Book Review: The Cabinet by Lindsay M. Chervinsky

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.

https://www.lindsaychervinsky.com/book

Three Village Historical Society

Museum Impressions, JFK Presidential Library and Museum

June 13, 2019

In previous posts, I wrote about museums I have visited during my childhood and adolescence. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is one that I visited both during my childhood and later when I attended the New England Museum Association conference in 2014.

In addition to visiting the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, I also visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in my younger years with my grandmother and the rest of my family. Later when I attended the New England Museum Association (NEMA) conference in 2014, the Presidential Library and Museum hosted the Opening Party that took place on the evening of the first day of the NEMA conference and was hosted by the Gowrie Group. When participants arrived at the Museum, we had the opportunity to not only enjoy drinks and appetizers but we also were able to explore the exhibits dedicated to John F. Kennedy’s presidency and his legacy.

One of the exhibits that I saw during the Opening Party was the Oval Office exhibit. In the exhibit, it contains film footage from 1963 related to the civil rights movement including but not limited to the April civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama and President Kennedy’s June 11, 1963 televised address to the nation on civil rights. On display there is a selection of personal items President Kennedy displayed in the Oval Office as well as a replica of President Kennedy’s desk, the HMS Resolute desk. The desk was originally designed and built by William Evenden at the Chatham dockyard in England which was ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who wished to install a safe and block his leg braces from view. During the Kennedy administration, Jackie Kennedy discovered the desk and she returned it to the Oval Office because of President Kennedy’s love of the sea and interest in naval history.

Since visiting the JFK Presidential Library and Museum last time, I decided to take a closer look at their website to see any developments at the Museum. In addition to the Oval Office, the other permanent exhibits that are in the Museum are Young Jack catch glimpses of Kennedy as a boy, a student, a decorated war hero, and the touchstones of his early life; 1960 Presidential Election; The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy; JFK Meets the Press which focused on his press conferences and everything in the exhibit expressed the narrative that Kennedy was the first president to conduct live televised press conferences; The Peace Corps, the hallmark of his administration; White House Corridor: Gifts from Heads of State; Ceremonial Room which is dedicated to President and Mrs. Kennedy’s social and diplomatic occasions that celebrated American history, culture, and achievement; Lift Off! The U.S. Space Program; Robert Kennedy’s ‘s Attorney General Office; First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy which covers her early life and her achievements as First Lady; and State Visit to Europe which took place during the summer of 1963.

There is also an archives at the Museum to do research about Kennedy and his presidency, and individuals can make an appointment to visit the research center. The Museum also offers a variety of education programs for teachers, students, adults, and families. For instance, teachers can look through information including but not limited to school visits, curricular resources, civic education programs and materials, New Frontiers newsletter, a mailing list for educators to receive periodic updates from the Department of Education and Public Programs, and professional development opportunities. I personally appreciate that there is a mailing list for educators to receive information from the Museum because they have an opportunity to learn more about updates in education programs which encourages them to book return visits, and as a museum educator I know the significance of repeat and new visits.

As an individual who was born and raised in Massachusetts, I was especially made aware of the history of President Kennedy. In a blog post I wrote about my visit to the Kennedy Museum in Hyannis, I pointed out my family’s encouragement of learning about history especially learning about President Kennedy. I feel a connection to history and to the history of Kennedy as a result of the encouragement I had. I recommend visiting the website, and the Presidential Library and Museum if you have the opportunity to do so. There is a lot of information that I cannot include in the blog post and below I have links to both the Presidential Library and Museum and my last blog I wrote about President Kennedy.

Resources:

https://www.jfklibrary.org/

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2018/11/29/patron-request-museum-impressions-john-f-kennedy-hyannis-museum/

Museum Impressions, John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum

Added to Medium, November 29, 2018

In previous posts, I wrote about museums I have visited during my childhood. This time I have written about a museum I visited while I was in college and my cousin was visiting from Italy, and she wanted to see places and museums in the Boston and Cape Cod area during her visit.

Growing up I went to Hyannis with my sisters to visit our maternal grandparents in the town of Centerville. My sisters, my cousins, and I would spend time at our grandparents’ house playing dress up in our grandmother’s old clothing, visit the Penny Store to buy candy, and went to the beach to feed seagulls. At least one of the times we drove around Hyannis, we passed by the beach area where the Kennedys sailed their boat. It was not until I was in college that I knew of and was able to visit the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum. I remember walking through the exhibits and seeing the legacy that Kennedy had left behind especially in Hyannis.

It has been a while since I havevisited the museum, and I decided to explore their website to see what theyhave been up to since I was there. A number of exhibits were placed in themuseum over the years and a couple of current exhibits are Robert F. Kennedy: Ripple of Hope and Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe. The Robert F. Kennedy: Ripple of Hope exhibit, that is assembled incollaboration with RFK Human Rights Foundation, highlights an impromptu speechhe gave before a large group of distraught onlookers the night Martin LutherKing, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 just weeks after Kennedy announced hisbid for the presidency. The Creating Camelot: The Kennedy Photography of Jacques Lowe exhibit features intimate,behind-the-scenes images of John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline, and theirchildren, Caroline and John, taken by Kennedy’s personal photographer. Inaddition to the exhibits, the Museum offers a number of educational programsespecially for children. 

The Museum’s education programs teach students from preschool through high school the value of civic engagement by beginning with President Kennedy’s legacy and then organize age-appropriate experiences, infused with critical thinking skills, a key tenet of civic engagement, into the lessons. In the preschool program, preschoolers from Cape Cod Child Development Program/Head Start have learned the importance of family and community. Early elementary students participated in lessons with a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) theme. Fourth and fifth graders have learned to “use their voice” in their lessons to communicate with local, state, and national officials. Meanwhile, middle school students learn how the Constitution impacts the presidency, through both the election process and the president’s responsibilities. High school students participate in the Federal Budget Simulation, working in collaborative groups to organize and defend their funding of the fourteen discretionary accounts in the federal budget. There are other programs that are outside of the school programs offerings.

For instance, the Museum has the Art Curator Program and Camp Kennedy. TheArt Curator Program, with four participating high schools, allows students toshowcase their knowledge of President Kennedy’s legacy through art, with piecesthat they create and then showcase in an exhibition. Camp Kennedy, which isheld in the summer, is a one day camp open to students who will begin grades 2,3, and 4 designed to engage the youth of our country in exploring Kennedy’slegacy of leadership. The lessons in the camp help campers develop criticalthinking skills, civic engagement, and science, technology, engineering,mathematics and art (STEAM). John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum offers a variety ofpublic programs that are relevant to the mission and Kennedy’s legacy.

Museum programs at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum include lectures, screenings, book signings, receptions, live webcast viewings, family events and exhibit openings. A few examples of upcoming events include “JFK and the Cold War: Video Presentation of speaker Dr. Sergei Khrushchev” which is a screening and discussion of the Video Presentation of speaker Dr. Sergei Khrushchev, son of former soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, discussing JFK’s and Khrushchev’s relationship, and challenges of the cold war and their relevance to today. Another example is “Brian Murphy, Author of Adrift: Lecture and Book Signing” which is a lecture and book signing event with Washington Post Journalist and author Brian Murphy who will discuss about and sign copies of his new book Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell about It. The next example is “The Cahoons and the Kennedys: Discussion” which discusses the Cape Cod folk artists, Ralph and Martha Cahoon and the Kennedys’ interest in collecting their works. The Museum is also working on an expansion project to create more space in the museum for its programming.

The renovation project includes construction of a 50-seat state-of-the-art auditorium and media room with a 100 seat community room and configurable tables and chairs that will support Museum-wide programming. On their website, they ask for donations that will support the transformation of the Museum’s antiquated lower level, contemporary educational curricula, advanced media capabilities, and collection and artifact growth. By accomplishing the previously listed goals for the renovation, the Museum is working to create a modern venue where they can better serve the community and continue their work to inspire active and informed civic engagement thereby ensuring the JFK legacy, and the Museum, remain relevant and sustainable for generations to come. There has been a lot of changes since I last visited the museum, and I hope this museum continues to move forward in educating visitors about civic engagement and Kennedy’s legacy.

What are your impressions of the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum?

John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum: https://jfkhyannismuseum.org/

Responses to the Presidential Election: An American Alliance of Museums Conversation on the Future of Museums

Originally posted on Medium. January 19, 2017.

This afternoon I attended a webinar I registered for about museum education, EdComVersation, called Museums Respond to the Presidential Election. The program was hosted by Greg Stevens, Assistant Director of Professional Development at the American Alliance of Museums; moderated by Megan Wood, Director of Museum and Library Services at the Ohio History Connection and Ed Com Secretary; and guest speakers were Nina Simon, Executive Director at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and Will Walker, co-editor of New York History and National Council on Public History’s blog, and assistant professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program. It was a panel discussion that presented questions and answered questions from participants. Wood, Simon, and Walker expressed their thoughts and opinions as they answered the questions: How are US museums, museum educators and other colleagues dealing with the election results? What does it mean for museums and our evolving role in society? What action should we take to foster civic responsibility and service, continue to defend and reaffirm democratic ideals and principles, and advance understanding on the interrelationship between actions and consequences nationally and globally? Along with the program, it provided a handout with resources to refer to the presidential election and the influence it could have on the museum field. I took away from this program what I began realizing after I found out about the results of the election: we need to keep moving on and if we want to make a difference in our community we need to be the ones to effect change.

Our nation is divided on the results of the recent presidential election, and there are many that take their stand on how they feel about the outcome. I will admit I was not happy with the results of the election but I will not rant about my feelings here because on this blog I like to discuss how this would be significant as a museum professional committed to providing an educational opportunity for those who seek it and the position I have to reach out to people to build connections as well as provide a space to express their voice in a society where they fear it cannot be expressed. After I found out about the election, I went on with my day and drove to the Long Island Maritime Museum to do my work. While there I realized that we continue with our day no matter how we feel about the election because we have an opportunity as Americans to affect change in the way we behave as individuals. I continued to greet visitors who came to see the museum, I worked on various collections projects, and other duties as I would on any other day since just because the results did not turn out like I hoped it does not change me as a person or as a museum professional.

There was an old saying that my high school principal said after every announcement: “Be good to one another”. I keep this in my mind as I continue with my life as a student and as a professional, and I try to be the best person I can be. I think about what this expression means every day, and while something good happens in our society there is something else that tells me we have not made enough progress to be good to one another. For instance, as our nation has legalized gay marriage there are still acts of hatred that cause harm to people of different races and genders. We live in a society that has made much progress and has not made enough progress at the same time. To inspire progress on improving our society, everyone, including myself, need to step outside of their perspectives and learn more about each other to build our empathy as humans. We educate ourselves on the issues and learn about each other to find out how we can make a better community for ourselves as well as for future generations. This is where education professionals like myself come in to assist in making this progress.

Today’s discussion this afternoon and tonight on Twitter’s continuing #MuseumEdChat discussion on the election delve into what we should be doing as museum professionals and for museums. Museums and other cultural organizations took their own stands in response to the inauguration tomorrow; some believe in participating in the Arts Strike movement and others have their own plans for running the museums with various programs and events that are based on what they believe should be doing to help their communities. There is a list of museums in New York City that share their plans during inauguration day (found here: http://ny.curbed.com/maps/nyc-free-museum-inauguration-day). There are a few things I took away from the discussion including there are persistent inequalities that did not begin with this election that we have to keep in mind as we make plans to serve our communities; keep in mind the voices that are not being heard in our community and find a way to include these voices in our programming and see how we can progress from there; and figure out how we could reach out to the audiences we want to reach out to based on our missions and expand our missions to include social issues we want to address. Also, we need to figure out the answers to these questions and learn how to proceed from there as organizations: What dialog we are inviting in our work? Are we perpetrating ideas we do not believe in? Another question to keep in mind as I read on Twitter tonight: What role, if any, do you think museums have in creating/making space for dialogue for divided public? My answer to this question would be to make sure our communities understand the significance of our roles in the community and build upon this by becoming more involved in the community to be able to have the trust to provide that space for dialogue; it does take time for any improvements in our society so we need to keep working toward that space for dialogue.

What do you think the museums roles should be as we face the future of our society? Do you have any responses to the questions presented in this discussion?