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The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
On this day in 1793, President George Washington first met with his cabinet. The meeting was in his home at Mount Vernon, construction of the White House having started in 1792.
Washington held his first full cabinet meeting on February 25, 1793, with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
While these men had strong differences and ambitions, they served President Washington faithfully, taking their conflicts outside of their time of service. Jefferson and Hamilton had the most notable conflict, although not directly over either officer’s portfolio.
Secretary of State Jefferson was constrained in his foreign policy preferences by President Washington’s views:
As Secretary of State, Jefferson’s approach to foreign affairs was limited by Washington’s preference for neutrality regarding the war between Britain and France. Jefferson favored closer ties to France, who had supported the United States during the Revolutionary War. Tension within Washington’s cabinet—notably with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who favored an assertive central government—prompted Jefferson’s resignation.
Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton pursued an aggressive program of war debt repayment and central banking infrastructure building.
At the inauguration of the constitutional government in 1789 Alexander Hamilton (1757- 1804), George Washington’s former military aide and a renowned financier, was appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury and thus he became the architect of the structure of the Department. Desirous of a strong, centrally controlled Treasury, Hamilton did constant battle with Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, and Albert Gallatin, then a Congressman, over the amount of power the Department of the Treasury should be allowed to wield.
He introduced plans for the First Bank of the United States, established in 1791 which was designed to be the financial agent of the Treasury Department.
Hamilton also introduced plans for a United States Mint. Though he wanted the Mint to be a structural part of the Treasury, he lost the battle to Jefferson and it was established in 1792 within the State Department. The Mint became an independent agency in 1797 and was eventually transferred to Treasury in 1873.
The idea of placing the Mint under the cabinet department responsible for foreign relations makes no sense outside of the political circumstances of the day, with deep reservations about Hamilton’s ambitions for strong central government through currency control. For similar reasons, the Secretary of War was limited not only by manpower but by budgetary authority.
Secretary of War Henry Knox had gained renown in the American Revolution for his skilled employment of artillery. When the Constitution was ratified, Knox was already leading the military department, such as it was.
In August 1789 this force amounted to about 800 officers and men. All the troops, except the two artillery companies retained after Shays’ Rebellion, were stationed along the Ohio River in a series of forts built after 1785.
With such a small force, the bureau was initially little more than a small office, with a handful of civilian employees supporting the Secretary of War.
In August 1789, Congress created the Department of War. Its mission was to oversee the administration of America’s military forces. In that same month, President George Washington selected former Continental Army Maj. Gen. Henry Knox to become the first secretary of war. In addition to military matters, the secretary of war also assumed responsibility for supervising federal Indian affairs.
Secretary Knox managed the new department in New York City, initially with one clerk and then with only a handful of clerks and one messenger, to assist with his routine duties. Their job was to keep Army papers in order and to expedite departmental business.
Notice that federal Indian affairs fell under the War Department, not the State Department. Force, or the threat of force, would be the core of relations with all the tribes, who would not be accorded the status of sovereign nations, meriting diplomatic relations. However, the records also show the first Secretary of War functioning as a diplomat, acting as President Washington’s advisor and representative when a group of Cherokee leaders sought to renegotiate a treaty in 1792:
From Henry Knox
War department [Philadelphia] 17th January 1792.
I have the honor to submit to you the communications of the Cherokee chiefs and my report thereon, and also a draft of a message, which appears necessary, to the Senate on the occasion. I have the honor to be with the greatest respect Sir Your most obedient and humble servant
secy of War
The position of Attorney General was created by Congress, in the course of putting meat on the bones of Article III, authorizing and organizing courts under the U.S. Supreme Court. The Judiciary Act of 1789 created one Article II position to represent the president.
The Department of Justice traces its beginning to the First Congress meeting in New York in 1789, at which time the Congress devoted itself to creating the infrastructure for operating the Federal Government. After meeting for several months the legislators passed a bill known as the Judiciary Act that provided for the organization and administration of the judicial branch of the new government, and included in that Act was a provision for appointment of “…a meet person, learned in the law, to act as attorney-general for the United States…”
Although it would be nearly another century before Congress would create the Department of Justice, the establishment of the Attorney General position marks the true beginning of the Department. The Judiciary Act was passed by Congress and signed by President George Washington on September 24, 1789, making the Attorney General position the fourth in the order of creation by Congress of those positions that have come to be defined as Cabinet level positions.
The first Attorney General, Edmund Jennings Randolph, was a skilled lawyer, legislator, governor, and had the personal trust of President Washington.
He was a supporter of the Revolution and served as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp in 1775. Randolph was a delegate to the Continental Congress and a member of the Constitutional Convention. He was elected attorney general of Virginia in 1776, served until 1782 and served as Governor of Virginia from 1786-1788.
On September 26, 1789, Randolph was appointed the first Attorney General of the United States by President Washington. In 1794 he was appointed Secretary of State. He served in this position until 1795.
Randolph was the first cabinet official to be done in by political enemies within an administration, tainted by a phony dossier, in a manner of speaking.
Political intrigue against Randolph ended his term as Secretary of State. Hoping to neutralize Randolph’s opposition to the favorable Jay Treaty, the British Government provided his opponents in Washington’s Cabinet with documents written by French Minister Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet that had been intercepted by the British Navy. The documents were innocuous, yet Federalists in the Cabinet claimed they proved that Randolph had disclosed confidential information and solicited a bribe. Randolph was innocent, but his standing with Washington was permanently weakened. Randolph resigned in 1795.
So, political opponents colluded with a foreign power, while claiming that it was their target who was colluding and corrupt. The four men who President Washington assembled as his first cabinet remind us of both change and continuity under our Constitution. The executive branch has exploded in size and scope, raising the stakes of personnel selection. Yet, we may be thankful that top officials are not settling their disagreements with dueling pistols.