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

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 The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution by Lindsay M. Chervinsky

Book Summary 

The Cabinet’s role is to advise the President on any subject he or she may require relating to the duties of each member’s respective office.

Attorney General Merrick Garland recently testified in front of the House of Representatives.  Garland is one of the most well-known members of President Biden’s Cabinet. The Cabinet is a well-established institution of the modern-day presidency.

The Constitution (including the 25th Amendment ratified in the 1960s) does not mention the “Cabinet.”  There is a reference to “executive departments,” and the president has the power to request in writing the opinion of the head of each department. What gives?

Lindsay M. Chervinksy, a White House historian at the White House Historical Association, explains. The Cabinet was originally a British institution, a small group of royal advisors. The same king the colonists blamed for the wrongs that led to the American Revolution. The very name implies intrigue, a “cabinet” being the small private room where the advisors met.  

President George Washington knew about this history and never used the word “Cabinet” during his presidency. He was setting new precedents and carefully respected the opinions of the public. Washington wanted the public to recognize him as a republican, not an elitist monarchist.  

Chervinksy explains how President Washington established the first American Cabinet, modeled after his advisors during the Revolutionary War. He experimented with other means of obtaining advice, but each one did not work out. The institution of the Cabinet grew out of the needs of the moment and how the people of that moment handled the situation. 

We learn about the first Cabinet, including Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and lesser-known people like Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph. The Cabinet had to survive domestic (Whiskey Rebellion) and foreign (French Revolution) challenges. There was even an allegation of treason being committed by a member of the Cabinet. Read the book to find out who!

The Cabinet has all of this and more, including intimate details that provide a “you are there” feel to history in the making. George Washington was the unanimous choice to be the first president because everyone knew he was a good leader. This book shows why.  

Why I Liked This Book 

Lindsay M. Chervinksy has appeared on C-SPAN and popped up on social media. She makes history fun. Chervinsky has a passion for her subject and it shines through.

This book is a good mix of historical knowledge and writing. Chervinksy knows her stuff, including as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center of Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. This book is chock-filled with endnotes. 

The Cabinet covers some familiar ground, especially for those with a basic knowledge of the events. It takes some finesse to discuss material so familiar that they are the subject of musicals (including 1776 and Hamilton). She provides new details and spin on the old.

A book that covers so much ground has to make choices. I think she unnecessarily re-covered some old ground (such as the troubles of the 1780s). 

She also left out some information that would have advanced the narrative. Edmund Randolph, the first attorney general, for instance, did not sign the Constitution. Also, we are told little about his successor, who is often left out in basic accounts of these events. Why not include more about him here?  I understand everything can’t be in there. Still.  

Chervinsky is a good writer and the format of the book also makes it easier to read. This is an important tidbit about publishing. This book is over 300 pages but it is easy on the eyes.  

There are some black and white photographs. A few more at times might have been helpful (she carefully explains President Washington’s study; a diagram would have been useful).

This book should be enjoyed by general history buffs as much as students and scholars looking for a careful analysis of the subject matter.  I enjoyed it, even on a second reading!

“To Jake and JQDA”

I always check out the acknowledgments. Books are written on the shoulders of others.  Authors provide a personal touch in their acknowledgments, often providing some great details.  The dedication of the book is the acknowledgments purified.  

Who is Jake and JQDA?  Jake is her husband.  JQDA is “John Quincy Dog Adams.”  He is the author’s “heart dog.”  JQDA is a very good boy. The second billing is questionable but okay.

Some Tools of Leadership

George Washington seems like a character out of central casting. This is a man who came to the Continental Congress in his military uniform. First commander-in-chief of the American forces during the American Revolution?  First president?  Who else?  

Leadership involves a mix of inherent ability and a lot of hard work. George Washington carefully created and reinforced his public image. Your reputation was of particular importance to our Founding Fathers.  People fought duels when they felt their reputations tarnished.

General Washington used various tools of leadership. He knew that winning a war against high odds required many things. Washington surely could not do it alone. He needed help and support.  People like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox served with him during the war. Washington also needed the support of the Congress and the public. Took a lot of finesse.

He carefully crafted questions beforehand so that his advisors could have time to consider them. Some people are more quiet and less outgoing. Getting material in writing allows their input, not letting a few extroverts dominate. 

Having things in writing provides evidence of support when doing unpopular things, such as retreating and leaving New York City to the British forces. Washington had the luxury of knowing that he had evidence that his actions had the support of many people. It was good manners at that time to have a modest image, even if you privately were not. 

Good advisors are fundamental to a successful enterprise. Washington had a diverse team, sometimes a “team of rivals” (Jefferson and Hamilton grew to hate each other). Leadership involves knowing how to handle such people, including when to use flattery or setting up social engagements to lower the temperature and further comradeship.

The diverse team of rivals helped Washington have a successful first term. The final years were much less ideal. The team might have been ideologically friendly to his views, but the same qualities were not there.  He trusted the Cabinet with much less responsibility.  

Cabinet Develops Over Time

Originalism argues that we should interpret the Constitution by looking at how it was understood by those who wrote and ratified it.  History tends to be more contingent.  

It is a matter of chance. The Constitution references “executive departments” since the president could not do everything.  What that term meant, however, was much less clear. 

The book starts with an uncomfortable scene. President Washington and Secretary of War Knox (a former bookseller who taught himself military tactics) went to the Senate for some advice. It’s right there in the Constitution.  The Senate provides “advice and consent,” including treaties with Native Americans.  It did not go well at all.

President Washington did not have a Cabinet meeting for a few years. He tried various means to obtain advice and counsel. The Cabinet developed both because other approaches, including asking help from the Senate, did not work well and because of the needs of the moment. 

James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” was early on of much use. But, then policy disputes and partisan divisions got in the way.  Madison became a leader of the opposition. Vice President Adams?  He was a leader of the independence effort.  But, they did not get along.  

If they did, things could have gone differently. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was an important advisor. Washington used him to negotiate a treaty with Great Britain. The rest of the Supreme Court did not support such a mixture of roles. They argued for constitutional separation of powers. So, again, a different way of doing things developed. 

The French Revolution, including problems arising when a troublesome French diplomat came to America, played an important role in the Cabinet’s beginnings. Washington had few Cabinet meetings at first. The French Revolution set forth a series of events that led to steady usage.  

The Cabinet developed as a product of events and how the people involved handled them.  

A Role For Women 

The first Cabinet was diverse in a variety of ways, including ideological sentiment and geographical origins.  But, there were limits. The Cabinet was made up of white males.  

Women could not vote. Women did have a  role in public life. They made their opinions known and influenced events. George Washington helped in various ways.

During the Revolutionary War, social events were significant. War is a long dreary affair.  Social events were a time to relax and relieve tensions. The presence of wives, including Martha Washington and others, made things much more pleasant.  

Social events often have a political aspect. President Washington used various means to meet and engage with the public and leading members of the government. These events often included people like members of Congress and their wives and other female family members.

First Lady Martha Washington had her own social events. These events provided a means to “talk shop,” especially since officially they were meant to be purely social.  Of course, they were more than that. The connections obtained in these events were very important.
Women also had various means to engage with each other and male public leaders in writing.  Writing was an important means of communication. Yes, there was a time before cell phones.  The Cabinet talks about this and many other things.  Check it out.