VBT – THE CABINET
Posted by authorcamilson
by Lindsay M. Chervinsky
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.
At eleven thirty in the morning on August 22, 1789, a large cream-colored coach pulled up to the front door of Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street in New York City. Six matching, perfectly groomed horses pulled the elegant carriage with sparkling gold trim. The coachman, outfitted in crisp white- and red-trimmed livery, jumped down from the back of the carriage and opened the door. An elegantly dressed man with powdered hair stepped down with a portfolio of papers under his arm. He towered over his companion, Henry Knox, the acting secretary of war, and his slaves tending to his horses. His ornate coach and his imposing presence drew curious stares from strangers passing by on the street. He walked up to the front door of Federal Hall and was immediately announced to the Senate. George Washington, the first president of the United States, had arrived for his first visit to the United States Senate.
This was no ordinary meeting. Two years earlier, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia had agreed that the Senate would “advise and consent” on treaties and other questions of foreign policy. But in practice, how the president and the Senate would interact remained for the first officeholders to work out….
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
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
Lindsay M. Chervinsky will be awarding a $50 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.
Q&A With…. Lindsay M. Chervinsky
Tell us about you as a person.
I’m an outgoing introvert and I’m completely obsessed with dogs. I will wrestle and snuggle with any dog on the floor and happily ignore the humans around. I love re-watching silly action movies. I hate being told what to do. If someone says “you MUST watch this show,” I resist mightily. But if someone just suggests it off-the-cuff, I’m much more likely to participate. Finally, I would happily live on bread, cheese, pasta, fruit, and dessert for the rest of my days.
If you could hang out with one famous person for one day, who would it be and why?
Alive or dead? Dead is easier: John Quincy Adams. He saw so much in his lifetime and had such extraordinarily expansive knowledge. Alive is a little bit harder. I think Madeleine Albright. Her life story is so fascinating and she accomplished so much, as both a refugee and a woman. I’d love to learn more about that.
What’s the story behind your latest book?
I couldn’t find anything to read about the creation of the cabinet and I wanted to know where it came from. I could find countless books about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, but they all treated the cabinet as inevitable. Because the cabinet wasn’t in the Constitution, I knew that wasn’t the case and I decided to answer that question.
What is your writing process?
For starters, I can’t have silence. Most of the time, I have an oldies playlist going (with everything from the 50s to the 80s). If I’m really struggling to focus and need to block out the lyrics, I’ll listen to French jazz, a Yo-Yo Ma playlist, or Salsa music. But I have to be using earbuds because something about the intensity of the music in my ears blocks out the rest of the world.
Before the pandemic, I preferred to write from home in the morning and then switch to a coffee shop in the afternoon. I tend to get sleepy after lunch, and the hustle and bustle of a shop helps me stay focused. Now that I’m home almost all the time, I’ll try and switch locations around the house. When that fails, I’ll take a nap and get a second wind around 4 or 4:30 and I’ll often write after dinner.
If your book was to be turned into a movie, who would play the lead role and why.
There have been lots of actors that have played George Washington, but I think Jeff Daniels is probably my favorite. Michael Douglas would have also been great when he was a bit younger.
What are you working on next?
I’m starting my second book, which compares John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s cabinets. They are one of the worst and best, respectively, in American history and I’ve become complete fascinated by what cabinets reveal about the presidency and presidential leadership. All presidents have to deal with egos, ambition, and power struggles, so this story will definitely be relevant for the contemporary moment.
What advice do you have for other writers who want to get the word out about their book?
You have to be your own best advocate. No one else will do it for you. Don’t be afraid to ask to be on a podcast or have an event at a historic site or bookstore. You should do your research and make a compelling case for why your work would be a good fit, but the worst they can say is no. Also, be generous to others and they will return it to you.
What is your favorite book on your shelf right now?
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes is my favorite recent fiction read. How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson was the last non-fiction book that really blew my socks off.
Do you have any special/extraordinary talents?
I feel pretty ordinary, but I guess I’m shockingly persistent. Which has positive benefits for my work, but also results in a dog who can do lots of tricks and an ability to frost cookies in absurdly complicated designs. Both took a lot of time and patience to master!
You are given the choice of one super power. What super power would you have and why?
Apparition! My family and friends are all over the country and I wish I could just pop around see them without the wasted time and hassle of travel. I also love traveling abroad but get really bad jet lag, so if I could just zip to Paris in a moment, I’d be the happiest!
List 5 things on your bucket list:
- Travel extensively: a few top choices include Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, and go back to Amsterdam
- Learn to speak French
- Hike Machu Picchu
- Buy a house in the Shenandoah Valley
- Make the New York Times Best Seller list
Any final thoughts?
Thanks so much to all of my readers’ support and encouragement during the book launch. Publishing my first book during the pandemic has been a bit of challenge, but I’m grateful for every sold copy, every reader, every kind note, and every review.
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