March 4, 2021
The most recent book I have been reading is Lindsay M. Chervinsky’s The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution which was published on April 7, 2020. I wanted to read this book since my current work in the museum field also focuses on George Washington (during the American Revolution, specifically with the Culper Spy Ring), my museum background is mostly in early American history. After I heard about this book, I decided to check it out and provide my thoughts on this book.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, who is a White House historian at the White House Historical Association, provided detailed account of Washington’s early years in his presidency and his Cabinet. According to the book flap, Chervinsky’s book described the political history of Washington’s Cabinet:
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 wit 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.
I took the time to read the book and I appreciate its great attention to detail as well as the way Chervinsky delineated the narrative in this book. Within the book, there are eight chapters, an introduction and an epilogue that went into detail of after the Revolutionary War, when Washington became president, his presidency in the early years, the Cabinet emerges, and how the Cabinet worked after it was created.
Also, I appreciate Chervinsky’s efforts to outline and organized resources she used to write her book. When I read history books, I like to pay attention to how resources are cited and displayed not only because it was how I learned to read these books while earning my bachelor’s degree in history and master’s degree in public history, but it helps me see the primary sources used for this book to provide context to what I am reading. Inside the book, she has a notes section that includes additional information relevant to a point made in the book that did not fit into its flow. It also lists the resources she used including primary sources such as presidential papers and diaries, and secondary sources including books, articles, and journals (such as Journals of the Continental Congress and Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States) throughout her book. Each chapter had at least between 80 and 100 annotations, and the introduction and epilogue have 15 and 26 annotations, that direct the reader to the notes section.
In addition to the structure of the book, I appreciate the dedication to telling this significant part of the United States’ political history and leaving the reader to ponder on the influence of this Cabinet on following presidential cabinets in almost 250 years of the country’s existence. The Cabinet discussed the resulting consequences that followed Washington’s choices on figuring out the roles of his advisors and how they will conduct their roles. In the same book flap, it stated that:
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 the cabinet has evolved in step with the federal government, Washington established a precedent whose powerful legacy endures. Each president since has selected his closest advisors, Senate-appointed or otherwise—whether political allies, subject experts, or a coterie of family members and yes-men.
This book is definitely a relevant book for understanding political and presidential history in the United States. I believe reading books like Chervinsky’s The Cabinet would be helpful to understand the role of the Cabinet in more recent presidencies. When Washington became the first president of the United States, he was trying to figure out what that means for the new country and ultimately setting the example for future presidents to follow. He had to think about what the responsibilities are of the president and how to handle the responsibilities, and his approach to the presidency came from what he knew about how to be a leader when he was the general in the Revolutionary War. As I read her book, I appreciated that she began the book within the war since as readers we need to see the foundations of Washington’s leadership and how his interactions with cabinet members can be influenced from the efforts to be able to create a new nation. From my experience educating and discussing Washington’s role in the Revolutionary War, I can understand how he modeled his cabinet on the councils of war he had.
At the Three Village Historical Society, we focus one of our main exhibits on the Culper Spy Ring and share Washington’s involvement in leading espionage in the Revolutionary War, especially on Long Island. Among the many roles Washington had as the General, he appointed one of this Dragoon Majors, Benjamin Tallmadge, as head of the spy ring on Long Island since Tallmadge was originally from Long Island and expected that he would receive the most accurate information. I recommend visiting the TVHS website to learn more about Washington and the Culper Spy Ring.
I also appreciated the connection Chervinsky made towards the modern presidencies in the book by discussing legacy. The epilogue especially focused on how Washington’s legacy influenced the presidents directly after him and the more recent presidents. One of the ways Chervinsky illustrated his legacy was:
“Rather than following a written guide or legislative direction, each president would decide how his or her cabinet operated. The flexibility of the institution offered an excellent opportunity for strong leaders but could serve as a liability for weaker presidents” (309).
Since there was so much flexibility, it made sense why there are so many differences in how each president handles their role and their relationships with the cabinet. It also explains how little or big of an impact changes made in the country due to the advice from the fifteen departments of the cabinet: the State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security.
Overall, I recommend taking a look at the book itself if you are interested in learning more about George Washington, political history, and Early American history.
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Links and Resource:
Chervinsky, Lindsay M., The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, Cambridge, MA: The Belkap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020.