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The US Constitution never established a presidential cabinet―the delegates to the Constitutional Convention explicitly rejected the idea. So how did George Washington create one of the most powerful bodies in the federal government? 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 US Constitution did not create or provide for such a body. Washington was on his own. Faced with diplomatic crises, domestic insurrections, and constitutional challenges―and finding congressional help lacking―Washington decided he needed a group of advisors he could turn to. He modeled his new cabinet on the councils of war he had led as commander of the Continental Army. In the early days, the cabinet served at the president’s pleasure. 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.
When Washington and Knox arrived at Federal Hall at 11:30 a.m., the doorkeeper announced their arrival. Washington sat at the front of the chamber, and Knox took the chair to his right. Washington handed his remarks to Knox, who in turn handed them to Vice President John Adams. Adams read the statement, but as Senator William Maclay from Pennsylvania recalled, the senators could “not master . . . one Sentence of it.” Adams wasn’t known for his public speaking skills, but the senators’ struggles weren’t entirely his fault. The Senate gathered for their work in the large chambers that occupied the first floor of Federal Hall. Because of the August heat in New York City, the doorkeeper had opened the windows in search of a cooling breeze. But along with fresh air, noise from Wall Street’s pedestrians, carriages, peddlers, and horses flowed into the Senate chambers. The clamor overpowered Adams’s voice, so few senators could make out the words that Washington had carefully crafted. After a few complaints, Adams repeated the speech from the beginning. Washington’s remarks offered a brief synopsis of the current diplomatic state between the United States and the Southern Indians, and posed seven questions for the Senate to answer with an aye or a no.
Adams finished his recitation and sat. The seconds ticked by as the senators remained in awkward silence. A few shuffled papers or cleared their throats. Maclay speculated in his diary that his colleagues were so intimidated by Washington’s presence in the Senate chamber that they cowered in shameful silence. Eager to show that they could be active participants in the creation of foreign policy, Maclay stood up and suggested referring Washington’s seven questions to committee for discussion in detail. Washington lost his temper, stood up, and shouted, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” The senators fell into a stunned hush before Washington acquiesced to Maclay’s suggestion and offered to return to the Senate a few days later. Although he did return the following Monday, his first visit to the Senate was an inauspicious start to the executive-legislative relationship. As he returned to his carriage, Washington muttered under his breath that he would never return for advice. He kept his word—August 22, 1789, was the first and last time he visited the Senate to request guidance on foreign affairs. Unfortunately, the diplomatic challenges facing the United States during the Washington presidency were just beginning...
What’s your favourite rainy day movie?
I LOVE You’ve Got Mail. I absolutely love fall—the start of school, new school supplies, the colors, the decorations—everything. I’ve also adored book stores for as long as I can remember, so this movie is basically a love letter to all of my favorite interests.
Also, could Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks be any more charming and adorable together? No matter how many times I’ve seen both You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, I just find them absolutely precious.
There are a few things about this movie that are absolutely timeless, like Meg Ryan’s unbelievable neutral outfits, New York in the fall, Hank’s amazing Golden Retriever, and the joy of ordering a drink to-go from Starbucks.
Then there are a few elements that are so quintessentially late 1990s…like the technology! AOL, “you’ve got mail,” Barnes and Noble being the big bad guy…it all seems like a simpler time.
Finally, I love that I identify with new elements each time I watch it. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what Foucault or Julius and Ethel Rosenberg meant. They were just adult cultural references to me. So I loved that as I grew up, went through school, and read more, I understand the amazing tidbits that Nora Ephron dropped into the movie.
I never fail to feel super happy every time I watch You’ve Got Mail, but it also has a strangely motivating effect. If I’m feeling down or unmotivated, something about You’ve Got Mail gives me renewed confidence in my work and its value. I highly recommend revisiting it!
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Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. a historian of Early America, the presidency, and the government – especially the president’s cabinet. She shares her research by writing everything from op-eds to books, speaking on podcasts and other media, and teaching every kind of audience. She is Scholar-in-Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies and Senior Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies. Previously, she worked as a historian at the White House Historical Association. She received her B.A. in history and political science from the George Washington University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. She has been featured in the Law and History Review, the Journal of the Early Republic, TIME, and the Washington Post. Her new book, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, was published by the Belknap Imprint of Harvard University Press on April 7, 2020.
The New Criterion recently said of her book, “Fantastic…Unlike many works of popular history, The Cabinet never feels like hagiography. It lacks the reverence of works like Joseph J. Ellis’ Founder Brothers or the revisionist obsequiousness that now greets Alexander Hamilton’s name on stage…Chervinsky exemplifies the public-history ethos in her new book. The writing is clear and concise…She takes what could have been a dry institutional and political history of the Early Republic and transforms it into a compelling story of people and places.”
When she isn’t writing, researching, or talking about history, she can be found hiking with her husband and American Foxhound, John Quincy Dog Adams (Quincy for short).
Readers can request a personalized book plate here: https://www.lindsaychervinsky.com/book-plate