The First Rivals

When in 2005 Doris Kearns Goodwin published Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, a standard was established for the analysis of the dynamics of political administration in the United States. Goodwin carefully analyzed Lincoln’s cabinet to unfold the extent to which the commander-in-chief effectively determined the shape of political administration or merely coordinated competing centers of political administration. The analysis bore out the intended implication of the title of the book, namely, that Lincoln’s cabinet consisted of rivals, not among themselves, but to Lincoln himself. Indeed, it is quite probable that Lincoln was acutely aware, as he named Chase, Seward, Stanton, and Blair to his cabinet (and implicitly included Sumner), that he was relying on people each of whom considered himself worthier to be president than Lincoln. Goodwin, therefore, explored how what Alexander Hamilton identified in Federalist Papers 68-72 as the soul of government—namely, coherent, stable, energetic administration of the laws under a single command—fared in the face of political realities.

It was on the strength of arguments such as Hamilton’s that the system in the United States came to be known as “the Administration” as opposed to other eligible nomenclatures. What ideally distinguishes an executive administration from a legislature is the absence of conflicting loyalties and partisan divisions clogging the enunciation of the “deliberate sense of the community” desired of each of the programmatic branches (legislative and executive). For the ultimate aim is to sustain authority as the source of command as opposed to influence. Lincoln, accordingly, had to master discord in his cabinet in order to steer a clear path to a consistent public vision, and he did so in the midst of an existential crisis. Goodwin, therefore, identified his genius in the successful mastering of the divisions surrounding him.

Lindsay Chervinsky, in her new book The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, effectively takes up Goodwin’s work in a biographical—as opposed to analytical—fashion. In the process of doing so, she produces indirectly an assay against which to weigh the resources Lincoln had to draw upon, namely, the precedents established by George Washington.

Setting a Precedent

In a nice literary bow to inspiration, toward the end of Chervinsky’s book appears the description of cabinet secretaries as “still a team of rivals who fight over resources, time, attention, and career advancement.” This tacitly recognizes Goodwin’s influence, which is otherwise unacknowledged. It significantly reveals, however, how far from Goodwin’s analysis Chervinsky’s narrative falls. For the latter conceives of cabinet rivalries as a fight for spoils among secretaries (far too many historians have seen the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry in that light) rather than as a challenge to commanding authority. Yet nothing can be clearer than that Thomas Jefferson, from the beginning, conceived himself a rival to George Washington for the commanding title (though he was restrained in the direct and open expression of that ambition). We could easily include John Adams also, had he been brought fully into the confidence of Washington’s cabinet. Washington’s cabinet, in short, was not so far different from Lincoln’s cabinet.

What we have to learn from Chervinsky, accordingly, is how far Washington tamed the inner beast of cabinet administration. She usefully demonstrates that there was no clear constitutional predicate for the cabinet as an institution (although Hamilton’s powerful analysis makes very clear that it would be a necessity). She builds a strong case to show a lingering suspicion of cabinet politics inherited from English practices at least since the Walpole era. Her line of argument, however, does not meaningfully demonstrate the deliberative considerations that ultimately prevailed, prejudices and vocabularies to the contrary notwithstanding. In other words, the fact that the Constitution provided for executive departments under the direction of a single executive effectively mandated, even if it did not specify, the existence of a cabinet. The question of interest was not whether it would exist but how it would operate. Although Chervinsky explores this dimension insufficiently (she is, after all, primarily concerned with Washington’s precedents rather than with analysis), it is necessary to admit the very real possibility for departmental executives operating in silos without interacting with one another as general advisors to the commanding executive. That they should be brought together into an “executive family” effectively embracing cross-departmental loyalties to the entire Administration had to result from specific decisions about how to proceed, whether fully informed or not.

Though he deliberately avoided casually directing himself to the general public, Washington consistently acted to settle questions that had otherwise been subjects of persistent disagreement.

This is where Chervinsky is at her best. She explains Washington’s decisions in light of his prior experiences of command and leadership, identifying his consistent practice of interacting with line officers and agents on the basis of collective responsibility, albeit parceling to each distinct authorities. This pattern, most prominent during the war of the revolution, constitutes for Chervinsky the single source of Washington’s decisions in the administration of the government. Taking this evolutionary or customary approach, however, does not identify any very strong principles according to which Washington acted. Yet, Washington’s writings are replete with statements of principles of right conduct that bear directly upon this question, the most significant of which, perhaps, was his fairly boisterous (if a letter can be boisterous) declamation that “influence is no government,” expressed on the occasion when he was asked to use his influence to quell Shays’s Rebellion. In other words, Washington consistently inculcated the importance of patterned authority for the success of republican government. As a result, it would be a normal expectation that he would structure an administration with the goal of producing patterned authority.

Chervinsky knows all of this, for she does not fail to observe what other intelligent observers must note, namely, that Washington was supremely—we may almost say, obsessively—concerned with the precedents to be established. That precedent, however, was far less about his own reputation and far more about the prospect of patterned authority. He sought to contain disagreements within the cabinet so as not to squelch dissentient opinions but to prevent their emerging in such a manner as to undermine the authority required for effective administration. Washington’s objectives in cabinet management, therefore, had less to do with managing diverse personalities and more to do with preserving political coherence as an essential value. In that light, one may see a reason to request written opinions from secretaries in the most sensitive cases not so much as an implicit attempt at “CYA” (which Chervinsky implies but does not quite say), but as paying due heed to the deliberative character of the government’s conduct.

Washington’s Leadership

Most of the biographical detail surrounding Washington’s career prior to the presidency is of little value—apart from shaping a well-told tale. But the details of the political crises that his Administration confronted and dealt with are revealing to a high degree. And Chervinsky deserves credit for showing how attentive Washington was through all of this to public opinion. Does she understand the foundation of that attentiveness? She does not make that clear. There is some suggestion that she thinks of it as a kind of “finger to the wind” political calculation instead of a devoted commitment to solidify republican habits. That could explain why she sees no particular relevance of the “Farewell Address” to her project, since that theme is key to understanding the “Farewell Address.”

In one particular case—the debate over the Jay Treaty—she dramatically illustrates how story-telling (which bases itself on what is seen) can miss the larger point of analysis (which must penetrate to the unseen). For, in that case, she almost attributes Washington’s decision-making to a moment of pique. Washington’s decision to sign the treaty came suddenly and unexpectedly, and it was inconsistent with the understanding that he had given the Secretary of State—namely, that he would not ratify the treaty until after Britain had rescinded orders in council adverse to U. S. commerce and provided a response to the request to re-negotiate Article XII. The sudden signing contradicted express intentions. However, over the course of the month between the expression of his intention to achieve a conditional ratification, two things happened, only one of which seems to have weighed in Chervinsky’s judgment. Those two things were the turn in public discussion of the treaty (rising dissent had been answered with determination) and the emergence of a foreign policy crisis in the form of allegations against the Secretary of State of corrupt dealings with France.

Hinting that Washington acted more out of anger with his Secretary of State than for reasons of state, Chervinsky does not perceive the deliberative foundations of his decisions. That explains why she missed altogether the importance of Washington’s directing Hamilton to undertake the public campaign to defend the Treaty. More importantly, that also explains why she could relate accurately the instructions given to Jay for negotiating the treaty, without recognizing that those instructions had to omit the key point that ultimately would be most responsible for inciting opposition to the treaty—namely, to avoid demanding compensation for or the return of slaves who had departed with the British. That this had to be a deliberate decision is inescapable in the context, and is further supported by the very explicit argument published by Hamilton in defense of the move (citing moral and religious imperatives). Accordingly, the vagaries of secretaries (Hamilton was not in the Administration by that point) tells us much less about the ultimate decision-making than the resolve of the commander. Washington observed circumstances changing sufficiently to threaten the very opportunity to strike this important move to regularize relations with Britain. His sudden action would be better understood as a response to imminent threats to policy. The coherent voice of political administration, in the end, had to be sustained by the only voice that could finally settle the question.

The act of settling the question recurred repeatedly during Washington’s Administration. Though he deliberately avoided casually directing himself to the general public, he consistently acted—through giving approval or vetoes to proposed laws, issuing proclamations, and giving formal addresses—to settle questions that had otherwise been subjects of persistent disagreement and even considerable contention. And when required, as in the Whiskey Rebellion, he even resorted to military command. In that case he did indeed lead his cabinet on a merry chase until they fell in line with his resolve. But he ultimately led them, and not the reverse.

The chief precedent to emerge from Washington’s cabinet practices, therefore, was that coherent, stable, and energetic public administration is possible only where a commanding executive can impose sufficient discipline upon secretaries to accomplish that goal.