Over the weekend, I attended the Society of the Historians of the Early American Republic 2017 Annual Conference in Philadelphia. SHEAR is always one of my favorite conferences and this year was no exception. I love the size of the conference – I can count on there being new people I want to meet and tons of old friends too. As a historian of the Early Republic, I love that there are so many panels I want to attend.
This year, I agreed to live-tweet many of the panels for SHEAR’s social media committee. I have storified my tweets by panel below. I also wrote a blog post about the Art of History panel for SHEAR. You can read it here. Spoiler alert: that panel was AMAZING.
I also presented my own paper, “Thomas Jefferson and the Harmonious Cabinet,” as a part of Panel 42: The President’s Cabinet in the Early Republic: New Approaches and Overlooked Participants. I learned so much from my co-panelists (Kate Brown, Gautham Rao, and Stephen Rockwell) and came away with excellent insight offered by Joanne Freeman (the chair) and the audience.
I am working on revising the paper into an article, so I don’t want to give away too much right now, but there were a few questions that are still circling around in my brain.
- Many of the secretaries in James Madison’s cabinet were holdovers from Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. What does it tell me about Jefferson’s cabinet (and why it operated efficiently) that those people got along fairly well under his administration, yet the cabinet imploded under Madison?
- Did Jefferson want a harmonious cabinet because of his personal dislike of conflict or because he believed a conflict-ridden cabinet would be unpopular in public opinion after his two predecessors had publicly tumultuous cabinets?
- As an extension of the second question, what did Jefferson think the cabinet should be?
I don’t have definitive answers to any of these questions, but I have a few guesses.
- I think there are two factors. One, Jefferson was an engaged, active, strong president. Those terms need further definition, but I think they can be compared to Madison’s relatively hands-off, reserved approach. My guess is these two different styles had something to do with their different cabinets. Second, I think partisan divisions in Congress contributed to the cabinet experiences. Madison didn’t want Robert Smith as his Secretary of State, but had to settle for the appointment after Congress made clear Gallatin would not be acceptable . As President, Jefferson largely got his way with Congress. Madison did not. I am going to be exploring these factors more.
- Jefferson notoriously hated conflict, so there is no doubt in my mind he personally wanted a more harmonious work atmosphere. Especially after his time as Secretary of State, which he considered tortuous thanks to his arguments with Hamilton. Yet, Jefferson also probably knew that the public squabbles in Washington and Adams’ cabinets reflected poorly on the administration and weakened the president’s ability to implement policy.
- Along those same lines, Jefferson believed the secretaries were to serve as advisors. The most constitutionally appropriate way for the secretaries to provide advice was through written opinions . Yet Jefferson believed cabinet meetings were acceptable when the secretaries got along and the meetings furthed the president’s agenda. The secretaries were not designed to check the president’s power or challenge his authority.
I am very grateful for the audience’s questions and comments. I have more work to do and much to consider, but I am feeling invigorated and excited to tackle this essay with these factors in mind. If you have any other suggestions, I’m open to hearing them!
 Leonard D. White. The Jeffersonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1801-1829 (New York: The Free Press, 1951), 80.
 Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, February 19, 1810. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, ed. J. Jefferson Looney (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 2: 234-237.