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.