I’ve always been fascinated by stories of people—how they structured their lives and influenced the world around them. I’m especially interested in how individuals shaped government institutions and political culture. In Early America, citizens had enormous power to affect the future of the republic, perhaps more than any time in American history. My book, tentatively titled “The President’s Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution,” explores George Washington’s unprecedented and unrivaled impact on the presidency and the federal government. In particular, I focus on Washington’s creation of the cabinet to provide advice in the face of unique diplomatic and constitutional crises.
The Constitution does not provide for a cabinet and Congress has not passed legislation to govern the relationship between the secretaries and the President. Yet, the cabinet secretaries hold some of the highest-profile positions in the federal government. My book will be the first to explain how Washington created the cabinet—a precedent that continues to the present day.
I argue that Washington experimented with a number of other options before turning to the cabinet, such as visiting the Senate to request advice and exchanging correspondence with the department secretaries. Washington discovered, however, that these options did not provide enough support to deal with the complex issues facing the new nation.
Washington summoned a handful of cabinet meetings in late 1791 and 1792 before convening regular meetings for the first time in the spring of 1793. When gathering with his secretaries, Washington drew on his leadership as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and the experiences of the secretaries in the state governments.
Over the course of his presidency, Washington’s relationship with the cabinet continued to evolve. In 1793 and 1794, when facing the possibility of international war with France and Great Britain or a domestic insurrection in western Pennsylvania over the whiskey excise tax, Washington summoned the cabinet for weekly or even daily gatherings. Starting in 1795, Washington convened fewer meetings. He had established precedent for most major issues and felt more comfortable running his administration through individual conferences.
Washington treated the cabinet as a tool to use at his discretion. This legacy remains today: the cabinet retains little institutional structure and depends on its relationship with the President for power.
I am also working on a number of side projects inspired by my original research on the cabinet. I am comparing John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s cabinets as a way to explore their presidencies, their leadership, their relationships with their secretaries, and their legacies. I am also investigating Washington’s councils of war during the Revolution, analyzing how the physical space in Washington’s private office shaped the cabinet’s evolution, and examining how Americans’ fears of the British cabinet influenced Washington’s interactions with his secretaries. As these projects develop, I will share updates and publication information.