Writing an Intellectual History of the President’s Cabinet

tags: George Washington, presidential history, Cabinet, intellectual history, historian

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D., is a historian at the White House Historical Association. Her book, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution will be published by Harvard University Press on April 7, 2020. Follow her on Twitter: @lmchervinsky.

I’ve always been fascinated by how individuals can influence policy, government, and events. At no time did a small group of people have more power over the development of government and events than in the 1790s when there were five people in the cabinet. Sure there are plenty of books on Jefferson, Hamilton, and their tempestuous relationship, but I wanted to know where the institution came from. It’s not in the Constitution, no additional legislation created the body, and everything I read seemed to assume the cabinet’s existence as inevitable.

When I decided to tackle this question, I spent some time exploring the governors’ councils in the state governments, the British cabinet, and the councils of war in the Continental Army during the Revolution. But there was no avoiding that I really had to get into the minds of Washington and the department secretaries in order to understand their interactions and the development of the institution. While I didn’t really realize it at the time (after all, writing a dissertation and then your first book is very much the process of learning how to do those things), I followed a six step process:

One: I read a ton of biographies. I wanted to know what other authors had written about their personalities, what evidence they were using to back up their arguments, and how these books were similar or different. Plus, when I actually started digging into the archival material, I already had a sense of the narrative arc and that really helped me keep my facts straight.

Two: I searched the letters of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and President George Washington to find any mention of a cabinet meeting. I quickly learned that Washington refused to use the word cabinet during his presidency and instead referred to them as “the gentlemen of my family” or “the secretaries.” By documenting when the cabinet met, I could determine patterns, moments of crisis, and when gatherings subsided.

Read entire article at Society for U.S. Intellectual History

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