George Washington and the First Presidential Cabinet

Lindsay M Chervinsky. Presidential Studies Quarterly. Volume 48, Issue 1. March 2018.

On April 30, 1789, when George Washington became the first president of the United States, the Constitution outlined few details of the executive branch. Over the next eight years, Washington carefully established precedents for how the president would interact with the other branches of government and the public, conduct diplomacy, and respond to domestic insurrections. Washington also created the first cabinet to advise the president. Washington intended for the cabinet to be a personal advisory board to serve at his pleasure. He interacted with the cabinet accordingly-convening regular meetings when he desired assistance from the secretaries as a group or meeting with individuals when he preferred a one-on-one consultation.

Scholars have devoted a great deal of attention to the life and presidency of George Washington (Lengel 2007; Chernow 2011; Ellis 2005; Flexner 1974; McDonald 1974) and have long recognized the importance of the precedents he established for the development of the presidency (e.g., Phelps 1989). Just a few precedents include the president’s relationship with Congress and the Supreme Court, the president’s leading role in the treaty process, and details of the president’s inauguration. But while Washington’s importance to the origins and development of the American presidency is well established (see Milkis and Nelson 2015; Ellis 2015), there is little work detailing Washington’s evolving use of the president’s cabinet or how he shaped cabinet interactions.

The President’s Cabinet (1912) by Henry Barrett Learned was the last monograph to explore the formation of the cabinet. Learned explores the creation of the three original executive departments, the concept of a cabinet in American political consciousness, and the legal and institutional development of the remaining seven departments. Leonard D. White’s seminal work, The Federalists (1948), frames our understanding of the day-to-day operations of the federal government under both Washington and Adams. White was the first to argue that Washington handled the majority of business that came before the federal government with an individual secretary. Washington and the appropriate secretary dispatched department issues through writing or individual conferences. Washington only consulted the cabinet when faced with a precedent-setting issue or diplomatic crisis (White 1948, 40-41). Other scholarship on the cabinet focuses mainly on twentieth-century administrations, with a few nods to particularly infamous nineteenth-century cabinets such as President Abraham Lincoln’s or President Andrew Jackson’s cabinets. For example, in The Politics of the U.S. Cabinet, Jeffrey E. Cohen examines the “institutional capability and representativeness” of the cabinet as a democratic institution. He employs quantitative materials to analyze the “secretaries, their careers, their characteristics, their political loyalties and ties” (Cohen 1988, 4-5). This useful study includes data from all presidents up through the 1980s. Richard Fenno’s The President’s Cabinet (1959) explores the cabinets from President Wilson to President Eisenhower. In the first chapter, Fenno provides a brief overview of how Washington drew on state councils and the concept of a British cabinet when creating his own advisory body. Fenno also demonstrates how Washington casually convened the cabinet and settled on cabinet practices.

Yet these works leave many unanswered questions about the cabinet. Learned only devotes one chapter to the emergence of the cabinet in Washington’s administration and gives little attention to cabinet practices. White ignores the delayed emergence of the cabinet and treats its existence as inevitable. Fenno argues that “by 1787, the roots of the American Cabinet were already sunk deep in American practice. Most of the colonial governments provided for a Council or Assistants to consult with the Governor” (1959, 11). This argument overlooks the main function in the 1780s of the councils at the state level-to limit the power of the executive. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention rejected councils that served this purpose in order to preserve the president’s power. Furthermore, all of these works fail to discuss how the cabinet evolved during the administration. This article looks to answer these lingering questions by examining how Washington’s relationship with the cabinet evolved over his two terms in office and offering a new quantitative approach that demonstrates the fluid nature of the cabinet in the 1790s. For the purpose of this article, I have divided Washington’s presidency into three phases. While in office from 1789 to 1797, Washington called 97 cabinet gatherings. In Phase I (1789-1792), Washington held nine meetings. In Phase II (1793-1794), he summoned 78 meetings. In Phase III (1795-1797), Washington ordered 11 meetings.

Phase I: 1789-1792

In the summer of 1787, delegates from 12 states-all but Rhode Island-gathered in Philadelphia for the Federal Constitutional Convention. Many of the early proposals included some sort of a council to advise the executive. The Virginia Plan, drafted by James Madison and presented by Edmund Randolph, included a council of the revision. The justices of the Supreme Court would sit on this council with the president to review and enforce legislation (Farrand 1911, 1:16). In September, George Mason proposed a council similar to the Council of State that advised the Governor of Virginia. The Senate would select two members from the eastern, middle, and southern states. The six-person council would advise the executive and assist in appointing federal officials, but would also give the legislature another tool to limit the power of the president (1:533). Finally, Charles Pinckney suggested a council that looked remarkably similar to the cabinet Washington eventually created in 1793. Pinckney envisioned a council composed of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the department secretaries, and the president’s personal secretary. The president could convene the council at his leisure, but would not be bound by the counselors’ advice (1:16). The delegates rejected all three options. Instead, the delegates outlined two options for the president to obtain advice in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution: he could request written advice from the department secretaries on issues pertaining to their departments, or he could consult with the Senate on foreign affairs.

As president of the Convention, Washington attended every session and heard every debate on a possible cabinet. After the end of the official work day, he visited former officers from the Revolutionary War, frequented the theater and music performances, and drank tea with the leading families in Philadelphia. Other delegates joined Washington at these social functions and the informal atmosphere provided an opportunity to discuss issues that arose during the morning’s debates (Washington 1979). After the close of the Convention, Washington went to great lengths to stay apprised of the fate of the Constitution in the state ratification conventions. He subscribed to numerous newspapers, maintained an extensive network of correspondents, and hounded visitors that arrived at Mount Vernon for news from their home states. Washington entered the presidency with a clear understanding that the delegates at the Federal Convention had rejected any established council to advise the executive and that the state ratification conventions had upheld this decision.

After Washington’s inauguration in April 1789, he initially requested advice through the options outlined in the Constitution. In the first few months of office, Washington wasted no time utilizing the first constitutional option for obtaining advice on departmental issues. On May 9, 1789, Washington asked for a report from Henry Knox, acting Secretary of War under the Articles of Confederation, on the status of relations with the Cherokee Indians. On June 8, Washington sent a similar letter to John Jay requesting a “clear account of the Department at the head of which you have been…to impress me with a full, precise & distinct general idea of the United States, so far as they are comprehended in, or connected with that Department.”

Washington quickly discovered, however, that the issues facing the administration proved to be too complex to dispatch through correspondence alone. He took the first step toward creating the president’s cabinet by requesting individual conferences after exchanging letters. On January 20, 1790, Washington and Knox exchanged letters about a new plan to rearrange the state militias. Washington still had additional follow-up questions, so Knox arrived the next morning for a meeting. After ironing out the details, Washington submitted the plan to Congress.

To obtain advice on foreign affairs, Washington visited the Senate for the first time in August 1789. Washington planned to send commissioners to a peace conference in September to meet with representatives from the Creeks, Cherokees, and the Carolinas. In his capacity as president, Washington had never authorized commissioners and desired the Senate’s input. In the beginning of August, Washington met with a Senate committee to plan their future interactions. They determined where Washington and Vice President John Adams would sit and how Washington would enter the chamber. On August 20, Washington sent official notice of his upcoming visit.

On August 22 at 11:00 in the morning, Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox arrived at the Senate chambers. Washington brought a prepared address and a list of questions for the Senate to consider. Upon arrival, he handed the address to Vice President Adams, who delivered it to the Senate (Grant DePauw 1972). Unfortunately, the doorkeeper had opened the windows in the Senate chambers that morning in search of a cool breeze. As a result, all of the noise from the horses, carriages, and pedestrians outside on Wall Street flowed in through the windows and drowned out Adams’ speech. After a few complaints, the windows were shut and Adams tried again. This time the senators sat in silence. They avoided Washington’s gaze, shuffled their papers, and muttered under their breath. Finally, William Maclay of Pennsylvania stood up and suggested they refer the issue to committee for further debate before making a recommendation (Maclay 1988).

Washington lost his temper and protested, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” He eventually regained his composure and agreed to return the following Monday for the Senate’s recommendation, but on his way out of the Senate chambers, Washington reportedly swore he would not return and he kept his word. Washington never again visited the Senate for advice on foreign affairs. Washington had expected the Senate to debate his questions and provide immediate feedback. When the senators could not offer timely advice, Washington rejected the Senate as a viable council on foreign affairs (Maclay 1988).

In March 1791, Washington further moved toward the cabinet when he departed Philadelphia, the seat of government, for a tour of the southern states. Washington authorized the secretaries to meet in his absence should a pressing issue arise. In early April, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton received news from William Short-the agent appointed to secure a loan from the Dutch government in Amsterdam. Short reported that he had secured a new loan, but that terms of the agreement were liable to change if the administration did not grant immediate approval. On April 11, Hamilton presented the loan to the other secretaries and Vice President Adams, who agreed that Short should accept the deal. On May 7, Washington provided his official authorization for the secretaries’ decision.

On November 25, 1791, Washington summoned his first cabinet meeting to discuss the existing commercial treaties with France and Great Britain and the possibility of amending them. Nothing came of this meeting and Washington convened a few additional meetings in 1792 to discuss precedent-setting issues. For example, on March 27, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to appoint a committee to investigate the defeat of the American army under the command of Major General Arthur St. Clair. As part of the resolution, the House requested War Department papers pertaining to the battle. On March 31, Washington convened a cabinet meeting “to consult, merely because it was the first example, and he wished that so far as it should become a precedent, it should be rightly conducted.” Later that year, on December 10, Washington called a meeting to discuss a proposed treaty with the Iroquois Nation. In March 1792, British minister George Hammond had offered his government’s services in brokering a peace treaty between the Iroquois and the United States. At the cabinet meeting on December 10, Washington and the secretaries agreed to reject the proposed treaty, rather than “admit a mediation by Gr. Br.,” which would legitimize British control over western territories. In both circumstances, Washington faced a new challenge, whether it be the possibility of invoking executive privilege or rejecting a proposed peace treaty. As a result, he elected to consult with the cabinet before establishing precedent. Washington continued to rely primarily, however, on written advice and individual conferences to process the business for each department. During this first phase, Washington convened only nine cabinet meetings in almost four years in office.

Phase II: 1793-1794

On February 1, 1793, France declared war on Great Britain and the Netherlands. On April 5, Washington learned of the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. While preparing to cut short his visit to Mount Vernon, he wrote to Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and requested they spend the next two weeks brainstorming strategies to keep the United States out of the international war. The American economy had recently shown signs of recovering from the damage and recession caused by the Revolution and Washington and his secretaries were determined to avoid another costly war.

On the evening of April 17, Washington arrived in Philadelphia. The next morning he sent a note to the department secretaries requesting they gather on April 19 at nine o’clock in the morning. Washington included a list of 13 questions for the secretaries to consider. These questions served as the agenda for the meeting on April 19 and guided cabinet deliberations over the next several weeks.

At nine o’clock in the morning, the secretaries gathered in Washington’s private office on the second floor of the President’s House. They unanimously agreed on the administration’s response to the first two questions: first, that the administration would issue a proclamation “forbidding our Citizens to take part in any hostilities on the seas with or against any of the belligerent Powers”; second, that the administration would receive a minister from the Republic of France. Unanimity broke down, however, when they reached the third question: “If [the French minister is] received, shall it be absolutely?” Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Jefferson believed that a French minister ought to be received without qualification because “the real alliance is affixed to the body of the [French] state,” not the monarch. Therefore, Washington should honor the treaty and accept a French minister. On the other side, Hamilton and Knox claimed that the execution of King Louis XVI nullified the Franco-American Treaty. They argued that a minister should be accepted with limitations until the administration established a new diplomatic relationship with France. Washington hoped that a break from the intense discussion would allow cooler heads to prevail. He adjourned the gathering and scheduled another cabinet meeting on April 22. Despite the extra time, Hamilton and Jefferson remained bitterly divided. On May 6, Washington decided to accept the minister and supposedly confessed to Jefferson that “he had never had a doubt about the validity of the treaty: but since a question had been suggested he thought it ought to be considered.”

For the remainder of 1793, Washington met regularly with the cabinet to sort out the details of neutrality. He summoned 49 cabinet meetings in 1793-they met six times in May, four times in June, seven times in July, nine times in August, and ten times in November. In November, Washington gathered the cabinet up to five times per week. Washington paused the frequent cabinet meetings only once, in September and October, when a Yellow Fever outbreak forced most government officials to flee Philadelphia. The cabinet discussed everyday governing matters, including the president’s annual address to Congress, but primarily focused on precedent-setting diplomatic and constitutional issues. During this time, Washington and the secretaries established neutrality policy, developed a system for processing foreign privateers, and determined how to engage with diplomats from warring European nations.

Once the threat of international war ebbed, Washington continued to summon regular cabinet meetings. He called 29 meetings in 1794, roughly once a week through the end of August. In the fall, meetings ceased as Washington and Hamilton left Philadelphia to lead the militia to put down the insurrection against the whiskey tax in western Pennsylvania. The cabinet discussed Washington’s presidential address announcing the recall of French minister Edmund Charles Genet, what powers to grant John Jay when he departed to negotiate a new treaty with Great Britain, and how the federal government should respond to the Whiskey Rebellion. Each of these incidents represented a new experience for the administration and Washington preferred to consult with his secretaries before establishing precedent.

As Washington and the secretaries gathered in cabinet meetings, they created an institution from scratch. The Constitution provided no guidance and Congress had passed no legislation to shape meetings. Unfortunately, no written record exists to explain what experiences or institutions Washington drew upon as he organized his cabinet meetings. Washington was highly circumspect about his interactions with department secretaries. He expected the meetings to be private and there is no record he ever discussed the cabinet proceedings with anyone outside of the cabinet. Washington did not even use the word cabinet in his writings until after he retired in 1797. Considerable circumstantial evidence exists, however, to suggest that Washington treated his councils of war during the Revolution as a model for his cabinet.

As commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington held the sole power to convene a council of war. He summoned a council when embarking on major campaigns, when considering an unpopular retreat, or when selecting the location of winter quarters. Washington used councils for three reasons: to obtain political cover for a potentially controversial action, to request advice from the officers, or to build consensus among the officer corps.

During the summer of 1776, Washington led his army in a series of retreats from Long Island to Manhattan and again to New Jersey. Washington understood that his defensive positions were untenable-the highly mobile British navy could easily encircle the American troops and capture the entire army while it remained on Long Island or the island of Manhattan. Yet, Washington also knew the decision to abandon New York City would be controversial (Higginbotham 1971, 156-59). New York City offered a deep harbor for war ships and only Philadelphia surpassed its importance as a trade hub. Additionally, in order to safely evacuate his troops, Washington would have to abandon much-needed artillery and supplies. Finally, the loss of New York City would deal a heavy psychological blow to the American cause. Before undertaking such measures, Washington convened councils of war to ensure he retained the support of his officers (Lengel 2007, 149-52). On August 29, 1776, Washington gathered his officers and they voted unanimously to retreat from Long Island to Manhattan. After the council of war, Washington reported the decision and the retreat to Congress: “I have Inclosed a Copy of the Council of War held previous to the Retreat, to which I beg leave to refer Congress for the Reasons or many of them, that led to the adoption of that measure.” On September 12, Washington summoned another council before ordering the retreat from Manhattan to New Jersey.

Washington also utilized councils of war to plan for upcoming battles and winter encampments. For example, the officers played a crucial role in shaping the strategy that led to the victory at the Battle of Princeton. On the night of December 25, the American forces under Washington’s command had decisively defeated Hessian forces at the Battle of Trenton. After the battle, Washington delayed his retreat to safety in Pennsylvania because he hoped to strike at British forces again while they were still recovering from their losses. Unexpectedly, British troops under General Charles Cornwallis advanced rapidly from Princeton and trapped the American army up against the Delaware River. On January 2, 1777, Washington convened a council. He presented two equally unsatisfying options: attempt a hasty retreat over the Delaware River or engage in full-scale battle with the numerically superior British (Fischer 2006, 313-15). Arthur St. Clair, one of the officers at the meeting, suggested a third option. While patrolling nearby territory, St. Clair’s troops had discovered a hidden escape route to Princeton. Washington approved this plan and issued orders for work parties to begin building up giant fires and fortifying their defensive position. British troops fell for the ploy and concluded the Americans were preparing for battle. Under this disguise, the army escaped overnight (Wilkinson 1816). The next morning on January 3, 1777, Washington and his troops won a numerical and ideological victory at the Battle of Princeton (Fischer 2006, 313- 15, 324-40). The January 2 council proved to Washington the value of his officers’ advice in councils of war.

In his councils of war, Washington developed a number of effective leadership strategies. He frequently sent out questions to the officers in advance of the meetings. If the officers did not agree, Washington often requested follow-up written opinions. Washington utilized these strategies to control the agenda of councils and to give him additional time to consider all of his options. Some of the officers had domineering personalities and monopolized the debates in council. By requesting written opinions, Washington ensured he received every possible point of view. Washington utilized these skills in the fall of 1777, when he contemplated staging an attack on the British encampment in Philadelphia (Middlekauf 2016, 168). Major General Nathanael Greene described Washington’s unenviable task of having to choose between two unpleasant alternatives: “To fight the Enemy without the least Prospect of Success…or remain inactive, & be subject to the Censure of an ignorant & impatient populace.” On October 29, November 24, and December 3, Washington requested input from his officers. On the first two dates, Washington called a council of war and then requested written opinions after the conclusion of the meetings. On December 3, Washington sent a circular to the officers requesting their opinions one last time on whether they should engage in a winter campaign or enter winter headquarters. On all three occasions, most of the officers opposed a winter campaign and encouraged Washington instead to rest, supply, and train the troops. In his opinion, Greene wrote that to attack would

make a bad matter worse and take a Measure, that if it proves unfortunate, you [Washington] may stand condemned for…in pursuing the other [winter quarters] you have the Approbation of your own mind, you give your Country an opportunity to exert itself to supply the present Deficiency, & also act upon such military Principles as will justify you to the best Judges in the present day, & to all future Generations.

Washington agreed, but not before securing written support-three separate times-for a choice that he knew might be unpopular.

Washington relied on cabinet meetings to provide similar services as the councils of war. First and foremost, he convened cabinet meetings to request advice. Washington also used cabinet gatherings to build consensus among his secretaries or provide political cover for a potentially controversial policy. For example, on August 1, 1793, Washington gathered the secretaries to discuss the conduct of French minister, Edmond Charles Genet. Genet had spent the summer arming and outfitting private vessels to attack the British navy and had repeatedly ignored Jefferson’s warnings to cease his activities. On August 1, the cabinet agreed to request Genet’s recall. Because they “were taking so harsh a measure…that a precedent for it could scarcely be found,” Washington called several meetings in August to ensure the secretaries supported the administration’s policy. After agreeing to the recall on August 1, they met on August 15 to review a draft of the recall letter and again on August 20 to approve the final letter.

Washington also implemented similar leadership strategies in both his councils and cabinet meetings. For the critical April 19, 1793 cabinet meeting that started the administration’s efforts to avoid a global conflict, Washington established the agenda by sending 13 questions on neutrality policy for the secretaries to consider. When they failed to reach an agreement, he convened an additional cabinet meeting a few days later hoping to come to a consensus. Recognizing that Hamilton and Jefferson remained bitterly opposed on the issue, Washington eventually requested written opinions to ensure he heard every opinion, just as he had done with his officers in the Revolutionary War.

Phase III: 1795-1797

Starting in 1795, Washington again adjusted the cabinet’s role in his administration. He arranged 11 meetings in his final two and a half years in office, but only attended four of the gatherings himself. For the remaining seven meetings, Washington instructed the secretaries to convene at the Department of State office and report back. Instead of attending regular cabinet sessions, Washington preferred to handle issues with individual secretaries or consult with trusted advisors outside of the administration. Two developments explain the cabinet’s changing role. First, Washington trusted his judgment and acquired more confidence in his governing ability as his second term advanced. Second, the cabinet underwent significant personnel changes in 1794 and 1795. Washington considered some of the replacements unworthy of their offices and sought advice from trusted friends outside of the administration instead.

In Phase II, Washington primarily convened cabinet meetings to discuss an issue that would set diplomatic or constitutional precedent. For example, in 1792, the cabinet deliberated about whether Washington should invoke executive privilege for the first time. In 1793, the cabinet met extensively to establish neutrality policy and determine how to engage with potentially hostile European powers. In 1794, the cabinet determined how to respond to the first major domestic insurrection. Starting in 1795, few precedent-setting issues arose. Washington returned to written correspondence with individual secretaries in the final years of his administration, with two exceptions. On August 19, 1795, Washington summoned the cabinet to discuss a letter Secretary of State Edmund Randolph had written to French minister Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet. The other department secretaries alleged that the seized letter proved that Randolph had sold state secrets to the French. When Washington confronted Randolph, he immediately resigned (Randolph 1795). On March 3, 1796, Washington gathered the secretaries to discuss a resolution passed by the House of Representatives the previous day and his intention to invoke executive privilege. The resolution requested that the president submit to the House all correspondence and documents relating to the Jay Treaty. Washington called these two cabinet meetings because he planned to establish precedent-the resignation of a department secretary because of allegations of treason and the invocation of executive privilege for the first time.

Perhaps more importantly, evidence suggests that Washington did not fully trust the new secretaries. In December 1793, Jefferson retired and Washington promoted Attorney General Edmund Randolph to secretary of state. In December 1794, Knox followed suit and Postmaster General Timothy Pickering took his place. In January 1795, Hamilton returned to his law practice and Washington selected the acting comptroller of the Treasury, Oliver Wolcott, Jr., to be the new secretary of the Treasury. Washington appointed William Bradford as attorney general and then Charles Lee, after Bradford’s death in July 1795. In July 1795, Randolph resigned in disgrace and the last of the original secretaries left Washington’s administration. After an extended search, Washington asked Pickering to fill the position in the state department and settled for James McHenry as secretary of war. In August 1798, Washington acknowledged to Hamilton that McHenry was ill equipped to handle the responsibilities of the office: “Your opinion respecting the unfitness of a certain Gentleman for the Office he holds, accords with mine, and it is to be regretted, sorely, at this time, that these opinions are so well founded. I early discovered, after he entered upon the Duties of his Office, that his talents were unequal to great exertions, or deep resources.”

Washington’s use of the cabinet during the Jay Treaty controversy demonstrated his distrust of the new secretaries. In May 1794, Jay departed for London to negotiate a new commercial treaty with Great Britain in the hopes of resolving outstanding issues from the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War in 1783. In early March 1795, Washington received the treaty and consulted with Randolph. They decided to transmit the treaty to the Senate in utmost secrecy. In April, Randolph assured Adams that recent articles published by Benjamin Franklin Bache in the Aurora were scandalous lies because “not one word of which [the treaty], I believe, is known thro’ a regular channel to any person here, but the President and myself.” On December 20, 1795, James Madison confirmed the secrecy surrounding the treaty in a letter to James Monroe: “I understand that it [the treaty] was even withheld from the Secretaries at war & the Treasury, that is Pickering & Wolcott.” On June 25, Washington finally included the other secretaries in his deliberations-Pickering, Wolcott, McHenry, Lee-after the Senate had already confirmed the treaty.

Instead of convening daily cabinet meetings as he had done during the Neutrality Crisis of 1793, Washington preferred to consult privately with his trusted advisors. In 1794, Hamilton continued to serve a major role in the cabinet. After Jefferson’s retirement, Randolph took on more responsibility. In 1795, Hamilton retired as well and Randolph became Washington’s primary advisor in the cabinet. After Randolph’s resignation in July 1795, Washington requested written advice from the remaining department secretaries. But he also regularly consulted Hamilton, even sharing privileged information. Not long after Hamilton’s retirement from the Treasury, Washington shared the recently published Jay Treaty and asked whether he should sign the document. Washington sent additional queries to Hamilton about the treaty as the public debated ratification. On July 13, 1795, Washington shared the same question with Hamilton that he previously sent to the cabinet secretaries-whether the treaty should be submitted to the Senate again for ratification if the British government agreed to amend controversial articles. By including Hamilton, a private citizen, in his decision-making process, Washington revealed his unwillingness to rely solely on the advice of the department secretaries.


Despite the cabinet’s prominent place in the executive branch, the development of the institution was not a foregone conclusion. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not expect Washington to create a cabinet and he did not enter the presidency planning to establish a new advisory body. He quickly discovered, however, that the constitutional provisions were insufficient to administer the domestic and diplomatic business of the new federal government. Washington formed the cabinet to provide support and advice when faced with a new situation that required him to establish executive precedent. Yet the cabinet remained an extension of his leadership-it did not become an entrenched, formal part of the presidency. When Washington determined he could best govern without the cabinet in his final years in office, he sidelined the group in favor of individual meetings and written correspondence. As a result, when Washington left office, the cabinet was not institutionalized-it remained dependent on the president for its existence.

In an attempt to provide continuity between the first two administrations, Adams retained Washington’s department secretaries and convened cabinet meetings to discuss major diplomatic and constitutional issues. Adams only followed this procedure out of deference to the customs he observed during Washington’s presidency (White 1948, 42). When the secretaries’ outright insubordination threatened his administration, Adams dismissed Pickering and McHenry. Jefferson continued Washington’s custom by resolving the majority of administrative issues through writing or with individual secretaries and reserving cabinet meetings for the most challenging questions. The infrequent cabinet meetings and Jefferson’s sole power to convene the secretaries further prevented the cabinet from institutionalizing in the early nineteenth century. Describing the twentieth-century cabinet, Fenno wrote that the cabinet “lives in a state of institutional dependency to promote the effective exercise of the President’s authority to help implement his ultimate responsibilities. The Cabinet is his instrument, to use as he sees fit” (1959, 5). Washington’s relationship to the cabinet over the course of his presidency is central to the cabinet’s weak institutional position in modern presidential administrations.