Ornamental Separator

Considered Opinions

Though not provided for in the Constitution,Washington soon saw a need for a Cabinet

On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States. He had a very good sense of what was expected of him. He had served as the president of the Constitutional Convention and had attended every session for over three months as the delegates discussed potential provisions for the new government.

During their debates, the delegates had rejected several proposals for an executive council — including a proposal for a Cabinet composed of the department secretaries.

But 2½ years into his presidency, Washington realized that he needed one. On Nov. 26, 1791, he convened the first Cabinet meeting.

Washington did not start his administration intending to create the Cabinet. Instead, he tried to govern with the advisory options outlined in Article 2 of the Constitution. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention understood that no one could govern alone or be expected to have all the answers, so they tried to provide responsible, experienced advisers.

First, the Constitution grants the president the power to negotiate treaties and to make foreign appointments “with the Advice and Consent” of the Senate. The 21st-century populace expects that the Senate will either veto or rubber-stamp the president’s policies, but that was not the expectation in 1789. Instead, the delegates took seriously the “Advice” part of that clause and crafted the Senate to serve as a council of foreign affairs. The senators would be “safe” advisers because they were selected by state legislatures, and presumably the states would elect knowledgeable, experienced men to the Senate. Additionally, if the senators gave bad advice or advocated damaging policies, the states could remove them.

Accordingly, Washington planned his first visit to the Senate in the summer of 1789, just a few months after his inauguration. The federal government was sending peace commissioners to an upcoming summit with representatives from North Carolina, South Carolina and the Creek and Cherokee nations. Washington needed to provide instructions to the commissioners, a foreign policy task that was new to him, so he wanted the senators’ input. He sent ahead all of the existing treaties between Native nations and the United States so the senators could be prepared.

On Aug. 22 at 11 a.m., Washington arrived at Federal Hall in New York City, home of the first Federal Congress. Henry Knox, the acting secretary of war under the Confederation Congress, joined Washington to answer any questions the senators might have about the previous treaties. Washington delivered a prepared address and then shared a series of questions that he expected the senators to debate and answer.

Washington’s address was met with silence. Some senators shuffled papers, and most avoided eye contact with the president. After a few uncomfortable minutes, Sen. William Maclay stood and suggested that they refer the issue to committee to discuss privately and perhaps the president could return the following week for the Senate’s recommendation. Washington bolted from his chair and yelled, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!”

Though he quickly regained his composure and agreed to come back the following week for the senators’ input, the damage was done. On his way out of the Senate chambers, Washington reportedly said that he would never again return for advice — and he kept his word.

Just a few months after taking office, Washington had rejected one of the key advisory options provided to him by the Constitution.

A Predictable Path

In 1789, Congress also created the three executive departments and Washington nominated Henry Knox as secretary of war, Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state and Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. Congress also provided for an attorney general, and Washington nominated Edmund Randolph to fill that post. He hoped these men would prove more effective advisers.

Article 2 of the Constitution gives the president the right to “require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments,” so Washington initially limited his interactions to letters. But he discovered that the issues facing the executive branch were too complex to be dispatched through cumbersome written correspondence. He frequently had follow-up questions or recommended edits that were frustrating to convey through parchment and quill.

Starting in January 1790, just a few months after he nominated the department secretaries to their offices, Washington expanded these working relationships to include individual consultations. Usually a secretary would send Washington
a letter he received and his proposed response and then schedule a meeting for the following morning to discuss proposed changes and policy implications.

That system initially worked — then Washington made a change in 1791, convening the first Cabinet meeting in U.S. history.

In retrospect, the Cabinet makes a great deal of sense, especially for Washington’s style of leadership. During his tenure as commander in chief of the Continental army, Washington relied on councils of war. He convened councils before any major strategic decision to build consensus among his officers and to obtain political cover for potentially controversial retreats, for example. And he discovered that the councils could be incredibly useful ways to learn new information and gather a variety of opinions.

The Cabinet was a natural evolution of the war councils. The Cabinet meetings offered Washington the opportunity to hear multiple perspectives and points of view. While the four advisers in the Cabinet were white men, and thus might not appear to 21st-century audiences to be particularly diverse, their contemporaries viewed the administration differently. Only white men were considered citizens, so the pool of applicants from which Washington drew his advisers was much more limited.

Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox and Randolph represented different economic, cultural, factional, religious and education segments of the population. They also brought very different experiences to the Cabinet. Washington carefully selected these appointments to bring together the different regions of the nation, to help citizens feel represented in the new administration and to foster emotional ties to the federal government at a time when nationalism did not yet exist.

The Cabinet also served as a natural advisory body when Washington tackled big issues that frequently required solutions that included multiple departments. He called Cabinet meetings when faced with domestic rebellions, international crises and constitutional questions.

Group meetings proved especially important in 1793 when the Cabinet worked to keep the nation neutral as France and Great Britain embroiled the international community in a global war. All the secretaries agreed that neutrality was essential — the country was just beginning to recover from the Revolutionary War, economically, physically, environmentally and emotionally. Not to mention, the government didn’t have an army or navy with which to fight even if it wanted to participate.

But staying above the fray was far more complicated than simply issuing a declaration. Defining and enforcing neutrality turned out to be a team effort. Neutrality obviously included diplomacy, which was under Jefferson’s purview as the secretary of state, but it also included the Department of War and many legal questions that demanded Randolph’s input as the attorney general. For example, if American citizens disobeyed Washington’s proclamation and fought in the war, the Cabinet had to determine what law they had broken, which court would hear the case and which officials would enforce potential punishment. Internationally, diplomatic actors forced the Cabinet to establish rules to govern privateers — private ships that fought under a license from a foreign power — in American ports and what to do if they violated neutral policy.

Washington organized 51 meetings in 1793 to address these complex issues — a high-water mark for the Cabinet in his administration. Most of the time, the Cabinet gathered in the private study of the presidential mansion in Philadelphia. It was a small space, about 15 feet by 21 feet, and full of furniture that revealed the multipurpose nature of the room. A dressing table and mirror indicated that Christopher Sheels, Washington’s enslaved manservant, probably tended to the president’s hair and gave him his daily shave in this space. The large French desk, over 5 feet wide, straddled one corner of the room and provided writing surfaces on both sides for Washington and his private secretaries. Most of all, the room reflected the personal, private nature of the Cabinet meetings. Washington was the only individual in his household to use this space, and he invited very few guests to share it with him. The secretaries belonged to an exclusive inner circle.

Finally, the Cabinet was a flexible institution designed to serve the president’s needs. After most of Washington’s initial appointees retired by January 1795, he reduced his reliance on meetings with his new Cabinet. Instead, he preferred to exchange written correspondence and meet individually with his favorite advisers. Perhaps he trusted his own judgment and felt compelled to call a Cabinet meeting only for precedent-setting decisions. Perhaps he had already established countless precedents, so there was less need for group deliberation. Or perhaps he didn’t have the same rapport and trust with his new batch of secretaries, so he felt less inclined to bring them together for a group discussion.

A Change in Direction

Washington left no written record explaining why he shifted his leadership practices away from the Cabinet, but this change left an important precedent for his successors. Washington demonstrated that the Cabinet could be a useful advisory body, but that it didn’t always best serve the president’s needs. What worked for Washington one year didn’t necessarily work the next year or even for the next president. Accordingly, the Cabinet had no institutional right to participate in the decision-making process. The secretaries were welcome to offer their opinions when asked, but they couldn’t force the president to listen or demand to be in the room when the president made the final determination.

Washington, therefore, left a critical and persistent precedent. To this day, presidents select their closest advisers and decide how frequently to consult with them and whether to listen to their advice. Sometimes those advisers are Cabinet secretaries, but other times they are friends, family members, former business associates or industry leaders. Those relationships develop with very little congressional or public oversight.

To be sure, much about the executive branch has changed. The Cabinet has expanded, government administrations and bureaucracies have grown exponentially and Congress created the National Security Council, just to name a few alterations.

But Washington’s legacy remains. Every president has worked with a Cabinet, and the secretaries are usually at the center of every major policy decision, international conflict and social development. We cannot appreciate the presidency — either in 1789 or today — without first understanding the Cabinet.

Lindsay M., Chervinksy is a scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. A historian of the presidency, she is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.

Image: When he wanted advice, George Washington (left) turned to trusted secretaries, including (second from left to far right) Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Edmund Randolph. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

More From This Issue

Garden Secrets

Archaeological evidence uncovers clues to long-hidden landscape created by John Custis IV

1 Minute Read

Hatching a Bouquet

Flowers fashioned from egg cartons are a lasting 
reminder of spring

2 Minute Read

Harnessing Opportunities

A chance meeting on a vacation trip led to a career change for Colonial Williamsburg’s future Coach and Livestock director

8 Minute Read