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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.
While I thought this was well-researched and richly detailed, I also feel it read rather in a dry academic manner. I must say I learned a lot as I didn’t know too much about how The Cabinet came to be formed.
While this type of academic feel may not be my favorite flow of reading, there is no question this is well-written. If you enjoy Chervinsky’s writing style, you need to read this. I can guarantee you’ll learn something no matter the writing style. This is a debut book with great reviews and plenty of them. Check it out.
read an excerpt...
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….
about Lindsay M. Chervinsky...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
More personal "stuff" about the author...
Does this book have a special meaning to you? i.e. where you found the idea, its symbolism, its meaning, who you dedicated it to, what made you want to write it?
The Cabinet means so much to me. It’s my first book and I’m the first in my family to write a book, so not only was I learning how to do it, I didn’t have anyone else to follow. I care deeply about telling the story of where the cabinet came from because I believe it’s such an important and underappreciated part of our governing. We can’t understand our current moment without first knowing where we come from. So I was determined to tell the story and tell it to the best of my ability.
It’s dedicated to my husband and my dog (John Quincy Dog Adams, Quincy for short, or JQDA on the dedication page). My husband read the entire thing and gave priceless recommendations, and my dog was there every day, every step of the way. He made sure I took breaks, went hiking with me when I needed to get out of my head, and gave me love regardless of how good my writing was that day. He’s been my best bud the whole time.
Where do you get your storylines from?
History! It’s far stranger, more complex, and interesting than anything I could imagine. And I firmly believe everyone would think so if they could read good work and not just textbooks.
Was this book easier or more difficult to write than others? Why?
Well it’s my first, so I don’t have other to which I can compare it! But I think some things will get easier. My writing is much better than it was when I started, and I know how I like to research and tell stories. That being said, I don’t have the same structure and deadlines right now that I did when I started my dissertation. So I imagine imposing some of that urgency will be a bit trickier.
Do you only write one genre?
I only write history, but I do so in lots of different forms. I write books, blog posts, opinion editorials, and share my work on podcasts, radio, tv, and through talks and presentations. I try and make it as accessible as possible to all audiences.
Give us a picture of where you write, where you compose these words…is it Starbucks, a den, a garden…we want to know your inner sanctum?
Ideally, I write in my office in the morning and a coffee shop in the afternoon. My office is set up to maximize productivity. I have two big monitors, a super comfy chair, and a cart next to my desk with my currently-consulting books. I also have amazing light and a bed for my pup to join me. I’m more prone to distraction or naps in the afternoon, so being out of the house and in a public place helps. But right now, with the pandemic, that’s not really an option. So instead, I try and move around the house to different spots. Or, I take a break in the afternoon and get back to work when I have a second wind around 4 or 4:30 and work after dinner.
And finally, of course…was there any specific event or circumstance that made you want to be a writer?
I actually didn’t really think of myself as a writer until I had this book in my hands. I always thought of myself as a historian and writing was just one way that I shared stories. But the more I write the more I love it, so I guess I’d say March 5, 2020—the first day I got a real copy of my book!
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