The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution
“For students of both American government and the early history of the republic, this volume fills in a significant gap, while highlighting the political challenges faced by our very first administration and does so with a highly readable style that shows the sharp political instincts of our Founding Fathers.”
The presidency of George Washington had the heavy responsibility of putting the recently ratified Constitution into action. While many of the duties of the new Chief Executive were articulated, there were still many aspects of the presidency that were relatively undefined. One of these, explored in this engaging new book by former White House Historian Lindsay Chervinsky, was the president’s cabinet. Although there was no specific mention of a cabinet in the Constitution, the new president quickly determined the need for an advisory body to assist in the responsibilities of running the new Federal government.
The author takes us behind the scenes to explain how Washington developed the basic framework for his cabinet from his wartime experience as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington was a keen politician and understood the need for not only sound advice from a variety of viewpoints, but the political cover of the executive branch leadership when making controversial decisions, which his infant administration was quickly forced to do.
Two of these crises are used as case studies, one domestic and one foreign, and each show how Washington was able to use the advice of his “team of rivals” to steer the new American government into solutions that may not have been always politically popular, but were in the long-term best interests of the fledgling nation and its experiment in representative democracy.
The foreign situation was forced upon Washington by the French revolution and the outbreak of war between the European powers, a series of intermittent conflicts that would last until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State and an avowed Francophile, wanted the US to support France against the country’s main adversary, England, even if it meant potentially going to war. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who would go come to loggerheads with Jefferson on more than once occasion, favored a neutral stance to ensure American access to European markets.
Washington eventually sided with Hamilton, fearing the new nation was not ready to begin what could be another long and devastating war. Washington’s proclamation of American neutrality via a carefully guarded statement that resulted from occasionally acrimonious debate in his newly formed cabinet, created a political divide between Americans who believed the country owed a debt to France and others who believed the US owed no allegiance to a revolutionary regime that was sinking into chaos.
The situation was exacerbated by the arrival of “Citizen” Genet, the scheming French revolutionary government ambassador, who, shortly after arriving in America began what amounted to a political insurgency to not only drum up sympathy for the French cause among Americans, but not so clandestinely secure support for French privateers attempting to bring British prizes into American ports as well as repair and provision their ships. Washington took a firm hand to inhibit Genet’s efforts, creating a political crisis as Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s political supports each took sides for and against Washington’s eventual success in declaring Genet a persona non grata and sending him back to France.
The domestic crisis was potentially more disastrous for the new administration as Washington confronted the need to assert the new government’s most basic right and responsibility: to see that the law was followed and taxes imposed by the new Congress were duly collected.
The “Whisky Rebellion” was a seminal event for the new American government and executive as Washington became the only president to literally exercise his role as commander-in-chief by heading out into the field to lead a federal corps of militia to put down the rebellious farmers of western Pennsylvania and collect the required revenue. The crisis was deftly managed by Washington who not only used his now established Cabinet for advice, but as a tool to both shape and gain public support for the use of federalized militia to being the recalcitrant famers to heel. The eventual peaceful resolution of the crisis added confidence in the new government and ensured the ability of the new republic to collect revenue not only to make the new government function but, more importantly to pay off their significant Revolutionary War debt.
But all was not perfect with the new cabinet arrangement. The author goes into great detail to describe that even as Washington tried to maintain a working relationship between the strong opinions and personalities of his cabinet secretaries, Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s antipathy for each other led to the rise of America’s first opposing political parties, one of the by-products of democratic politics that Washington feared the most.
Chervinsky completes Washington’s presidency by relating the turnover of cabinet officers as Hamilton and Jefferson could no longer serve together, noting that Washington’s relationship with his cabinet changed markedly during his second term as he felt the successors to those giants of the early republic were competent, but not nearly as close to him as the first term cabinet secretaries. By the time Washington steps down after two terms, the roles and responsibilities of his cabinet secretaries is maintained by his successor John Adams and the cabinet became a permanent body to provide advice and assist the president with carrying out administration policy.
For students of both American government and the early history of the republic, this volume fills in a significant gap, while highlighting the political challenges faced by our very first administration and does so with a highly readable style that shows the sharp political instincts of our Founding Fathers.