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Building the American cabinet


The victorious Continental Army, perhaps a little punch-drunk, and French-born Col. Lewis Nicola present the incredibly popular Gen. George Washington with a modest proposal: that they crown him king of the new nation. Washington is horrified. "Let me conjure you then," Washington chides Nicola, "if you have any regard for your country, concern for yourself or for posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind and never communicate, as from yourself or any one else, a sentiment of like nature." 1787

The Constitutional Convention contemplates a set of advisers to the president; Gouverneur Morris and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney call it a "cabinet." Benjamin Franklin is for it; he says such a council "would not only be a check on a bad president, but a relief to a good one." It fails to win mention in the Constitution. Most of the delegates agree with Alexander Hamilton, who warned in Federalist No. 70, "A council to a magistrate, who is himself responsible for what he does, are generally nothing better than a clog upon his good intentions, are often the instruments and accomplices of his bad, and are almost always a cloak to his faults." A small compromise is made: The Constitution allows the president to "require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the duties of their respective Offices." In practice, President Washington establishes the cabinet by convening and consulting department heads, and by contending that department heads work for him, not for Congress. In July of 1789, the newly convened Congress allocates $25,000 in salary and expenses for Washington, the nation's new president. The sum is intended to pay for one or two private secretaries-even before his inauguration, Washington had described the amount of presidential correspondence as "an insufferable burden." Washington declines the compensation and pays for a private secretary himself. In that same 1789 debate, Congress refrains from spelling out staff positions in its budget; doing so, it fears, would make the secretaries into officers of the government, not "confidential persons" in the employ of President Washington. 1791

Preparing to leave town for a few days, Washington authorizes his secretaries of state, treasury, and war, along with his vice president and chief justice (originally considered as members of the president's cabinet), to meet in his absence. This helps to solidify the cabinet as an administrative and advisory body. 1803

"Let the Land rejoice, for you have bought Louisiana for a Song," is how Gen. Horatio Gates responds to news that President Thomas Jefferson had committed the United States to The Louisiana Purchase, buying 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River for $15 million. Jefferson has done more than purchase land; he has also significantly expanded the role of the executive branch. He has set aside his strict constructionist leanings because the expanding United States doesn't need an aggressive power (France) hemming it in and possibly controlling commerce on the Mississippi. In 1828 Chief Justice John Marshall upholds the purchase in American Insurance Co. vs. Canter. Marshall introduces the idea of resulting powers-the idea that some legitimate powers of the government are consequences of other powers, though not enumerated in the Constitution. If the government has the right to make war and make treaties, he says, then "consequently, that government possesses the power of acquiring territory, either by conquest or treaty." 1809

Newly elected President James Madison faces the first major confirmation battle. His choice for secretary of state is Albert Gallatin, who had served under Thomas Jefferson as secretary of the treasury. The Senate won't have him, and forces Madison to back down. His eventual pick for the job is Robert Smith, the brother of a powerful senator. 1814

British troops meet no resistance as they march into Washington, D.C., on Aug. 24; the U.S. Army, along with government workers, had retreated into Virginia and surrounding areas after destroying the Naval Yard themselves. The British make camp a quarter of a mile from the Capitol and proceed to burn it, the White House, and every department building save the Patent Office. The next day a storm-not American forces-drives the British from Washington. Madison returns with some cabinet members on Aug. 27. 1829

Newly elected President Andrew Jackson ignores his cabinet. It never meets during his first two years in office, and gathers only 16 times during his entire eight-year administration. Instead, he relies on his "kitchen cabinet" (a group of personal friends, advisers, and even some newspapermen) to counsel him on policy and public opinion. His formal cabinet splits over the Eaton Affair, as Secretary of War John Eaton's wife, the former Peggy O'Neale, is snubbed by other cabinet wives. Jackson's support of her is chivalric and unbending; his cabinet crumbles as a result. Eaton and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren resign; three other cabinet members are sacked. This proves no great loss to Jackson, who sees his formal cabinet as a useless body: "I have accustomed myself to receive with respect the opinions of others, but always take the responsibility of deciding for myself." 1832

President Jackson vetoes the bill renewing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. The bank offended Jackson's populism with its private control of public funds. The Second Bank held the government's money, but was allowed to lend and invest it without paying interest. The bank paid no state taxes, and it could issue bank notes. What's more, it had a monopoly; Congress had agreed not to charter any other, similar institutions. And yet the bank answered to no one but its directors (there were 25, only five of whom were appointed by the government), and its stockholders, many of whom weren't U.S. citizens. In his veto message, Jackson called the bank "subversive of the rights of the states." The Second Bank lingers even after the veto and after Jackson's reelection. The bank has many supporters in Congress, including Henry Clay (who had run against Jackson for president) and John C. Calhoun (Jackson's vice president until he resigned over the Eaton Affair). Jackson is finally able to strangle the bank by removing the government's deposits; it's dead by 1836. After he leaves office, Jackson says the only opportunities he missed were not being able to "shoot Henry Clay or hang John C. Calhoun." 1861

Abraham Lincoln names political men, not administrators, to head his departments. It's a volatile mixture (even more so since many of his cabinet members don't share his politics). The cabinet is a contentious, scheming body. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, for example, plots with some senators to have Secretary of State William H. Seward removed from office. The plot fails, but it shows what President Lincoln has to deal with. Legend has it that in one cabinet meeting, the president is outvoted, but unswayed: "Seven nays and one aye, the ayes have it," he responds. Getting advice and counsel from this body proves all but impossible; Lincoln's biggest decisions, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, are formulated without the cabinet's help. 1865

Congress attempts to wrest the cabinet from the executive branch, with a bill that would allow executive department heads to have a seat in the House as well. The attempt fails, but shows the growing tension between the branches. 1866

President Andrew Johnson makes the disastrous decision to replace his late private secretary with his son, the hard-drinking and womanizing Robert Johnson. Robert's drinking becomes so excessive and hurtful to the administration that President Johnson, the secretary of state, and the secretary of the navy come up with a plan to send Robert to Africa for an extended "official" visit. Once Robert is away, the plotters hope, the White House staff can be reorganized and Robert's position eliminated quietly. But the plot fails. Robert gets drunk, disappears, and the ship sails without him. He returns to the White House and before long causes one of the administration's worst scandals, when his female companion, Mrs. Lucy Cobb, is caught selling presidential pardons to Southerners. 1867

A strong Congress moves against what it sees as a weakened President Johnson. Radical Reconstructionists sweep Congress in the 1866 elections and begin overriding his vetoes. With its Command of the Army Act, Congress virtually removes the president as commander in chief. But its Tenure of Office Act just begs to be defied. The new law says that since the president must have Senate approval to appoint certain officials, he must now also seek Senate approval to fire them. Johnson challenges the law by removing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The House of Representatives impeaches Johnson on Feb. 24, 1868. The trial lasts through April and most of May, but on May 26 the Senate falls one vote short of achieving the two-thirds majority needed to convict the president. 1880

Newly elected President James Garfield asks John Hay to join his White House staff. Hay turns down the job: "The contact with the greed and selfishness of office-seekers and bull-dozing Congressmen is unspeakably repulsive," he writes. "The constant contact with envy, meanness, ignorance, and the swinish selfishness which ignorance breeds needs a stronger heart and a more obedient nervous system than I can boast." 1887

Frustrated with rate abuses by the railroads, the public pressures Congress to pass the Interstate Commerce Act. This establishes the Interstate Commerce Commission, the nation's first regulatory agency. The act covers railroads that cross state lines, and in trying to prevent discriminatory rates (charging smaller firms and farmers more, for instance, or changing rates without notice), goes into nebulous territory by saying that railroad fees must be "reasonable and just." More than a century later, deregulation of the railroads and trucking industry makes the ICC obsolete; Congress abolishes it in 1995. Its last item of business, carried out in December, is to issue a permit granting Santa Claus the right to operate as "a common carrier by two-runner sleigh," provided of course that "he renders reasonably continuous and adequate service to the public." 1895

The Supreme Court declares the national income tax unconstitutional. It was born on the Fourth of July, 1862, primarily as a way to finance the Civil War, and it survived a Supreme Court challenge then. Though that tax was gone with the wind soon after the close of the war, Congress enacted another income tax in 1893. Two years later, the high court says the tax violates the Constitution, but the Democratic Party says that the Republican Party is the party of the rich, and that the wealthy should be taxed. The pressure builds, and by 1908, newly elected President William Howard Taft buckles, saying in speeches that an income tax might be right "in principle." Democrats see their opening, and in April 1909, Sen. Joseph W. Bailey, a Democrat from Texas, introduces an income tax bill. Democrats expect Republican opposition, and are surprised when Theodore Roosevelt and moderate Republicans support the bill. Conservatives respond with an incredible tactical blunder. The president sends a message to Congress on June 16, 1909, not merely supporting the bill (which would produce a law and an inevitable Supreme Court challenge), but recommending a constitutional amendment to enable the tax. Republicans are counting on the states to sabotage the tax-so much so that when the amendment goes before the Senate (prior to going to the states), it passes unanimously. Soon Republicans begin to see their mistake; the House member who introduced the amendment goes to the floor to argue against his own measure: "I am utterly opposed to it.... I believe with Gladstone that it tends to make a nation of liars ... that it is, in a word, a tax upon the income of honest men and an exemption, to a greater or lesser extent, of the income of rascals." But a "soak the rich" campaign wins, and on Feb. 12, 1913, the 16th Amendment goes into effect, allowing the federal government to tax personal incomes at various rates. 1913

President Woodrow Wilson now has 10 cabinet members, but like Andrew Jackson, he's not much interested in meeting with them. He closes 1913 by signing into law the Owens-Glass Act, which creates the Federal Reserve System of privately owned, decentralized banks. The banking industry would run the banks, but would be supervised by a Federal Reserve Board (to include the secretary of the treasury, the comptroller of the currency, and other presidential appointees). Wilson from 1914 to 1918 does not seek the cabinet's advice about the Great War, not even when he calls for Congress to declare war in 1917. Throughout the war, he drops meetings with his formal cabinet in favor of meetings with his Council of National Defense, which consisted of his secretaries of war, navy, commerce, labor, interior, and agriculture. 1929

Congress allocates money for three secretaries for President Herbert Hoover; he shuffles some tasks and is able to designate one of those secretaries, George Akerson, as the White House's first press secretary. But smooth-talking does not help after Black Tuesday (the October 1929 stock-market crash). Hoover focuses on decentralized work relief. Every program, he says, must "preserve the principles of individual and local responsibility." 1933

Congress meets on March 9 on banking matters, but newly seated President Franklin Roosevelt sees his opportunity to enact the "New Deal" he promised during his campaign against Hoover. This special session lasts through June 16; its Hundred Days change the way government works. The overarching belief is that government must step in to protect, secure, and regulate. From soothing Fireside Chats to direct subsidy of farmers, from the "Alphabet Soup" of new federal agencies to laws against hoarding gold, government greatly expands its direct influence on individual lives. Before World War I, federal government spending made up less than 3 percent of the Gross National Product; by 1990, it has risen to 23 percent. 1935

The Social Security Administration is born to political parents; Sen. Huey P. Long (D-La.) and California physician Dr. Francis E. Townsend are rankling the administration with their calls for differing forms of old-age pensions. Long wants to make "Every Man a King" by guaranteeing a minimum income of $5,000 a year to each family, while Townsend advocates a $200-per-month stipend to everyone over 60. Roosevelt creates the Social Security Board to steal a little of this populist thunder. The enabling legislation puts two new federal taxes on payrolls, a tax for unemployment compensation and a tax for old-age and survivor's insurance. It leaves administration of old-age pensions to the states, but authorizes grants to help pay for them. 1945

President Harry S. Truman declares that a president's cabinet should be like a board of directors: "The cabinet is not merely a collection of executives administering different governmental functions," but a dynamic whole, a team dedicated to a common purpose. In practice, though, Truman is nearly Jacksonian in his refusal to delegate decision-making. Like Wilson, he consulted a separate war cabinet. 1947

No surprise here-departments designed for fighting have trouble getting along. The Army, the Navy, and the Army Air Corps squabble over resources and status (by the end of World War II, Congress had introduced some 50 bills to try to unify the armed forces). The services oppose revamping; the Navy, for example, fears that establishing separate land, sea, and air divisions of the armed forces will rob it of its naval aviation and Marine Corps programs. But Congress' National Security Act of 1947 passes despite the Navy's opposition, creating three departments (the Army, Navy, and Air Force), all under the command of a civilian secretary of defense. The system is streamlined a bit in a 1949 amendment, which officially creates the Department of Defense. 1961

President John F. Kennedy appoints his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, to the post of attorney general. Robert had run his brother's successful Senate and presidential campaigns, but more importantly, he could be relied upon to carry out the political goals of the new president. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department filed more than 50 lawsuits in four states to guarantee the voting rights of blacks. Together the brothers put together the basics of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passes soon after President Kennedy is assassinated in November 1963. 1964

President Lyndon Johnson declares a War on Poverty and begins an expansion of the role of government that rivals the New Deal. He calls for "coordinated attacks" on the causes of poverty, which he sees as illiteracy, unemployment, and not enough government aid. His Office of Economic Opportunity is given nearly $1 billion to spend on its programs. He soon broadens his vision and calls for the realization of the "Great Society" in his Jan. 4, 1965, State of the Union address, which proposes new educational and health programs, immigration reforms, and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act. He finds sympathetic ears and pens in Congress: By the end of the summer, Medicare is created as national health insurance for the aged; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans literacy tests and other impediments to voting; the Omnibus Housing Act establishes rent subsidies for the poor; and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is established. 1972

Five burglars are arrested after breaking into the Democratic Party's national headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Eventually about 40 people are charged with wiretapping, sabotage, burglary, attempting to use governmental agencies to harm political opponents, and other crimes. Among others, Attorney General John N. Mitchell and two aides to President Richard Nixon, John D. Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, are convicted. Nixon himself maintains he knew nothing of the break-in or the subsequent cover-up, though former presidential counsel John W. Dean III later testifies that Nixon knew. Dean also admits the administration planned to use the IRS and other agencies against political opponents on the "White House's Enemies List." The scandal gets messier and messier as Nixon attempts to have Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox fired, after Cox demands tapes Nixon made of White House conversations from 1971 on. The scandal culminates with the 1974 recommendation of the House Judiciary Committee that Nixon be impeached. On Aug. 9, Nixon resigns and Vice President Gerald R. Ford takes power. On Sept. 8, Ford pardons Nixon for all federal crimes he may have committed in office. 1974

Convinced that Watergate happened because the president's personal staff had grown too powerful, at the expense of the cabinet, President Ford goes back to the military-model cabinet of the Eisenhower era. A cabinet secretariat is assigned to draw up formal agendas for each meeting. 1976

Promising to establish a cabinet-level Department of Education, Democratic candidate James Earl Carter wins the endorsement of the 1.7 million-member National Education Association, and eventually the presidency. Education had long been a contentious issue-early administrations left it alone, seeing it as a local or at most a state issue. But President Andrew Johnson convinced Congress to create a small department "for the purpose of collecting such statistics and facts as shall show the condition and progress of education in the several States and Territories." Before long the department was demoted to a bureau within the Interior Department. In 1979, Congress passes the necessary legislation to make it a department in its own right-a monolithic one. With 152 existing programs reassigned to it, the Department of Education at its birth is the fifth largest federal department, with the eighth largest budget. It's almost a short-lived department; it begins operations in May 1980, and by summer Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan is pledging to abolish it. He tries to do so in the 1982 budget, but Congress will have none of it. 1982

Though President Reagan at first tries to scale back the role of the National Security Council, it soon regains prominence in policy making. That prominence was won by the strong personalities and opinions of Henry Kissinger under Nixon (who became secretary of state while still holding the post of national security adviser) and Zbigniew Brzezinski under Carter. But the NSC's power and limited accountability lead to Reagan's most troublesome scandal, Iran-Contra. National Security staff members, including Lt. Col. Oliver North, begin selling arms to Iran and using the profits to help fund the Contras, guerrillas fighting the communist government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Four years later the transactions are discovered, making a conservative hero of Democrat-defying National Security staffer Lt. Col. Oliver North. Reagan replaces National Security Advisor John M. Poindexter with Frank Carlucci, who scales back the NSC. 1992

Bill Clinton campaigns on promises that he will reduce the size of the White House staff by 25 percent, and streamline ("reinvent") the federal government. When he wins, he pledges to have the most ethical administration in history, and a cabinet that "looks like America." But the scandals begin with Nannygate (cabinet appointees who employed illegal aliens to care for their children), Helicoptergate (Clinton aide David Watkins uses the presidential helicopter for golfing trips), and the more serious Travelgate (non-political White House staffers are fired to make room for Clinton picks in the travel office; when the firings are questioned, the White House attempts to trump up charges of impropriety against them). Then comes Filegate (the Clinton administration seems to have its own Enemies List, and improperly requests FBI files on some 900 Republicans), the death of Vince Foster, and the quick cleaning-out his office receives. Reporters learn that Democratic donors are allowed to spend the night in the Lincoln bedroom for contributions of $150,000, or to have coffee with the president for just $50,000. 1995

Inciting a "Republican Revolution," voters give the House of Representatives to the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. Led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Congress reforms welfare but fails to end government funding for many liberal causes and fails to close down the departments of Energy, Education, Commerce, and Housing and Urban Development. The National Endowment for the Arts carries on. Later in the year Republicans try to stare down the Clinton Administration, but the government shutdown that results hurts the GOP (especially after Gingrich tells the press he continued to fight because he felt snubbed by Clinton on an Air Force One trip). 1998

Scandal at the White House hits historical proportions with the Lewinsky affair-as Clinton's dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky is denied and denounced for months, until incontrovertible DNA evidence forces him to 'fess up. Clinton becomes only the second president in history to be impeached by Congress.

The Editors

The Editors