As they painstakingly hammered out a U.S. Constitution in the spring and summer of 1787, constitutional delegates toyed with the idea of a presidential advisory body, which would come to be known as the Cabinet.
One proposal called for a “privy council” composed of, among others, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In the end, however, the delegates couldn’t agree on “who should be on this council—or who should pick them,” according to Richard J. Ellis, a politics professor at Willamette University in Oregon who has authored several books on the American presidency. As a result, the Constitution makes no mention of anything like a Cabinet, instead saying only that the president shall have the power to appoint executive department heads, with the Senate’s approval, and that the president “may require the opinion, in writing,” of these officials. “The framers were of many minds on the question of how to establish an advisory apparatus,” Ellis told HISTORY, “and so took the path of least resistance and left it to be hashed out later.”
But although no mandate required him to form a Cabinet, President George Washington found the concept useful for soliciting advice on “interesting questions of national importance.” On September 11, 1789, just a few months after taking office, he sent his first nomination—Alexander Hamilton for Secretary of the Treasury—to the Senate, which within minutes unanimously approved the choice.
Three more confirmations quickly followed: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph (the latter of whom, since he worked only part-time for the government, retained his private law practice). At first, Washington consulted with his four Cabinet members individually. By fall 1791, however, he had begun convening the whole group, and these meetings became commonplace in 1793 as tensions with revolutionary France heated up. Jefferson would later write that he and Hamilton were “daily pitted in the Cabinet like two cocks,” arguing feverishly over such things as the constitutionality of a national bank.
Since then, the number of executive departments—and hence the Cabinet—has slowly but steadily increased. The Department of the Navy (now part of the Department of Defense) was the first new one added in 1798 during the so-called XYZ Affair, Interior and Agriculture came in 1849 and 1889, respectively, as the United States expanded West, and Labor and Commerce (soon to be split into two) arose in 1903 as the nation underwent rapid industrialization.
Four new departments were created in the 1960s and 1970s alone, followed by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989 and, most recently, the Department of Homeland Security, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Initially, the vice president was not a Cabinet member, one reason that John Adams famously referred to it as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” But in 1921, President Warren Harding invited VP Calvin Coolidge to regularly attend Cabinet meetings and to preside in his absence, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower solidified that practice three decades later. The postmaster general, meanwhile, was a Cabinet position for over 140 years prior to losing that status in 1971 when Congress re-designated the Post Office as “an independent establishment of the executive branch.”
Today, the Cabinet consists of the vice president, plus the heads of the 15 executive departments. Seven additional positions are currently considered “cabinet-rank,” including the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House chief of staff.
The four original Cabinet posts—Defense, State, Treasury and Attorney General—remain the most important and are sometimes referred to as the “inner Cabinet,” explains Andrew Rudalevige, a professor of government at Bowdoin College. “They get the best seats at the Cabinet table, and the people who are appointed tend to be high stature,” he says adding that they deal with the “core functions of government: defense, diplomacy, money and protection of the law.” Most of the other executive departments, Rudalevige said, “grew out of interest groups that needed to be managed in some way.”
In theory, Cabinet meetings serve as a forum for exchanging ideas, resolving interdepartmental disputes and maintaining administrative coherence. In actuality, however, the days of Hamilton and Jefferson’s verbal bouts are long gone, largely because it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation with so many people in the room. “The Cabinet as a collective advisory body is a nonfactor in the modern presidency,” Ellis said. “Cabinet meetings are infrequent, perfunctory and essentially meaningless.” Presidents often take office promising to hold regular Cabinet meetings, Rudalevige added, but “then they realize they hate them.” President John F. Kennedy, for example, once asked why the postmaster general should “sit there and listen to a discussion of the problems of Laos” whereas President Richard Nixon was even more blunt, telling his national security advisor, “Screw the Cabinet… I’m sick of the whole bunch.”
That’s not to say, though, that Cabinet picks aren’t important. All are responsible for running their massive executive departments, which together employ more than 4 million people, and many provide key advice to the president on an individual basis.
Cabinet members, moreover, play a key political role, providing public support for White House policies and technical expertise in implementing them. And while a competent Cabinet can enhance a presidency, the opposite is likewise true. The administrations of Ulysses S. Grant and Warren Harding, for example, were both marred by scandals in the Cabinet, whereas in 1979 Jimmy Carter purged five Cabinet members all at once over questions of loyalty. “There’s often a love-hate relationship between the president and the Cabinet,” Rudalevige said.