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 U.S. Constitution did not create or provide for such a body. Washington was on his own. Faced with diplomatic crises, domestic insurrections, and constitutional challenges, Washington decided he needed a group of advisers. He modeled his new cabinet on the councils of war he had led as commander of the Continental Army. 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.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a historian at the White House Historical Association. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.
This lecture is cosponsored by the White House Historical Association.
Banner Lectures are free for VMHC members and $10 for nonmembers. Admission is available at the door, and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.