Every time I read about President Washington, I am struck by his foresight. Whether it was his sense of restraint in matters of public policy, his efforts to cultivate consensus among partisans, or his decisiveness in moments of crisis, Washington brought a steadiness to the office which ought to be the aspiration of every executive. After reading Lindsay M. Chervinsky’s fantastic new book on Washington’s cabinet, my admiration for America’s first and possibly finest president has grown further.
In The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, Chervinsky shows how Washington molded what she describes as the “Original Team of Rivals” into a manageable group of advisors who helped him expand the power and influence of the executive branch over the course of his presidency. Indeed, the inner workings of Washington’s cabinet as depicted here bear a strong resemblance to President Lincoln’s relationships with William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the work that inspired Chervinsky’s turn of phrase.
Despite their ideological differences and personal quarrels, Henry Knox, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Edmund Randolph proved to be a flexible cluster of advisors in addition to Vice President John Adams, capable of counseling the president both collectively and individually. Washington had a keen awareness of his own limited political experience, and he selected a group of advisors that helped him confront a Congress that was eager to exert its powers from the get-go. Chervinsky cites Washington’s experiences delegating power within his staff in the Continental Army as his model for working with his cabinet. While this wartime model in turn set the precedent for the cabinet’s future role in republican governance, it is also worth noting that Washington excelled more than many of his successors at harnessing the cabinet to exercise his political will. Thus, the cabinet both served his political needs and consolidated the distinct role of the executive branch in American politics.
Unlike many works of popular history, The Cabinet never feels like a hagiography. It lacks the reverence of works like Joseph J. Ellis’s Founding Brothers or the revisionist obsequiousness that now greets Alexander Hamilton’s name on the page and the stage. Knox, Jefferson, and Hamilton are treated as flesh-and-blood figures in The Cabinet. Each was a man of great intellect and skill; each demonstrated the flaws of judgment and character which power seems to exaggerate.
Attorney General (1789–1794) and, later, Secretary of State (1794–1795) Edmund Randolph is the breakout star of this book. Randolph, Washington’s personal lawyer and a trusted confidant, pressed the president to take decisive federal action in moments of crisis. Randolph is largely remembered today for the scandal which brought an end to his tenure in Washington: in 1795, he resigned as Secretary of State following accusations that he passed information about confidential government deliberations on to representatives of France (with whom his sympathies lay in that country’s ongoing conflict with Great Britain). But despite his ignominious end, Randolph was the bedrock of Washington’s regime. The president could count on Randolph for counsel on matters both foreign and domestic. Most notably, Randolph was the one who convinced Washington to use force against the armed anti-tax insurrection in Western Pennsylvania which came to be known as the “Whiskey Rebellion.” The Washington–Randolph relationship will remind readers of the close ties that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins or that Eisenhower had with Sherman Adams, the first man officially given the title of Chief of Staff.
Chervinsky, who serves as a historian for the White House Historical Association, exemplifies the public-history ethos in her new book. The writing is clear and concise. Her discussions of the particulars of eighteenth-century public policy are made accessible by her commitment to situating the story within a thorough but never drawn-out historical context. 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.