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



The US Constitution never established a presidential cabinet--the delegates to the Constitutional Convention explicitly rejected the idea. So how did George Washington create one of the most powerful bodies in the federal government?

On November 26, 1791, George Washington convened his department secretaries--Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph--for the first cabinet meeting. Why did he wait two and a half years into his presidency to call his cabinet? Because the US Constitution did not create or provide for such a body. Washington was on his own.

Faced with diplomatic crises, domestic insurrections, and constitutional challenges--and finding congressional help lacking--Washington decided he needed a group of advisors he could turn to. He modeled his new cabinet on the councils of war he had led as commander of the Continental Army. In the early days, the cabinet served at the president's pleasure. Washington tinkered with its structure throughout his administration, at times calling regular meetings, at other times preferring written advice and individual discussions.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky reveals the far-reaching consequences of Washington's choice. The tensions in the cabinet between Hamilton and Jefferson heightened partisanship and contributed to the development of the first party system. And as Washington faced an increasingly recalcitrant Congress, he came to treat the cabinet as a private advisory body to summon as needed, greatly expanding the role of the president and the executive branch.

Product Details

Price: $29.95  $26.96
Publisher: Belknap Press
Published Date: April 07, 2020
Pages: 432
Dimensions: 5.9 X 1.7 X 8.9 inches | 1.5 pounds
Language: English
Type: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780674986480

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About the Author

Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a White House historian at the White House Historical Association. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.


Chervinsky offers a new perspective on a crucial and enduring institution in American politics, persuasively showing the centrality of the cabinet in the founding era and beyond. With clear, crisp prose and a compelling story, this book is a must-read not only for historians, political scientists, and legal scholars, but also for anyone interested in learning about a foundation of the American republic.--Gautham Rao, author of National Duties: Custom Houses and the Making of the American State
A clear, concise, and lively study of a topic that has long needed such coverage. Chervinsky skillfully shows the Revolutionary roots of the early cabinet and explores how it juggled precedent, public opinion, partisanship, and the balance of power. Anyone interested in American politics will want to read this informative and timely book.--Joanne B. Freeman, author of The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War
A riveting, beautifully written story of George Washington's efforts to figure out how to achieve his goals in a fast-changing environment. By placing Washington's cabinet meetings within the broader narratives of the Revolutionary War and the politics of the early republic, Chervinsky brings all the tensions of the big stories into Washington's efforts to administer America's new government. She makes reading about the evolution of institutions fun!--Johann N. Neem, author of Democracy's Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America
In this important and illuminating study, Lindsay Chervinsky has given us an original angle of vision on the foundations and development of something we all take for granted: the president's Cabinet.--Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America
Traces the evolution of the cabinet from British history through George Washington's presidency, explaining how experimentation, personalities, internal and international crises, loyalty and betrayal, and political partisanship impacted not only the development of Washington's advisory body, but foreign and domestic policies as well.--Library Journal (03/01/2020)
Tracks the emergence of a body that the Constitution never mentions...Argues persuasively that focusing on its development helps us understand pivotal moments in the 1790s and the creation of an independent, effective executive.--William Anthony Hay"Wall Street Journal" (04/16/2020)