RECAP: “The Creation of the President’s Cabinet,” with Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky

Talking about the constitutional origins of the president’s cabinet comes by necessity with a wink and a nod, White House Historical Association Historian Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky noted in opening her April 17 colloquium presentation, since the institution we’ve all grown so accustomed to isn’t officially mentioned in the nation’s charter. That said, variations on the concept of a cabinet certainly made their way into the debates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, with two primary schools of thought emerging.

On one side, George Mason floated something similar to the Council of State that was written into the Virginia Constitution. An eight-person advisory body chosen by the state assembly, the Council of State, when extrapolated to the federal level, roused concerns among convention delegates that such a body would, at best, limit the power of the executive and, at worst, turn him into a puppet of the legislature, and Mason’s proposal was eventually unanimously cast aside. Opposite Mason was South Carolina’s Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who proffered something closer to Great Britain’s Privy Council: a flexible, behind-the-scenes group of department heads, a private secretary, and perhaps the Chief Justice whose advice the president could ask for but would in no way be obliged to follow. While this solved the problem of rendering the executive toothless, it introduced in its place the issues of corruption, cronyism, and lack of transparency regarding who, actually, was making decisions that the public associated with the British model. This, too, fell by the wayside.

Or at least it seemed to fall by the wayside. Under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution—which permitted the president to request the opinions of executive department heads on matters related to their offices in writing (so to create a paper trail)—Washington initially established an advisory body not unlike what Pinckney suggested. This proto-cabinet, which consisted of the likes of Henry Knox, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Edmund Randolph, initially operated through individual letter exchanges followed by private consultations, though Washington would soon pursue Article II, Section 2’s second advisory clause, which granted him the power to seek the advice of the Senate on matters related to treaties. Traveling to New York with Knox to solicit input on existing treaty agreements with Native Americans, Washington’s queries were met with silence and the request to return in a week for further discussion. Enraged, Washington never again publicly sought Senatorial counsel, though by 1793, he was regularly convening full cabinet meetings (51 that year alone) as tempers over the neutrality crisis flared. The role of the cabinet continued to shift and evolve during Washington’s presidency, and by the end of his time in office, he was back where he started, resorting primarily to written advice and one-on-one meetings with department heads. The takeaway, Dr. Chervinsky offered, is one of contingency, as Washington’s vacillating stance on how the cabinet would be used ensured only that it did not have any substantive, constitutionally-determined role in the decisionmaking process but rather served entirely at the president’s leisure. Projecting outward, this would mean that subsequent cabinets—from Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” to the diverse, close-knit cabinet under Obama—would be deployed and empowered not by precedent but as the executive saw fit.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky received her B.A. in History and Political Science from George Washington University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Early American History from UC-Davis. She joined the White House Historical Association in February 2019 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History. She has published articles in Law and History Review, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, and Presidential Studies Quarterly, and her first book, The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, was published by Harvard University Press in Spring 2020.