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April 18, 2022

The Cabinet

Today, when Americans think of it at all, they take for granted the institution of The Cabinet, the heads of the executive departments and other advisors who meet with the President around a big mahogany table in the White House. But how did The Cabinet come into being? It’s not established in the Constitution, and the writers of The Constitution were explicitly opposed to creating a private executive advisory body.

I’m joined in this episode by presidential historian Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky, author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, who helps us answer the question of how – and why – President George Washington formed the first Cabinet, and why it continued.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Image Credit: “Washington and his cabinet [lithograph],” New York : Published by Currier & Ives, c1876. Via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Image is in the Public domain.


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Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. Today we're discussing the Cabinet. Anyone who's watched "Hamilton: the Musical" can tell you that in the first cabinet, Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton was the Secretary of the Treasury. But what you won't learn from the musical is how there came to be a cabinet in the first place. The cabinet does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. Article Two, Section Two, Clause One of the Constitution says, "He, the President, may require the opinion in writing of the principal officer in each of the executive departments upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices." Congress legislatively established the first executive departments and Washington nominated the department heads, who were then confirmed by the Senate. In addition to State and Treasury, there was the Department of War, led by Secretary Henry Knox. The Judiciary Act of 1789, created the Office of Attorney General and Edmund Randolph was the first to serve in that position. George Washington began his first term as president on April 30, 1789. Because the Constitution deliberately did not establish an Executive Advisory Board, Washington relied on individual meetings with department heads and written opinions from them, at first. In August, 1789, Washington visited the US Senate to discuss a treaty. He found the experience so frustrating that he never returned, and instead, he sent future communications about treaties to the Senate in writing. The Constitution did not specify the manner in which advice and consent should happen. Finally, on November 26, 1791, Washington held his first full meeting with his Cabinet. The five met to discuss issues of commercial relations with Britain and France. Although nothing came of the suggestions from that meeting, Washington found the experience to be helpful. A month later, on December 28, 1791, Washington called the Cabinet together again, to review reports written by Secretary of War Henry Knox, in response to a defeat of the American Army by Native Americans in the Battle of Wabash. As the number of domestic and foreign challenges grew, Washington came to rely on his Cabinet more often, although the frequency of their meetings varied over time. Importantly, Washington never used the term "cabinet," which had a negative connotation in America at the time, because of the unpopularity of the British Cabinet. Washington instead referred to "the secretaries" or "the gentleman of my family." There was no white House yet, and the Cabinet met instead, in the cramped second floor study of George Washington's house in Philadelphia. It was perhaps a fitting location since the word "cabinet" comes from the Italian word "cabinetto," which is defined as "a small private room." Since the cabinet was not enshrined in the Constitution, or in federal law, it might have ended with George Washington's administration. But every president since Washington, has formed and met with a cabinet.

Adams even kept Washington's final cabinet intact at the beginning of his administration, saying, "Washington had appointed them and I knew it would turn the world upside down if I removed any one of them." By that point, due to resignations and reappointments, the incumbent cabinet that transitioned to Adams included Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. Secretary of War, James McHenry, and Attorney General Charles Lee, who by the way, is not the same Charles Lee, who was a general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Today, the cabinet is much larger. President Joe Biden's Cabinet includes Vice-President Kamala Harris, the heads of the 15 executive departments, the White House Chief of Staff, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, the Director of National Intelligence, the US Trade Representative, and the heads of five smaller departments. Modern cabinet meetings occur in the Cabinet Room, which is in the West Wing of the White House, overlooking the White House Rose Garden. George Washington is there in spirit, as a bust of him sits in one of the niches. The Cabinet sits around a large elliptical shaped mahogany table, a gift from President Richard Nixon, in chairs that are copies of elite 18th century design. The President's chair, which is two inches taller than the rest, sits in the middle with an engraved brass plate on the back, saying, "The President." The rest of the Cabinet members sit in the order in which their departments were created. When they leave their position, they have the option of purchasing their chair, with its brass nameplate designating their position, as a souvenir. Joining me to help us understand more about the creation and evolution of the cabinet is historian Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky, author of "The Cabinet: George Washington, and the Creation of an American Institution." Hi, Lindsay, thanks so much for joining me today.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  7:24  
Oh, thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  7:26  
Yes. So this is the closest we've gotten on this podcast to presidential politics. But but we're going to be a little bit outside of you know, we'll talk about a president, a lot, a couple presidents. But But really, what we're going to talk about is the the institution of the cabinet and what that means and how it came to be. So I wonder if you could start by just talking about sort of why you wrote a book about the cabinet? What drew you to thinking about this sort of obscure, but super relevant institution?

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  7:59  
Well, I love how you describe that, because you're right, it is so in our face, and yet, we don't think about it all that often. I was first drawn to the cabinet because I had been looking for books to read about Washington's administration and the cabinet in particular. And I couldn't find any. And I looked for articles, and I looked for books explaining where the institution came from trying to get a more institutional perspective on the presidency. And there are a lot of books on the presidency. And there are a lot of books on the people that have been in it. But I couldn't find anything. And my advisor at the time, I think, thought I was kind of trying to shirk my duties and avoid my homework. Because I kept going back and being like, I am not seeing anything. And he finally searched too and realized I was right and then you know, said, "Well, is that a story you would want to talk about?" And so then I kind of tried to figure out, "Well, where did it come from?" Our cabinet is not in the Constitution, no legislation ever created it. And so I was perplexed by this question of how is this institution which has been in every single administration, and is still very much front and center in the news, never written down, never articulated in any sort of way. And and so where did that emerge from? And that was the question I set about trying to answer with my first book, and then inadvertently became obsessed with cabinets as a way to understand administrations, which I know we'll talk more about. But it was really a result of the fact that the only book I could find was published in 1912, and was no longer in print. And so I was trying to rectify that gap. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  9:31  
Yeah, it's kind of shocking, because, you know, we all know what the cabinet is, you know. I even asked my kids and they're like, "Yeah, of course, we know what the cabinet is," you know, but yeah, to think about, where did it come from? Why do we have it? So let's set the stage a little bit then of you know, why, why Americans as they're writing the Constitution are a little bit hesitant to have something like a cabinet and wouldn't have wanted to call it "the cabinet" in the constitution. So what's going on here? And, you know, what, what are they reacting to as they're writing the Constitution?

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  10:06  
The delegates at the Constitutional Convention met in the summer of 1787, which was just four years after the official end of the war, which is pretty hard for me to fathom and a date that I think bears reminding people of just how quickly this happened after the end of the war. And so they were very much shaped by this previous conflict, their previous ideas about government, especially in relation to the British system, and they had just fought an eight year war to separate themselves from the British monarchy. And one of the key defining characteristics of that monarchical system was the British Cabinet. Indeed, the delegates and most Americans had blamed the cabinet for actually instigating the hostilities, because they felt like it was really the source of corruption and cronyism. It lacked all transparency, there was no way to hold people accountable. And these were all qualities and elements of a cabinet that they were seeking to avoid in the new system. So several delegates actually brought up proposals for a cabinet. They were all rejected, quite explicitly so. And instead, they put a couple of options into the Constitution to try and retain that responsibility and transparency that they felt had been so severely lacking in the British system. So it really was quite intentional that that word is not in our Constitution.

Right. And so the the word "cabinet" that comes from actually where the the British group were meeting.

Yes, I love this is such a funny way of looking at the evolution of the English language and why it's such a terrible language to try and learn as a, as a second or additional language. Because the the term came from the fact that the king used to meet with the Privy Council in these special chambers, Privy Council Chambers. And as the Privy Council got too big, he started to pull off his favorite advisors into a small chamber, like really like a closet that they referred to as the King's Cabinet. And this was a very private space, it was very intimate. It was entrance by permission, or invitation only. And so this group became known as the King's Cabinet Council, and then eventually "council" was dropped and just became known as the King's Cabinet. And so not to, you know, spoilers or jumping ahead. But when Washington started to meet with advisors, and people knew that these meetings were taking place, and they were happening in private, and they weren't open to the public, and no newspapers, were recording those conversations, that cabinet description became really important, because it was a mark, it was a mark of secrecy. It was a mark of private conversation.

Kelly Therese Pollock  12:43  
Yeah. So I want to go back for a second to something you said about Americans blaming the cabinet for the hostilities and not the king. And so, you know, we I think, get this story now about King, bad King George, King George being the bad guy. And you know, I've seen "Hamilton: the Musical" a few too many times. And you know, that he's very clearly sort of the villain, delightful villain, but the villain of the story. But that's not what's going on, at least at the beginning of hostilities. So can you talk to us a little bit about that, and the idea that that really, Americans wanted to still love the king, and we're looking for someone else to blame for this?

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  13:23  
Absolutely. So you know, as much as I am a fan of the King George the Third songs, which I think are by far some of the best in "Hamilton: the Musical," Americans, too, were a huge fan of the monarchy. They were huge devotees, so it was called "the cult of monarchy." And so all of these goods had been produced, especially in the aftermath of the Seven Years War to celebrate the British victory. So they bought anything that had a royal likeness, or the royal coat of arms. Literally, if there was anything having to do with the king or the royal family, they bought it; it was ridiculous. And they really thought of themselves as the most loyal, most devoted British subjects. And that kind of made sense at the time because they didn't see themselves as second class citizens or or second tier participants in the British Empire. And the parliament was where bills and legislation originated anyway. So it wasn't like the king came up with the hated legislation, the Sugar Tax, the Stamp Tax, the Tea Tax, the king had no origin power over that sort of legislation. So it was easy to blame the parliament. And as the colonists were looking for a way out of these taxes and a way out of this system, they they both recognized that they didn't have representation in the parliamentary system, but that the king in theory was supposed to speak for all people and so they sort of reverted to an older constitutional tradition of speaking to the king as the protector of their liberties. And they asked him to intervene and to reject these bills to use the royal veto, which hadn't been used in decades, and just speak out on their behalf because they didn't have anyone in parliament that could speak out on their behalf. And so initially as as tensions begin to rise, they're sending him letters, they're sending envoys to try and plead on their behalf. And even after violence had broken out at Lexington and Concord, they still sent him one last plea to intervene. And at this point, most colonists on the ground were referring to the British Regulars as Parliament's Troops as opposed to British Regulars or the king's troops. But once the king rejected that last missive, which was called the Olive Branch Petition, that really sort of ended all hope that he would intervene and participate. And that's really what swung Americans against him.

Kelly Therese Pollock  15:51  
Yeah, so the people who are writing the Constitution, were developing the system of government, they're reacting to that the British system, but they're also reacting to what is essentially a failed experiment of government in America and, you know, clearly isn't quite working, isn't able to be salvaged. And you write a lot about how people like Washington are reacting to the way things are happening in the revolution, the need for a stronger executive branch and the difficulties there. So let's put then that piece into it. Can you talk some about what, what is going on there? And why, you know, despite that, they might want to have this like pure democracy or something like that, clearly is not a way to run a government.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  16:38  
Yeah, so anyone who has been in a committee system knows how difficult it can be to make decisions and to move forward with quickness. And the congressional system that was set up and as well as the state governments, in the wake of the Declaration of Independence, were in direct response to the break with monarchy. So they kind of went from one extreme of monarchy all the way to the other extreme, and went towards very weak, very decentralized structures. And Congress initially did everything by committee, which was a total disaster, not only because you had people constantly coming and going, so you had no institutional knowledge, no continuity of practice. But oftentimes, congressman, especially as the war dragged on, just didn't show up. So you didn't have anyone to handle anything anyway. So it was, and Congress in particular, under the Articles of Confederation, which was technically the first constitution for the new United States, Congress had no ability to really raise money. They could request what were called requisitions from the states, but they had no enforcement mechanism. And it's really hard to pay for an army. And it's really hard to fight a war if you have no way to raise money, which was really one of Washington's and the other officers in the Continental Army, their key frustrations, because they were begging for supplies. A lot of the soldiers did not have appropriate clothing, they didn't have the appropriate footwear, they didn't have ammunition for their guns. And Washington at one point, wrote this amazing quote, which is, "I cannot make bricks without straw." And so he's literally being asked to fight a war without the supplies needed to fight a war. And so he, along with many of the people that served became more ardent nationalists and more ardent supporters of a stronger centralized government, because they really saw firsthand what happened if you didn't have that force. You didn't have someone making decisions quickly and implementing them, the appropriate power by the federal government to raise funds and implement one diplomatic policy. You can't have 13 foreign policies at one time going. And so that experience was really instrumental in shaping their thinking about what the new government needed to be. And then once the war did officially end, those concerns only proved to be more prescient as the states increasingly turned inward and focused on their own domestic concerns, and Congress basically lost any ability to do anything on behalf of the new nation.

Kelly Therese Pollock  19:21  
Yeah. Then you have in the Constitutional Convention, you point out the Committee of Postponed Matters, which I think is my favorite name of the committee. I've decided that it work I just want to have that.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  19:37  
Yes. I love that. My favorite actually came during the war and was the Committee to Reform the Committees because there had gotten to be so many of them when they were out of control, which I just think is, too on the nose.

Kelly Therese Pollock  19:51  
Yeah, yeah. I love it. So Washington goes through this whole experience of being the general trying to, you know, fight a war with with no supplies and no quick decision-making. But he also is there for the Constitutional Convention. He knows everything that's going on. As you point out, he really like he knows he's going to be the first president. So he's paying a lot of attention to how people are receiving this. So he knows people don't want a cabinet. And yet he ends up with the cabinet. So what's, what's that sort of progression? You know what, what happens that makes him go, "Okay, I've just got to do this?"

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  20:29  
Yeah, well, one of the things that I think is so interesting about Washington is his leadership during the war, had confirmed for him the value of a cabinet-like body to provide advice and support and help make decisions. He had convened what were called Councils of War, before pretty much any major strategic decision. So there's a lot of evidence that he was already thinking about that type of advisory body and just really restrained himself from creating it out of respect for the convention and the Constitution. So instead, he really tried to follow and pursue the options that had been laid out for him in the Constitution, both of which were in Article Two. The first one was that the Senate would essentially be a Council of Foreign Affairs. Now, I know that's not how we see the Senate today. But that advice and consent part in Article Two is actually quite literally intended to mean that they're supposed to advise on things. And Washington fully expected this, he planned for a meeting, he went and he met with the senators, he had given them all of the advanced homework and knowledge they could possibly want for this appointment. And then he brought with him a list of questions, which is the same thing he had done with his Councils of War, to try and prompt the debate that had been so illuminating for him when he was commander in chief of the army. And the Senate basically acted as legislators do, and wanted to refer to committee, they wanted to discuss it in private, they didn't want to debate, they were very caught off guard by this request. And they asked him to come back the following week. And that infuriated Washington because it was totally inefficient. It didn't provide the sort of give and take in the debate that he actually wanted. He liked to see all of the different options and see people, you know, push on each other so that they could kind of stress test the different ideas. And it was also a week later. So you know, in terms of trying to make expedient choices, diplomacy and foreign policy is one of the things that require quick decision-making and the Senate was really getting in his way. And so after that one meeting, Washington never again went back for advice. And no president has ever gone back for advice. So it was this incredible moment of just a couple of months into his presidency. one of the key elements of Article Two, Washington rejected as being totally inefficient and unworkable in real life.

Kelly Therese Pollock  23:00  
It would still be unworkable if the President tried to go to the Senate today, I imagine.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  23:04  
Oh, it would be so much worse, because at the time the Senate was only 22 people. And so that's at least like a reasonable number of people to talk to. 100 would be an absolute catastrophe.

Kelly Therese Pollock  23:16  
Yes. So much of what happens here, it ends up being Washington and Washington's sort of leadership style that ends up creating this system that we still have. So Washington's Cabinet, what ends up being the cabinet is, is much much smaller than the way we think of a cabinet today. It's only four people and men, of course, four men, and and it doesn't include the vice-president. So let's talk about sort of what who what the cabinet is like, who actually makes this up when Washington decides this is what I need to do is I need to get my department heads together.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  23:57  
Well, the Constitution says that the President may request written advice from the department secretaries, but it doesn't specify who those people are or what secretaries they're going to be. And that comes the summer of 1789 when Congress actually created the executive departments. And then Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton to be the Secretary of Treasury, Thomas Jefferson to be the Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph to be the Attorney General. An important side note is that the Department of Justice didn't come until 1870, so the Attorney General's quite literally just the President's Counsel. And Henry Knox, the who was the Secretary of War. So those were sort of the legal parameters around which Washington would have these advisors and he met with them. He exchanged written opinions for a little while, but then realized that that too was really quite inefficient because talk about trying to you know, manage huge matters of state with parchment and quill. I mean, it just would've take forever and been so frustrating. And then he started having one on one meetings. And those one on one meetings worked for a while. And in fact, he didn't convene his first Cabinet meeting until November 26, 1791, which was two and a half years into his presidency. So you really see the reluctance to take this next step by that delay. But by the time Washington did convene a Cabinet meeting, he basically realized, and this, the subject of this meeting is so illuminating. He wanted to talk with the secretaries about the status of the trade and diplomatic relationships between the United States, Spain, France, and Great Britain, some, you know, huge questions there. And they quite clearly touch on multiple departments, because if things don't go, well, then you need to have the Department of War; for trade, you need to have the Department of Treasury; to make sure the treaties and arrangements are legal, you should have the Attorney General. And so he realized that with some issues, he just needed to have multiple perspectives and multiple opinions. And so he convened the four, that core four, and which I sometimes affectionately referred to as the original Team of Rivals, and met with them. And that started a process where whenever Washington had a precedent setting decision, or was faced with an incredibly difficult situation, would convene cabinet meetings to get their advice, to come up with a compromise, to to figure out how he wanted to manage these situations. And as you noted, there is one key name that is left off that list, and that is Vice-President John Adams. Washington never invited John Adams to a single cabinet meeting. He didn't ever say why. So this is one of those situations where it's really frustrating that Washington didn't write down his thought process. But my speculation is that there are basically two reasons it could be. It could be that he saw the Vice-President really as a figure of the legislative branch, because the Vice-President is the President of the Senate and John Adams did sit in on Senate sessions every day that they were in session. But I think that that's less likely because Washington was very happy to send the Chief Justice to negotiate diplomatic treaties. So he wasn't all that concerned, I think about separation of powers in that particular way. I think the more likely answer is that Washington just didn't really trust John Adams' political judgment. They weren't particularly close. They were respectful of each other. But they weren't particularly close. Adams had advocated some unpopular policies early on, and Washington just kept him at a distance and never let him in the room.

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:44  
So when did that sort of thing change that, you know, because now we consider the vice-president as part of the cabinet. So what was there just sort of a moment when that shifted? What did that just sort of change over time?

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  27:57  
It's actually a shockingly recent development. The vice-president did not have an office until the FDR administration. So the official office of the vice-presidency was created under FDR. Walter Mondale was the first vice-president that had really any influence with the president over anything. But I would actually suggest that the real turning point when we see the modern vice-presidency came under Dick Cheney. That's really when the vice-presidency became a part of what we think of as the Presidential Apparatus. But the official answer of when the vice-president technically was considered part of the cabinet, was under FDR.

Kelly Therese Pollock  28:40  
So I have some questions about modern cabinets, too. But first, I want to just ask, it's easy to sort of look at this stuff and think about how important Washington was and how much sort of he put his stamp on the country and how maybe nobody else could have done this. Maybe we wouldn't have succeeded as a country without him. But it was interesting before I read your book the first time, I had just finished, Erica Armstrong Dunbar's "Never Caught," where she's talking about Washington's relentless pursuit of a runaway slave. And so Washington is obviously this complex person, all of the founding fathers are. But I just sort of wonder for you as a historian, sort of how you approach these sorts of things, think about these important people doing really important things without lionizing them, like what what that looks like for you as a historian.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  29:41  
It's a remarkably hard question to answer and I think it should be. I don't think it should be an easy answer. And that's because, as you said, they were incredibly complex. And I will, you know, fight to my last breath that there was no one else that could have been the first president other than Washington because of his unique stature; and yet he also I would fight to the death that he could do incredibly harmful and cruel and terrible things. And I think the mistake is trying to think of humans as a spreadsheet that needs to be balanced. And to think about well, do we need to, you know, have the good cancel out the bad or the bad cancel out the good. I think that's a recipe for disaster. And it's also a kind of a simplistic way of thinking about humans, I think we should be able to hold two complex thoughts in our head, which is that a lot of the founding generation did remarkable things. And even if their decision-making process was flawed, the impact that they have had on the nation has been extraordinary. And they also did terrible things. And that doesn't make the other one not exist. And I think that that's really the only way you can look at them is to understand that it's a multifaceted story. No one part is more important than the other part, or should erase or cover the other part. But they all have to be there in that image.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:05  
Yeah, yeah. It's so it's just so fascinating, you know, certainly of this sort of initial group, Washington, of course, Jefferson, of course, we know, very complex personal relationships going on, and Hamilton too, you know, just the sort of best known of the of the initial cabinet. So yeah, it's just it's sort of interesting to keep all of these things in your in your brain at the same time. 

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  31:31  
Well, I think also, you know, as someone who has spent a lot of time studying them, to try and make them more simplistic characters is actually far less interesting. Because humans today aren't, you know, simplistic. They aren't 2D, they have multitudes. And so trying to embrace the multitudes is actually what makes for a compelling story and what I think makes history compelling.

Kelly Therese Pollock  31:57  
So one of the things that Washington is trying to do, in putting together his cabinet, which sounds odd in retrospect is to have diversity. Of course, diversity, in this case, means all white men, but um, but he is looking for diversity in geography and sort of the where people's background is. And that's something that you note, at the end of your book, that presidents and cabinets have continued to try to do with one sort of glaring exception recently. So can you talk a little bit about that, both from the perspective of what Washington is trying to do, and then how that continues over time.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  32:37  
The cabinet is a really great way to measure how society values people, who is considered to be an American, who is considered to have full suffrage and civil rights, but also to measure what a president values. It's a really great way to get at their value system. And so for Washington, the most important thing was trying to figure out how to make the nation survive, how to make the nation work, how to make good decisions, and he recognized with his own weaknesses, that he made good decisions when he was surrounded by a diverse set of people, of course, again, all dead white dudes, but diverse for the time. He made better decisions when he was getting different perspectives. And so he was both concerned with trying to bring in a group of advisers that had different experiences and knowledge and training that he did, so that they could offer a different perspective or a different viewpoint on any particular situation, but also making sure they represented different parts of the nation and different cultural, educational, religious, economic cultures and traditions. And so, for example, Thomas Jefferson was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, quite literally; he came from the elite plantation-owning Virginia south, he had had a lot of diplomatic experience, he spoke French, which was the language of diplomacy. So that was very helpful for someone like Washington who did not. Whereas Alexander Hamilton came from nothing. He made his home in New York City, he had cozied up to the merchant elite, and so he was much more attuned to the trade and merchant interests. He was much more interested in being pro-British in trade than Jefferson, who was more interested in being pro-French. And so just those two people demonstrate both the geographic diversity, but also different ways that people could be an American, and even different ways that people could present as men, they had very different interpretations of masculinity as well. And this was a very intentional choice. Washington was insistent that all of his appointments have geographic diversity, including the cabinet, the Supreme Court, everything else, and his successors have largely tried to follow that model. Now, of course, that has increased over time as the country has expanded and there are more geographic regions to represent. It has increased to include people of different religions and races and genders, but also different backgrounds, different business experiences, different career experiences. And the presidents that I think have used the cabinet the most effectively are the ones that have recognized that dual opportunity in the institution, the opportunity to surround themselves with good and diverse advisors, and then to seek out and listen to that advice. That's a that's an important part is actually to talk to them. But also what it what it represents in terms of building good will for their administration, because every administration offers a new opportunity to sort of bring the American people together. And most presidents try and do that,

Kelly Therese Pollock  35:45  
With of course, the exception of Trump. 

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  35:48  
Yes, well, there are a couple of interesting exceptions. So you know, like Andrew Jackson is a pretty good exception. He actually had three cabinets because he just kept replacing them until he could find enough yesmen to do whatever he wanted, which is, again, not a great parallel. Harding surrounded himself with a bunch of Ohio business cronies, which turned out to be spectacularly corrupt. So again, not great options. Kennedy tried to kind of, you know, turn the model on its head and have a mix of old school experienced diplomats with what he called his Whiz Kids, his brain trust, young, really smart, kind of inexperienced people from Harvard. That part didn't go so well. And then, of course, Trump, who had really broken the mold of the increasing representation that we saw that was had been bipartisan. So Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton, Obama had really increased the representation until Trump.

Kelly Therese Pollock  36:48  
But Biden, of course, is back on this model of really going for diversity and representation in his cabinet.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  36:57  
Yeah, and in fact, the most diverse and included some really important, both symbolic, but also, I think, functional firsts. So Deb Haaland is my favorite example. She's the first Native cabinet secretary, there was a Native vice-president, but I draw the distinction there because the vice-president A) was not sitting in the cabinet at the time, and it was a totally useless position. So she was the first Native cabinet secretary, but also for the Secretary of Interior. That's so important, because they oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So like, how important is it to have that voice and perspective? I think it's, I thought it was a brilliant choice.

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:39  
So I think my sort of last question about what the modern cabinet looks like, in comparison, as we noted, there were only four people in the original cabinet and one of those positions, the Secretary of War doesn't even exist anymore in that formulation. So how do we get since this is not in the Constitution, how do we get from this very small cabinet to what is now a much larger, both much larger number of departments, but also people who are not department secretaries who've variously been risen to cabinet level? So what how does this actually play out over time?

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  38:18  
It's an excellent question. And it's kind of a messy answer. So in theory, Congress is the only body that can create an executive department through legislation and did so usually at big pivotal moments. So there was an expansion of the cabinet around the Civil War; there was an expansion of the cabinet in the early 20th century; there was an expansion of the cabinet, especially around the New Deal, State and World War II. And that was when we saw the reorganization in the creation of a Department of Defense and the Department of the Army and Navy put under the the Secretary of Defense as opposed to separate people managing all of those things. And so so in theory, that is the way that it's supposed to happen. There was a period of time where it was thought maybe a president could also maybe create a department and Eisenhower was kind of playing around with that. And then Congress stepped in and said, "No, no, no, this is our authority." So now only Congress can create or reorganize a department. So most recently, there was the Department of Homeland Security. That was a reorganization of a lot of responsibilities. I think that it's probably time for another reorganization there because it's not unusual for a department about 20 years after its existence to need a little bit of reform to see how, you know, best laid plans sometimes don't work in practice, and things sometimes just need a bit of tweaking. Then in terms of the other people who sit at the proverbial Cabinet table, that's really up to the President's discretion. So there can be any number of cabinet level appointments depending on how the President sees fit. So sometimes the CIA director is a cabinet level position, sometimes not and just reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence. President Biden currently has a Climate Change Envoy, John Kerry. So he has a cabinet level position. And that designation doesn't really have any legal implication, it just is a matter of it is a way for a president to demonstrate importance, and how much responsibility this person is taking on within the administration. So right now, there are technically 15 official cabinet level positions. And then there are a bunch depending on any given day.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:33  
Including the Chief of Staff, which I find interesting.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  40:36  
Yeah, the Chief of Staff is, is kind of a real aberration in this story, which makes sense. I mean, as the White House staff has expanded, obviously, you have to have someone in control of herding the cats. And there have always been people that have played that role for the President. It's just now it's a much more official position.

Kelly Therese Pollock  40:54  
So there's all sorts of stuff in your book that we haven't even talked about, and I think is great to sort of see how the cabinet actually operates. First with things like the the Whiskey Rebellion, we're not going to have time to get into all of it. So people should obviously read your book. So how can people find your book?

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  41:15  
The book is available wherever you like to buy written products. So whether that is online retailers, or your local bookstore, if they don't have in stock, they can always order it for you. The title is "The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution." And the paperback came out in February. So if your book budget is on the smaller side, which is totally understandable, it is now priced quite nicely below $18. So that is a little bit more manageable for most readers. And there's an ebook as well. There's an ebook and an audiobook, although I did not have the opportunity to narrate it. But I'm hoping for Book Two, I'll be able to do so.

Kelly Therese Pollock  41:49  
Excellent. Excellent. Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about? 

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  41:54  
The only other thing about the cabinet as an institution that I think is really valuable for people, and one of the reasons that I love studying it is it is a phenomenal way to understand, in addition to the presidential values, which I mentioned in diversity, to understand leadership, because managing a group of men and now men and women that are incredibly opinionated, ambitious, sometimes egotistical, very used to being right and listened to, is really hard. And frankly, most presidents aren't very good at it. And so it is the best way, I think, to understand how presidents manage people, how they deal with these conflicting agendas, and get everyone on board with their plan. And so it is, I think, a really innovative way to look at, you know, presidents have been written about more than probably any other subject in American history. But if you look at it through the lens of the cabinet, my guess is you'll take something new away from every single administration.

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:53  
Yeah, we'd love to know what it was like in the room with Jefferson and Hamilton.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  42:59  
Very uncomfortable, I am sure. Very intense.

Kelly Therese Pollock  43:02  
Yeah, yeah. Do you have a favorite cabinet secretary or favorite cabinet, I suppose in American history?

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  43:09  
Oh, there's so many. There are so many good personalities to choose from, it's really hard to choose. So I think my favorite is probably Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. With full disclosure, my dog's name is John Quincy Dog, Adams, for short, so I'm a big fan. I find his I mean, one, he was brilliant Secretary of State and an unbelievable diplomat. But he was so full of personality and so snarky and so self deprecating, that he's really hard not to enjoy, just very, very, very much. And then the other one, I would say, is technically he was he was the president. But the way that Theodore Roosevelt dealt with his cabinet in particular, his secretaries of the Navy, he could not keep a Secretary of Navy in office because he loved the Navy so much. And he meddled all the time to the point of like, dictating the size of cavalry spurs. And so he just drove people crazy, and they couldn't stay in office. And so I just find that really entertaining.

Kelly Therese Pollock  44:06  
Yeah. Well, Lindsay, this was really fun. And I enjoyed learning about the cabinet. You know, admittedly, other than when new secretaries are nominated, I spend very little time thinking about the cabinet. So it was super interesting.

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky  44:21  
Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. And I'm always happy to evangelize the importance of the institution and appreciate the opportunity to do so.

Teddy  44:32  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.


Lindsay M. ChervinskyProfile Photo

Lindsay M. Chervinsky

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a historian of the presidency, political culture, and the government — especially the president’s cabinet. She produces history that speaks to fellow scholars as well as a larger public audience. Dr. Chervinsky believes history can be exhilarating and she works to share her passion with as many people as possible. Her research can be found in publications from op-eds to books, speaking on podcasts and other media, and teaching for every kind of audience.

Dr. Chervinsky’s book, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, was published on April 7, 2020. The paperback will be released February 8, 2022. She also writes a monthly column for Governing and Washington Monthly. She is the cohost of The Past, The Promise, The Presidency, and a regular guest on The Thomas Jefferson Hour podcast. She is the creator of the Audible course: The Best and Worst Presidential Cabinets in U.S. History.

Her next book, An Honest Man: The Inimitable Presidency of John Adams is under contract and will be published in Fall 2024.