a dressing table, a large globe, and bookshelves, plus a table and chairs brought into the room for the meeting.

Five of America’s most important men were in that small room. This quintet included Washington, the Father of His Country, a 6-foot-2-inch man who was already a living legend; the physically imposing Henry Knox (who weighed at least 250 pounds); Edmund Randolph, the proud but indecisive scion of one of Virginia’s most distinguished families; and two giants of the early national period, America’s Renaissance Man Thomas Jefferson, also 6 feet, 2 inches, but less bulky and formidable than the president, and the idefatigable policy wonk Alexander Hamilton, who — like him or not — was perhaps America’s greatest secretary of the treasury. That’s a lot of ego for one small room. Jefferson later admitted that he and Hamilton were “daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks.” Washington did not say much at these meetings, but Hamilton, according to Jefferson, tended to hold forth with all of his overweening confidence for interminably long periods of time. Chervinsky concludes, “When Washington and the four secretaries gathered in the room, it would have been rather cozy at best, claustrophobic at worst.”

Chervinsky also carefully examines the first cabinet scandal in American history. In August 1795, Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, Jefferson’s replacement, was accused of taking bribes from the French government in exchange for trying to influence the administration’s foreign policy. We now know that while Randolph was the weakest of Washington’s cabinet ministers, and undoubtedly guilty of bad judgment, he almost certainly did not take bribes or betray his country. Randolph resigned immediately, under a cloud, then promptly wrote a long defense of his honor and his conduct. Chervinsky provides an excellent analysis of Washington’s invocation of executive privilege, the first instance in American history, when Congress requested that he turn over documents relating to the highly controversial Jay Treaty of 1795. And the first presidential veto, April 5, 1792, of an apportionment bill.

Washington’s immediate successors accepted the idea of the cabinet though each of them handled them differently. John Adams made the terrible, perhaps fatal, mistake of retaining Washington’s cabinet when the venerable old man retired. This meant that he was never able to surround himself with men of his own stamp. It meant, too, that these holdover cabinet members never felt genuine loyalty to him. In fact, several of them took their marching orders from Alexander Hamilton, who had retired from Washington’s cabinet in early 1795, but who took joy in playing shadow president from New York, where he had undertaken a lucrative law practice.

Hamilton despised Adams for not being decisive and warlike enough, but particularly for not governing in a “Hamiltonian” fashion. Adams returned the contempt. It was he who called the illegitimately born Hamilton the “bastard brat of a Scotch Pedler.” Adams’ greatest act as president — sending a second peace delegation to France in 1800 after the first one was mistreated, thus ratcheting down the likelihood of war — was undertaken without any consultation with his disloyal cabinet. They were livid, of course, but Adams later decided it was his greatest achievement as the second president of the United States.

Jefferson was too shrewd to hamstring his administration with holdovers, particularly since he regarded his election in 1800 as the “second American revolution.” The suave and conflict-averse Jefferson assembled what still ranks as perhaps the most harmonious cabinet in American history. His principal coadjutor was one of the most talented men in American history, Secretary of State James Madison, soon enough to be the fourth president of the United States. “The harmony was so cordial among us all,” Jefferson wrote, “that we never failed, by a contribution of mutual views, of the subject, to form an opinion acceptable to the whole.”

This well-researched, thoughtful, and fascinating book points to the strength and the weakness of the U.S. Constitution. Because it lays out the powers and responsibilities of the three branches of the national government in only general terms, it gives each president considerable freedom to define the office to suit his purposes and his management style. So long as the office is occupied by an individual who understands the gravity, dignity, and fragility of a republic, America is in good hands. Between 1789 and 1797, George Washington formulated the standards against which all subsequent presidents must be measured.