Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution. I had the opportunity to speak with Lindsay Chervinsky, author of the book The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.
Dr. Chervinsky is a historian of Early America, the presidency, and the government — especially the president’s cabinet. She speaks and writes frequently on the history of the executive branch and how it has evolved over time.
I spoke with Dr. Chervinsky over a remote call.
Michael J Troy (MJT) Lindsey Chervinsky. Welcome to the American Revolution podcast.
Lindsey M Chervinsky (LMC) Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
MJT You've written this book called The Cabinet, George Washington and the Creation of an American institution. It takes a look at the Washington administration, the first administration of the new constitution and how the cabinet work within that administration. What exactly drew you to this topic?
LMC Well, when I started reading about this time period, I was looking for books that explained where the cabinet came from, and knew that it wasn't in the Constitution. And yet every president appeared to have one. And so I was trying to figure out how that came to be. And I couldn't find anything. And it turns out, actually that the last book that was published was in 1912. And it looked at the legislation that created each executive department. But other than that, no one had ever really written about where this institution came from, and how it evolved. And when I discovered that gap in the literature, I was so excited and spent the next eight years hoping, you know, no one would beat me to it.
MJT So where exactly did the cabinet come from? Is this drawing on, I assume, British and colonial traditions?
LMC Well, it certainly draws on British linguistic traditions. But we can talk about that in a moment. The real cabinet actually came from Washington's desire in real time to manage all of the challenges that were facing the administration and him as the first president. He tried really hard to stick to what was actually written in the Constitution, which notably, the cabinet was very explicitly rejected from. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention, we're very worried about recreating the British cabinet and their government. And so they had voted against proposals for a cabinet. Washington really tried to stick to that. But a couple of years into his presidency, he just concluded that the options that had been laid out to him were inefficient, and insufficient to provide the sort of advice and feedback that he needed. So he created the cabinet and then modeled those practices off of his former leadership experience in the Revolutionary War.
MJT George Washington famously held councils of war while he was commander in chief of the Continental Army. And I'm pretty confident he drew on a lot of those traditions. The King of England, of course, had the Privy Council and also something called the cabinet. A lot of the colonial governors also had boards or counselors or some small group of men. And unfortunately, it was always men at the time, who formally advised the governor on how to run a colony.
|Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky
Then the British cabinet - all Americans knew that it existed had really emerged out of the Privy Council, and it was sort of a group of the kings favorites. But because these meetings took place behind closed doors, and were very secret, it wasn't always clear who was making decisions, who was advocating which policy, who had the king's ear, and that lack of transparency was very concerning to most Americans. And during the Revolution, most colonists had come to blame that British cabinet actually for instigating the conflicts that led to the war. So they were very concerned about replicating that sort of corruption, and cronyism at the highest levels of government, which is why they had rejected that proposal.
And then Washington with his counsels of war, he found that to be a very useful exercise when he was the commander in chief. He would use counsels of war to, of course, get advice, but also to build consensus among his officers or to obtain cover for potentially controversial decisions. I think it's really important to note that when he convened his councils of war, he never went in and dictated a policy and asked them to basically approve it. He genuinely convened these groups as a discussion and as a way to test out different ideas and theories. But that required a lot of careful management because anyone knows the personalities that were involved in that group. They were not wallflowers. These were big egos and big ambitions and they were very concerned with their honor and usually thought they were right. So it required very careful management for Washington to kind of keep all of these people together. And so he basically copied and pasted those exact same policies from the council of war, both how he used them and how he managed them into the presidency. And that's what he decided to use for the cabinet.
MJT It sounds like a council would be a pretty important part of government as far as advising a leader, and we see it used in all these previous examples, why was the Constitutional Convention so afraid to put something in like that, even as a check on the presidency?
LMC Well, they really had three separate concerns. So one of the main goals, of course, of the Constitutional Convention was to create a more powerful president. So they did not want a system like in the states, because the goal was to kind of keep executive power and legislative power separate. So they didn't want a body that would be a go between and would check the president in that way.
They were also very concerned that if they had a council like this, it would make it difficult for one person to be in charge, and for the American citizens to hold that person accountable. So if there was a group decision, who was the person that actually suggested a policy? who was the person that made that choice? And they felt that a council would really obscure that sort of clear decision making that they really wanted to be available and transparent for the American people.
And finally, they felt like if there was this group, that would tempt a president or perhaps a president's friends or family members to try and get their colleagues and their associates placed on this board, and it would just be a little bit too much of a temptation for corruption. And that was not something they really wanted to encourage either.
But they were very reasonable men, as you said, they understood that leaders need advice and support. And so they did put into place two options for the President. First, the President could request written advice from the department secretaries. And that was supposed to be in writing to preserve that transparency that we've talked about.
And second, they firmly expected that the Senate would serve as a Council of Foreign Affairs. So in Article Two of the Constitution, it still says today that the President with the advice and consent to the Senate will make treaties and foreign appointments. And they took that advice part quite seriously. And the Senate in the fall of 1789, when Washington was in office was only 22 people. So that's not an impossibly large number to meet with and, you know, maybe seems reasonable. They also felt that because the senators were selected by state legislatures, the states could be trusted to pick smart, qualified men, that would be good and safe advisors. And then the states would also remove them if they gave bad advice. So they felt like that was probably the best way for a president to have a council without tempting some of this corruption and transparency problems that they had observed in Britain.
MJT It's funny to think the size of the Senate at that time is about the size of the presidential cabinet today. But I take it his first attempt to seek advice from the Senate did not go particularly well.
LMC Yes, this is one of my all time favorite Washington stories, because it's such a tale of clashing expectations, Washington plan to visit with the Senate at the end of August, so just a couple of months into his presidency. And he had already sent the Senate all of the existing treaties with Native American nations.
And he met with a committee so that he could plan things like where he would sit and how he would enter and how he would be introduced. Some of those, you know, small details that seem unimportant until you have to do them for the first time. And then all of a sudden, you realize, Wow, there are so many decisions that have to be made.
And the reason Washington wanted to meet with the Senate was because he was planning to send a commission to meet with representatives from North Carolina, South Carolina and the Creek and Cherokee nations. And he had never sent that sort of question before he had to give them instructions. And so he thought it would be helpful to have senatorial input.
So he arrived for his meeting. And he brought with him the Acting Secretary of War, Henry Knox, who had overseen all these previous treaties and could maybe, you know, answer any questions or anything like that. And he brought with him a written address and a series of questions. And he delivered that address and those questions and he was expecting, like with his counsels of war, when he had given them questions to debate, that the Senators would discuss and provide different options for him to consider and feedback and maybe they would disagree, but that disagreement would actually be quite helpful for Washington to consider all the options.
Instead the Senate sat in silence. Most people avoided eye contact or fiddled their papers or tried to look busy. And finally, they asked if they could refer the issue to committee to discuss it privately. And would Washington come back the following week for their recommendation. Now, Washington was really good at controlling his temper until he wasn't. And in this moment, he wasn't and he absolutely lost it and yelled at them for wasting his time. And he did come down and agree to come back the following week, but the damage was done, because he reportedly said on the way out that he would never again return for advice. Now, the evidence about whether or not he actually said that is a little bit shaky, but he definitely was thinking, because he never again returned for advice.
And so right away, this key option that had been articulated for him to use in the Constitution, he had ruled out as inefficient, because when he was dealing with a matter of diplomacy or foreign affairs, he wanted immediate feedback. He wanted advice right away. He didn't want to wait a week before, you know, sending instructions. And he was assuming that the senators would act like his officers had acted. And the Senate was acting like a legislative body acts. And so it was really a case of, as I said, mismatched expectations. And it didn't really improve from there.
MJT Well, I know Washington did appear before the Continental Congress, when he was commander in chief on multiple occasions. So I guess he must have had some idea of the dynamic. I guess this just being a more formal setting, and with the idea of the different governmental positions still being worked out. They just didn't seem to click with one another.
The other branch of government that he turned to was the courts for advice. He, I believe, used John Jay is an advisor for a time. How did that go?
LMC Yes, that's right. So John Jay was one of Washington's closest friends and advisors, they had a great deal of respect for each other, and had known each other for decades. And there are some evidence to suggest that when Washington became president, he asked John Jay, if you would like to stay on as the new Secretary of State, or if you would like to be Chief Justice, and Jay said, Chief Justice, according to this this story. Either way, john Jay became the first Chief Justice. And but in that capacity, in addition to his responsibilities on the Supreme Court, he continued to be an advisor for Washington and the other secretaries behind the scenes. They regularly consulted with him at Washington's encouragement.
So in 1793, when the neutrality crisis broke out, and we can talk a little bit more about that big event, there were a ton of legal questions about what neutrality meant and how to enforce it. And the first time anyone knows when there's, you know, a new legal issue, the first time you're trying to do something, it's really hard if there isn't already precedent established. And so Washington asked the cabinet to consult with the Supreme Court about how they should basically craft neutrality. And John Jay was initially totally game to provide this sort of advice. And then he hesitated, he said, Well, you know, maybe I should consult with my colleagues. And interestingly, once the Supreme Court came together, they then said, you know, this would be really inappropriate for us to provide guidance before there's actually a case for us to adjudicate or for us to decide on. So they refused to provide that sort of guidance.
My speculation is that john Jay would have been perfectly happy to do so one on one, but his colleagues overruled him doing so as an institution, which I think is super fascinating. And the reason I think that is because the following year, he had no problem taking on an additional appointment as a special envoy to Great Britain to negotiate a new treaty for the United States while still remaining the Chief Justice. So he didn't really have a problem doing multiple roles at one time. But his colleagues seem to have an issue with the separation of powers and the blending of those responsibilities in 1793.
MJT I imagine in these first few years, Washington was flailing about as to how he should properly ask for advice. I assume that he had lots of one-on-one sessions with important members of the government, for example, I know he was friends with Senator Robert Morris, and certainly others that he knew either from his time in the army or his interactions with the Continental Congress. Did he have a lot of more informal one-on-one consultations?
LMC Well, I love that description of flailing about because I think that's very accurate way to think about it. When we look at what's actually written down in Article Two, which is the Article of the Constitution that governs the President's behavior and authorities. There's very little there. There are very few words and it leaves an awful lot for the first president for Washington to kind of figure out.
So he really was going through the motions in a very organic way in responding to whatever crises or challenges came up in real time. And so that's why we see this incredible ongoing evolution of the presidency through the first couple of administrations, because there is so much to figure out beyond what is written down. It's really amazing. He writes these letters, like, for example, in early May of 1789, he wrote a letter to John Adams, he wrote a similar one to John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, and probably some others, asking for guidance about how he should socialize. Could he interact with random citizens? Could he have his friends over to dinner, should he host official events, because that was sort of, you know, what the presidential presence looked like was the first thing on his mind.
And then as he went along, depending on whatever the issue was, he would consult with different people. So James Madison was a very important advisor for the first year or so until they had some ideological differences. And Madison helped him write a lot of his addresses in his letters to Congress in that first year, and then often wrote Congress's address back to Washington, which I would think presents a little bit of a conflict of interest, but they didn't think so in 1789. He did talk to other friends. And he also used sort of more unofficial channels to get advice or to make his preferences known.
So for example, in 1790, Congress was trying to figure out how much money to set aside for the diplomatic corps - for the the payment for the ministers and the consoles that were going abroad. And if the Congress set aside a small amount of money that would really limit how many people Washington could appoint. And so he felt that that was inappropriate interference with basically powers of the executive. And people like Jefferson agreed with him. And so Jefferson went and he talked to senators and congressmen in Congress.
Then when Martha Washington hosted her Friday evening drawing rooms, which were these regular social events, a bunch of senators came to that event and Washington was there. But he was there as a private citizen, because Martha was the host. So he sidles up to these senators. And he basically says, you know, this is what I would like, this is what I would prefer. And because it was technically a private event, and he was there as a private citizen, it wasn't considered inappropriate politicking. Whereas if he had been the host, it would have been deemed really inappropriate interference. And sure enough, the Senate goes and they increase the amount of money and he gets what he wants.
But it's this amazing example of Washington using all avenues available to him to get information or to pass on information. That sort of fluidity and flexibility, I think is one of the most amazing things that the 1790s
MJT Yeah, I found that interesting. You discuss in your book, the idea that George Washington held social events at his home, where he would be very formally introduced to all the guests and bow to them and just basically speak to them in very preliminary ways. But at other events at the same location that his wife simply hosted, he felt a lot freer to just speak as a guest, even though he was still the president, United States in the presidential home receiving guests, but, but he seemed feel more at liberty to chit chat and that sort of a situation. I just found that to be an odd dynamic.
LMC Yeah, I mean, some of the social norms of the 1790s are sort of unfathomable to us today. So for example, if women were present, the event was considered a semi-private semi-public event. So if women were in the room, it could not be a political event, which meant that in theory, you know, there wasn't supposed to be talk of politics. Now we know that, of course, that was hogwash. And of course, women were talking about politics.
But women often served as this very useful veil to make an event possible, where important networking and negotiations and sort of deal making and you know, all the behind the scenes, things that are such an important part of politics, they made that possible by providing this cover for politicians who are really supposed to act in certain ways. So the political culture of the 1790s is, you know, in some ways, so different from ours. But there's a really essential way to understanding how these things happened.
MJT Really interesting. And it's important to remember too - I always think of federal politics happening in Washington, DC, but of course, George Washington was in New York City for the first couple years of his administration and then moved to Philadelphia. How did the environment where he was living impact his ability to work with members of Congress and other members of the government?
LMC That's a great question. So I primarily focus on Philadelphia because the federal government was only in New York for about a year and a half, actually a little bit less. But once he moved to Philadelphia, Washington rented a private home. It was the largest private residence in the city on the corner of Sixth and Market, or Sixth and High Street, which those streets are still the same today. And it was really sort of the center hub of what the city's activity was. For blocks around him, there were homes and shops, and civic institutions like Congressional Hall, or theaters, or Independence Hall or markets. And all of the department secretaries had their homes and offices, so did many congressmen and sort of the elite families in Philadelphia.
So it would have been an incredibly tight knit community. We're talking like maybe 12 blocks by 10 blocks in terms of the heart of the city. And so I think it would have been pretty impossible for people to avoid each other. In fact, we know based on their receipts, and their records that Hamilton and Jefferson, even though they despise each other, they went to the same tailor. And so I just suspect that no matter how you felt about someone, you literally could not escape them. You would have gone to the same homes or parties, you would have gone to the same theaters, you would have gone to the same events.
That environment, I think really served as sort of a hothouse for political tensions, because you couldn't escape someone. And so therefore, you saw them all the time. And in particular, I think here of Hamilton and Jefferson, because they saw each other so much, they became convinced that the other person was really a mortal threat to the future of the country. And it spurred them to start to form the first political parties. And I think that that would have happened at some point, regardless, because they were these really diametrically opposed worldviews. But I think it happened faster, because they were always together and always stuck in this spot.
MJT Yeah, I found that interesting. You tend to think, when people get together, they can usually work out their differences. It’s when they're far apart from each other, they can begin to suspect more of the other person having nefarious motives or whatever. But in this case, the two men working very closely face to face - they didn't manage to form a common bond, in fact, quite the opposite.
LMC Yeah, I think it definitely made it worse in their case.
MJT Yeah, Philadelphia at the time. I mean, people who are familiar with the city now know it is this huge metropolis, but it really, I remember reading Thomas Jefferson, when he was there, the Continental Congress, stayed at a home on Seventh Street, and it was described as the, the western border of the city that there wasn't anything beyond Seventh Street. So what we consider old town today was Philadelphia, in the late 18th century. So yeah, it really was a tiny, tiny area that people were living in. And basically the rest of what we consider Philadelphia today was farmland.
LMC One summer, when the yellow fever was particularly bad, Jefferson rented a house on the [eastern] bank of the [Schuylkill] river. And that was considered the country he went and got a "country house." And now of course, that is, you know, part of Philadelphia proper. His travels to and from the seat of government from that house, were no small thing at the time, because there wasn't Metro or buses or anything like that. So it is funny to think about the size, and the difference in scale of what we're familiar with today.
MJT Yeah, it really is strange. So, Washington did not hold cabinet meetings. The first few years, he was in office. Was there something that finally happened that caused him to decide that he really needed to try this? a particular event or something?
LMC I'm so glad you brought this up, because I've actually been seen on Twitter some confusion about when the first cabinet meeting actually took place. So just to set the record straight. The first cabinet meeting was November 26 1791. It was in Philadelphia, it was not at Mount Vernon. I think Washington had been tiptoeing towards it for a little while. He had increased his one on one consultations with the department secretaries, those were definitely increasing in frequency. And it became very clear to him that some of the issues on his agenda were not issues that he could handle just with one secretary.
So for example, the first meeting, November 26 1791, he convened because he wanted to talk about the state of the economic and sort of diplomatic relationships between the United States and France, Great Britain and Spain. Now, those treaties or potential treaties, would of course include economic matters. So the Secretary of Treasury needed to be there. But of course included also legal questions if you're going to have a legal document. So that's the Attorney General And if it's diplomacy, then the Secretary of State needs to be there. And if those relationships sour and they don't go, well, then the Secretary of War probably needs to be there, too.
So he pretty quickly determined that this sort of group meeting was essential when there were these big questions. And that was the topic for the first meeting, trying to figure out how to improve those relationships. And while nothing actually concrete really came of that meeting, they set about trying to have some conversations, which didn't amount to much, those issues actually proved to be the most pressing ones for the remainder of his presidency.
MJT So Washington's cabinet was pretty small, especially by today's standards. He only had four members in his cabinet. Most of them were actually pretty close friends of his. I mean, Alexander Hamilton had been famously his aide de camp during the war, and the men had spent many days and nights together. Henry Knox, who was the Secretary of War, had been his commander of artillery, and pretty much been with Washington the entire war as well. Randolph, the Attorney General, was, I believe Washington's personal lawyer in Virginia for a long time.
Jefferson kind of seems like the odd man out. Of course, Jefferson and Washington knew each other from some time in the House of Burgesses and in Congress, but I got the impression that they were never particularly close. Is that right?
LMC Yes, I love this setup. And I should also add that Randolph was actually one of Washington's first aides de camp in the first year of the war. So he too, had been in the army. So there's not only this division of the three men that Washington knows very well, and they're probably three of the men that he's closest to. And then also, they had all been in the army together, which is a pretty significant bonding moment.
And then there's Jefferson, who had spent many of the previous years in Europe, and he had been serving his nation. But I think it's fair to say that spending time at Versailles and negotiating with France is a little bit different than spending time on the battlefield. So there was definitely an intellectual emotional divide between Jefferson and some of the other secretaries and Washington did know him. They had served together in the Continental Congress. And then they had exchanged correspondence, while Jefferson was governor of Virginia, and had continued that correspondence after the war. But you're right, there was not that same closeness. They were always very respectful in their letters to one another, but it wasn't as warm as the others.
It's hard to say if that really influenced things all that much, except that I do think that Jefferson had a sense that Hamilton always sort of had the inside edge with Washington. He never said as much in his letters, but perhaps that was a reflection of that different dynamic in their relationship.
MJT The other thing is, we usually think of the Vice President as a member of the cabinet. But my understanding is John Adams never attended any of these meetings.
LMC That's correct. So the Vice President didn't actually become really an official member of the cabinet until the 1930s. And the Vice President didn't actually become an office really worth anything until Vice President Mondale. And I would actually argue the real modern vice presidency starts with Dick Cheney.
John Adams was in the unfortunate position of being completely useless, which he despised. And he tried really hard to help the Senate, which often meant that he spent hours lecturing the Senate, which as you can imagine, the senators did not particularly appreciate. But he was very much kept out of the administration and kept out of the cabinet. He never attended a single cabinet meeting. There are two schools of thought as to why Washington never included him. The first is that as President of the Senate, in his capacity as Vice President, Adams actually played a pretty active role. He was there every day. Today, senators will sort of take turns presiding over the proceedings, and at that point, the Vice President presided over all the proceedings. So there's one argument that suggests that maybe Washington was concerned about separation of powers and wanting to keep the vice president separate from the executive branch.
I find that less compelling than the school of thought that argues that Washington and Adams weren't that close either. They were respectful of one another. But Adams had been critical of Washington's choices during the war, and Washington knew it and had a pretty thin skin. And Adams was a little bit resentful that Washington was so much more famous and so much more beloved than he was.
And then Adams in his first year as Vice President had made some poor political choices. He had advocated for a very ostentatious title for the President, which had been an unpopular choice, and maybe he had squandered some of his political goodwill. And so I think that it's more likely that Washington just didn't really trust his political judgment. And so he didn't include him. But of course, again, these are answers that we don't really have with complete satisfaction because Washington did never write down why he decided to do that.
MJT Yeah, Washington was kind of famous for keeping people at a distance and maintaining a formality with just about everyone in his life with, at least with men. I know that Adams did not have Washington's back during the Conway Cabal, which is going many years back to 1777 and '78. I would think that Washington would view him with a little more formality than he would a trusted friend or advisor. And you're right, if he wasn't giving good advice, then he wasn't even useful in a more formal relationship.
LMC Yeah, that's right. And I think that, in addition to sort of the structural oddities and their past clashes, or you know, even just tensions, Adams and Washington in terms of their personalities were very different. Adams was very blunt. He was prone to honesty, which often meant putting his foot in his mouth.
He was also a New Englander. And very proud of it, it kind of came from deep, New England, sort of puritanical tradition. And so there were real cultural differences to his upbringing in Massachusetts, and Washington's in Virginia. Neither of them ever really discussed that, per se. But I can't help but wonder if that was an element to some of the coolness in their relationship.
MJT Thomas Jefferson was, as we said, a part of the cabinet but never really in the inner circle as much as he would have liked to have been, was there something in particular that really resulted in his final break with the administration?
LMC Well, so let me back up just a moment because Jefferson never thought he was in the inner circle. But that was his own insecurities. Because what I actually discovered when I was going through the notes that he took, and that Hamilton took, and that Washington took from these cabinet meetings, was that Washington actually sided with Jefferson almost as much as he sided with Hamilton, like almost nearly 50-50, and including on some very important big choices. And so I think Jefferson's sense that Washington, you know, didn't listen to him and Washington preferred Hamilton was really a creation of his own sort of internal struggles.
Nonetheless, that's how he felt. And I think that that was one of the driving factors for wanting to leave the administration. He started talking about doing so as early as late 1791, early 1792. Washington pleaded with him to stay. So even though they weren't as close, he really valued Jefferson's expertise and insights about foreign policy. Washington had never been to Europe. So he didn't know what were the diplomatic customs at Versailles or the court of St. James. And these were things that Jefferson could really contribute to the cabinet. Washington also really appreciated that Jefferson frequently disagreed with Hamilton, because he found that difference of perspective and the disagreements that they had to be very instructive and very helpful for making a balanced decision.
So Washington pleaded with Jefferson to stay, and basically convinced him to stay until early 1793. And I think Jefferson probably would have retired around then had war between France and Great Britain not broken out. And I think that the resulting conflict, which is known as the "neutrality crisis" in 1793, and the cabinet's complete obsession with this issue, rightfully so, because there was so much to figure out, dominated their attention. And Jefferson didn't really feel like he could leave until that was resolved, which was the end of 1793. And then he left at the end of the year.
MJT Right. Washington famously wanted to leave at the end of '92, after the end of his first term, and had to be convinced by Jefferson and others to stay for a second term. He was pretty much sick of the whole thing, too. And I think part of the pressure he put on Jefferson is if I'm staying, you're staying, buddy, we're in this together.
LMC Oh, absolutely. And Jefferson was one of the people urging him to stay for a second term. And so I think Washington felt like well, fine, if I'm going to, you are too. And that worked for about a year.
MJT Right. Jefferson also famously liked written communications. He was never a big fan of back and forth in-person debate. I've got to imagine spending most of 1793 cramped in a room yelling at Alexander Hamilton, about everything that was going on that year, must have been very draining on him.
LMC Oh, he absolutely despised it, because he really hated a personal conflict. But he felt so strongly about these issues that when he was in a Cabinet meeting, he felt like he had to defend his perspective, which meant that he had to be in conflict, which must have just been agonizing for him.
On top of which most of these meetings took place in the summer in Philadelphia. And even though they were used to not having air conditioning at the time, no one really liked being in Philadelphia during the summer because it was hot, and it was uncomfortable. So if we think about the fact that they were meeting, sometimes several hours per day, up to five times per week, in August, in Philadelphia.
They already hate each other. They're fighting every day. It is not hard to imagine why Jefferson described their meetings as cockfights, because he was trying to invoke his sort of bloody visceral, you know, feathers flying spectacle, and he just hated it. And it was absolutely one of the reasons he wanted to leave.
MJT So the cabinet met, as you said, a great deal in 1793. Because of the crisis of war with Britain and France, the United States famously decided to remain neutral in that war, not siding with either of the combatants, do you want to explain a little about why that happened and what the debate was?
LMC Absolutely. So France declared war on in Great Britain. And it's important to remember that France and Great Britain had been on again, off again, fighting wars for centuries at this point. But in the 1790s, Napoleon is coming to power. And this is after the French Revolution. So there's a lot of chaos going on in France and in Europe.
Everyone agrees, including Jefferson, who is the most pro-French, that participating in the war is not possible, because the country had just gotten out of the Revolution, was just beginning to recover financially, emotionally, environmentally. And so there was really just no way that they could physically or financially afford to fight a war. Now, even if they wanted to, the country did not have an army or Navy with which to fight. So they really were out of luck here. So war was not an option.
But what neutrality looked like, was a very complicated question, because you could enforce a very strict neutrality, which would be more pro British, or you could kind of be loosey-goosey with the rules, which would be more pro French. And so that's really where the fight breaks down between Jefferson and Hamilton is how strict to be with these rules, especially around privateers.
Privateers were basically private ships that were sailed under a letter of marque or a license from a foreign nation to attack that nation's enemies. So for example, France would hire private ships to go out and attack British ships. If they were successful, they would take whatever prizes they captured, sell them off, turn those new ships into new privateers and repeat the process. And this was very common, it was a standard part of 18th century warfare. Everyone did it, including the United States.
But what you allow those privateers to do in ports can really affect neutrality. So United States had said that privateers could buy food and water and essential supplies, but not military goods. Enforcing that proved to be one of the main challenges of 1793.
MJT Right, I recollect back to the first two or three years of the American Revolution when France was neutral in the fighting between Britain and the United States. And of course, Britain considered it an internal rebellion at the time. The US sent commissioners to France, who were trying to hire privateers and outfit ships and bring prizes into French ports. And the French largely seemed to want to tolerate it and kind of let it go with a wink and a nod. But on the other hand, they had a British ambassador right there who was screaming at them about all these outrages and threatening that they didn't do something, they'd have to go to war. And so France would have to take certain steps to just be "shocked, shocked!" that privateering was going on in their country.
I think they expected the same thing of the US even though the US was proclaiming neutrality, and they sent over an ambassador named Edmond Genêt. That situation did not seem to go particularly well. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
LMC Absolutely. So, citizen Edmond Charles Genêt was the new French minister to the United States. He arrived from France in the United States. A week after Washington had issued his proclamation of neutrality declaring that the United States was staying out of the war.
And Genêt immediately set up shop trying to outfit these new privateers, which were really really good privateers. He had a lot of success, which was frankly part of the problem. Because every time they had success, they would drag their, captured British ships back into the port of Philadelphia. And remember, we've talked about how small Philadelphia is. So the port was literally six blocks from Washington's house. So he was engaging in all of these activities right under the President's nose, and it did not go unnoticed. Also problematically, the British minister happened to live in Philadelphia. And noticed these British ships being hauled in and wasn't particularly happy about it.
And as you said, Genêt really thought that the United States would just kind of wink wink nod nod, would quickly pay off all of its debts to France, which then France would turn around and use those funds to channel into its warfare effort against Great Britain, and would be totally fine with these privateers operating in this very militaristic fashion in the port of Philadelphia.
Now, of course, that's not what happened. And Washington and Jefferson said again, and again to Genêt, basically cut it out, you're going to cause some problems, and he refused. And finally, there was this moment where everything came to a head in July, where Jefferson goes to Genêt, and says, You must stop doing this. And Genêt threatens, he basically argues with Jefferson about how the constitution works, which takes some serious gall to, you know, argue with the Secretary of State about their own constitution. And he insists that Congress and the American people are Supreme. And the President does not have the authority to carve out foreign policy, which Jefferson strenuously denies, and Genêt threatens to go to the American people, basically to overturn the president and go to the American people to get them on his side.
Now, this is a huge outrage when this news is made public. And that does not happen by accident. Alexander Hamilton hears about this, and he publishes it secretly and privately, and then other people publish it more outright. And the American people are horrified because nationalism is still sort of a nebulous thing. And the American flag doesn't yet really exist as the symbol we think of it today. But Washington was their guy. Everyone knew who Washington was. He was the most famous American. He was the President. Everyone could kind of get behind him. Keep in mind, he had been elected at this point twice, unanimously. And here was some foreign minister disrespecting their president on American soil, and it was an outrage.
That really turned the tide against Genêt. And the cabinet decided to meet and they requested his recall from France, which was another big moment because they had never done that before. And they weren't frankly, sure if France was going to agree. But when brands did agree, it basically tacitly implied that the United States as a sovereign nation had the right to craft its own foreign policy, and to demand that that foreign policy be respected by foreign ministers. So how all of this developed with Genêt and France. It was very tense. It was a very intense year, but it had huge implications for both the President's authority over foreign policy and American sovereignty internationally.
MJT Yeah, just an interesting side note, when they recalled Genêt, he actually claimed asylum in the US. He was afraid to go back to Paris for fear of losing his head. So he ended up living the rest of his life, I believe in upstate New York.
LMC Yeah, I think he married the daughter of Governor Clinton, George Clinton in New York. And you're right. The French Revolution was still in full swing. The reign of terror was still going on. He was very convinced he was going to be a victim of the guillotine. And so he begged Washington to allow him to stay. And once you know, once Washington had one he could, he could be very merciful once he got his way. And so this is one of these instances where he won. So he was happy to allow Genêt to stay. And Genêt actually, after that point, he was very quiet. He didn't cause any more trouble. He kind of just, you know, had this very quiet secluded life. So, it's a very interesting ending to that particular chapter.
MJT One thing that many of my listeners often ask is, why was Washington seemingly so British? I mean, obviously, we had no Navy to send over to France. But we weren't even being helpful to France in our own ports. Why were we not willing to be of assistance to France and seemingly favoring our old enemy Britain?
LMC It's a good question. It's one that I receive somewhat frequently as well. I think the number one rule of politics and foreign policy is protect your own first. Washington was a realist, and he was very pragmatic in everything he did. That's not to say he didn't have ideology or values that he treasured. He was a very pragmatic person.
Great Britain was the United States' largest trading partner. We still As a nation depended on them for most of our trade. So it would have completely shot ourselves in the foot to alienate them or to go to war with them.
Secondarily, there was sort of a little bit flimsy, but nonetheless, legal justification for staying out of it. The treaty that the United States had signed with France was a treaty of defense, which meant in the terms of it dictated that if France or the United States was attacked by their enemies, aka Great Britain, then the other would come to their defense. But France was the one that had attacked Great Britain. So there were some Americans who kind of thought that they asked for it. And they weren't particularly interested in coming to their defense if they had started the trouble.
Finally, there was a real sense that the France of 1778 was not the same as the France of 1793. Keep in mind that in this period of time, what had started as sort of an ideological sister revolution in 1789, had devolved into the reign of terror. They had executed the king and queen. They had executed thousands of other government officials and nobles and elite families. Blood literally ran through the streets of Paris. That's not an exaggeration. And there was a real fear that France was going to export that sort of violence and anarchy to the United States, especially because so many people were actually fleeing that violence, that terror and coming and settling in places like Philadelphia, where again, the small community, Washington knew they were there. Hamilton knew they were there. They socialize with them. And they did tend to be politically more radical.
And so there was this real fear that the anarchy that was in France was going to come to the United States, and that France was no longer a dependable ally. And who knew what would happen in a couple of months, would they execute the current leaders, and there would be a whole new set. And if you know, the United States stuck out its neck for this country? Would they betrayed them in a couple of months if things changed at home. So I think there was a real sense of realism that this was not a reliable country to partner with anymore. And until they sorted things out, the United States wasn't all that interested in being too cozy with France.
MJT So the US did successfully navigate their neutrality through the war. But they had some internal problems as well, one of which was Americans, for some reason, do not seem to like paying taxes. And we have the Whiskey Rebellion erupting in western Pennsylvania, which was another big challenge for the administration.
LMC Yes, that's right. Americans have a long tradition of not particularly liking taxes, and sometimes embracing violence as a way to express their displeasure. And that was certainly true in 1794. So Hamilton had written up a proposal for an excise tax on whiskey distilleries, or distilleries of any kind, in 1791. And Congress had passed that tax.
In theory, it made good political sense. It wasn't a tax on foreign imports. So it wasn't going to upset any of these very fragile foreign relationships. It wasn't a tax on property. So it wasn't unduly burdensome on some of the really important property holders that Hamilton and Washington wanted to keep on their side. It wasn't a head tax, which meant like a person by person tax. So that tended to be unfair to those who are poor, because it was the same tax if you were rich, or if you were poor. And so it seemed like it was a good idea.
Except that the way the geographic distribution of wealth worked in the United States, most western farmers really relied on the ability to distill their grains into alcohol as a way to make ends meet, to barter or to ship that alcohol to port because it was much cheaper than shipping the grains before they're distilled. So that tax fell very unfairly on western regions, and they express their displeasure almost immediately. And Washington tried a number of peaceful solutions, including ignoring them and issuing proclamations and any number of other things for a couple of years.
In the spring of 1794, violence broke out in western Pennsylvania, when protesters burned the home of John Neville, who was a local tax collector, to the ground. And that was crossing the line that Washington and Hamilton could not ignore. And so that really kicked off what we think of as the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington met with his cabinet at the end of July.
Basically the question before them is how do we deal with this situation? The first option is just leave it to the States. But clearly that didn't really seem to be working because there had been protests for a couple of years. The second option was to wait for Congress to come back in session later that fall. But that seems like an awful long time to wait. And who knows what might happen before October or November. The third option was to convene an emergency session of Congress. But they weren't really sure that Congress would actually do anything about it. And so the fourth option was to use a recently-passed bill that allowed the president to call up local militia in the event of a domestic rebellion, or an international invasion.
The Cabinet, right away, decided that this was the course of action, which is a pretty amazing moment, because they're essentially sidelining the state and congressional authorities over a domestic matter in like a matter of moments. So they decided that that's what they're going to do. And they conclude that the best course of action is to send a peace commission out to Western Pennsylvania, to try and come up with a peaceful solution, and to demonstrate that all peaceful options had been tried first. And then if that didn't work, call up the militia and have the militia ready to go in the meantime, so that they wouldn't be wasting any time. And Washington really liked that plan. And then the cabinet set about making it happen.
MJT Yeah, they seem to navigate that pretty well. They put up a large military force, which seemed to intimidate the rebels. And after several were convicted and sentenced to hang Washington, pardoned all of them, I believe, so that there was actually no bloodletting, in the end. He was ready once once authority was reestablished, just like Citizen Genêt, he was very lenient and willing to forgive and forget.
LMC Absolutely. And I think this is an excellent example where it's not so much about the taxes themselves. Of course, the federal government did need the funds. But it was much more about the principle that this tax had been passed through the constitutionally-approved channels, and by constitutionally-elected people. And it was part of the federal government's authority. And if they didn't enforce that authority, then the federal government would have no ability to raise funds in the future was much more about asserting the right to pass taxes and collect them rather than actually collecting them themselves. And so once the rebels fled and the rebellion crumbled, you know, Washington was more than happy to be magnanimous at that point.
MJT So one of the other, I guess, really divisive issues of Washington's second term was the Jay Treaty.
LMC There were several issues that were lingering from the Revolutionary War. Many British soldiers were still posted in forts on the western edges of American territory. And they said that they would leave once Americans paid back their debts that they owed to British merchants from before the war, and neither really wanted to give in to that particular situation. And so it escalated when British naval ships started seizing American merchants arguing that they were violating trade policy.
So Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to renegotiate a treaty. And the treaty was, I think, probably as good of a deal as anyone could have negotiated, it did resolve a lot of these issues, and provided more beneficial trade arrangements for American merchants. However, it wasn't perfect. And a lot of southerners in particular, were upset that Jay hadn't obtained, recompense for the enslaved individuals that had fled from American plantations to British ships. That being said, I think they had completely unrealistic expectations of what Jay could actually achieve, because he had no leverage, and it was really just whatever Great Britain was willing to give to him at that time. Nonetheless, when Washington received the treaty and sent it to the Senate, and the Senate did ratify it, and Washington signed it, it was very unpopular among large portions of the population.
Even though it had already been signed, the House of Representatives had actually an opportunity to scuttle it, because one of the clauses in the treaty required a committee to determine the payment that Americans owed to Great Britain and to its merchants, and that committee required funds. So the House of Representatives had to raise funds, and they decided that they would request all executive papers pertaining to the treaty process as a way to try and embarrass Washington and embarrass the Federalists and try and get the treaty dissolved.
That backfired bit, because Washington decided to assert executive privilege for the first time. He both said that diplomacy required secrecy and future negotiations might be limited with four Nations if they felt like that secrecy wouldn't be respected. He did, however, draw an important distinction. He said, If this was a matter of impeachment, he would be more than happy to turn over those papers. But it wasn't. So he was going to maintain that privacy. He then took the opportunity to lecture the House of Representatives, and to tell them that he had been at the Constitutional Convention. And he had been there when the delegates had decided that foreign policy was to be determined between the Senate and the President. The House of Representatives had no role and they were trying to seize additional authorities.
Then, it was the ultimate Mic drop. He said, If you disagree with this recollection, I have the journals from the convention in the State Department, I would be happy to provide them for your perusal. So I mean, that's quite a statement. It's very saucy of him.
But by basically attaching his name and his reputation and stature to the treaty, it really turned the tide and a lot of the resistance to the treaty sort of evaporated overnight. There are some fantastic letters between Jefferson and Madison sort of bemoaning the fact that all of a sudden, all these people who had been opposed to it kind of withered away. So it was very unpopular. It did sort of draw very stark political lines between the two parties, people burned Jay's effigy it was it was a very dramatic moment. For me personally, one of the strongest things that comes out of it is this assertion of executive privilege, especially over the diplomatic process.
MJT So as you say, Washington uses his cabinet pretty heavily in 1793, and a bit less than 94. And after that, it seems to wane even more. He seems to have given up on the regular use of the cabinet as a matter of setting executive policy. Why did that happen?
LMC Well, we don't know entirely, because again, he didn't write it down. But I suspect that it's partly because a lot of those initial cabinet members that we've talked about left, they either retired or resigned at the end of 1793-94, and early 1795. And so what happened was that Washington really had trouble getting people to fill their spots, it wasn't really a very glamorous position, you were away from home for months at a time, the pay was pretty low. And a lot of people didn't want to subject their reputations to the hostility and criticism that came with those positions.
So he ended up getting people that I affectionately refer to as the B team. And in his letters, we know that he didn't really think as much of them as he thought of his first people. And so he didn't trust them as much he didn't want to talk to them as much he constantly was having to remind them to do their work in a diligent manner. And so I think he just preferred to make decisions by himself or with the advice of his preferred advisors, one on one. He still talked to them, and he still met with them, but never, almost never in a group in the same way, unless there was a big decision that he wanted to have all them in one spot for.
MJT Right, to borrow another historian’s phrase, the team of rivals had pretty much gone and he was left with the debating society that he once had.
MJT Beyond establishing the Cabinet's existence. Were there any other important precedents that the Washington cabinet set for future administrations?
LMC Yeah, there are a couple. So Washington's turn away from the cabinet at the end of his administration really reaffirmed that the cabinet is a private advisory body for the President, and that the secretaries do not have an institutional right to be a part of the decision-making process. They can offer their opinion, but the president doesn't have to listen to it and doesn't even have to invite them into the room.
So we have seen sort of the ramifications of that precedent in that often presidents will consult with people outside of the cabinet, or maybe they'll have a preferred cabinet member or they'll have you know, friends or family members or colleagues. And those relationships and how the president interacts with them is generally conducted outside of any sort of public or congressional oversight.
One other precedent that I think is frequently overlooked is the importance of diversity. Now, Washington's cabinet, of course, was four white dudes. But that's because white men are the only people that were considered citizens at the time and so therefore, the only, you know, possible applicants for the positions. However, his contemporaries understood that this was a very diverse group. They came from very different backgrounds, different educational experiences, religions, they had different economic and social and factional interests, and they really represented lots of different parts of the new United States.
And that was really important because Washington was basically trying to hold the country together with his bare hands. And the best way to do so was to make sure that lots of different regions felt that their interests were represented in the new administration. That concept is one that many of Washington's successors have adopted. So Lincoln's team of rivals is a great example. He made sure he had people from border states, from western states from, you know, staunchly union states. He made sure he had former union democrats and he had former Whigs, and he had all different spectrums of the Republican Party represented in his cabinet as a way to try and hold the union together at a very tense time.
So I think that precedent is one that most people overlook because of the skin color of the people that were involved in Washington's Cabinet. But it's a really important one. And it's one that I think the best presidents that we think of, the ones on Mount Rushmore, and the ones at the top of the list, whenever we put together our presidential lists. Those are the ones that follow this precedent and pull together cabinets that really represent the breadth and diversity of the American people.
MJT Right, I think he reached out to the diversity of the political spectrum of the time, which was unfortunately, much more narrow than it is today. It left out women. It left out Native Americans. It left out African Americans, because those were not members of the government and really didn't have the power or even the right to vote at that time. So he was not expanding the franchise, but he was at least covering the entire political spectrum as it existed at that time.
MJT Well, Dr. Chervinsky, I really thank you. This has been a really interesting and enlightening discussion. I'm curious, are you working on any new projects these days?
LMC I am. So I actually have an audible course with Great Courses Plus. That should be coming out this summer on the history of the cabinet more broadly. So the full scope from Washington to President Biden. I'm also working on Book Two, which the full parameters are still sort of to be decided. But let's just say that the personalities that take over once Washington leaves did not have it any easier, just because he had already done so. And in fact, trying to come in his shadow was a whole new challenge. There's some very colorful individuals that come after him. And so I'm exploring how the presidency and the cabinet continues to evolve and really carves out the executive branch for the 19th and 20th century.
MJT Interesting. Well, I look forward to it.
LMC Thank you.
MJT Dr. Chervinsky. I thank you very much for your time, once again, your book, again is The Cabinet, George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution. It's been out for a year and I apologize for being neglectful and not having you on sooner. But it is a great read. And I hope everyone gives it a look.
LMC No, thank you so much for having me. It's always great to reach new readers whenever it is and it's still I cannot believe it has been a year it still feels quite fresh to me.
MJT Alright, well thank you very much.
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