History and Purpose of the Cabinet

The idea behind a nonelected cabinet to advise the chief executive has its roots in the British system of government. In the seventeenth century, the English Parliament devised the “cabinet council” — a small group of men who advised the king on political issues and administered certain government departments — as a way to curb abuses by the monarch and keep close tabs on his governance. The king was allowed to appoint the cabinet council, but its composition had to include members of Parliament. Over time, the cabinet assumed greater responsibilities as the Crown became an increasingly ceremonial position.

Cabinet and the Articles of Confederation

The British idea was borrowed by the Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Because Congress was required by the Articles to both legislate and administer the laws of the land, it had set up several executive departments to manage the administrative functions of government.

Just months after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the Congress set up the Department of Foreign Affairs and appointed Robert Livingston as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs — the first cabinet officer in our nation's history. Ten years later, the Department of Foreign Affairs was renamed the State Department; thus, the cabinet actually predates the Constitution by nearly a decade.

In Federalist No. 70, Alexander Hamilton — one of the few proponents of a strong executive — made the case for omitting the cabinet from the Constitution. He believed that it was undemocratic and unworkable to have a system in which a nonelected cabinet could overrule an elected president. “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of government,” he concluded.

In the Constitution

The role of the president and his advisors was one of the most hotly contested issues at the Constitutional Convention. A majority of the delegates agreed that a weak president was preferable to one who resembled a monarch, but disagreed over how best to restrict his authority.

Some argued that having three presidents would effectively limit the power of the office, but the idea was dismissed as unworkable and too stifling. Others proposed a single president with a strong cabinet — one who shared the decision-making process with him — as a compromise solution, but the delegates couldn't agree on the exact powers of the cabinet. Unable to reach a consensus, the framers decided on a single executive with limited powers, and purposely omitted any reference to a cabinet in the Constitution so as not to give credence to the notion of a “president by council.”

Evolution of the Cabinet's Role

Among the many precedents established during Washington's presidency, the role of the cabinet ranks near the top of the list in importance. Washington believed that cabinet staff should serve as policy advisors and department managers. He frequently convened his cabinet as group meetings to discuss both specific departmental items and general matters of national governance. However, Washington never considered the cabinet an instrument for collective policymaking. Instead, he viewed it as a forum for open discussion and debate on national issues. This was an important distinction.

Though usually a consensus seeker, President Lincoln wasn't above pulling rank on his cabinet every now and again. After presenting a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet during a lengthy meeting, Lincoln asked them if he should present it to the nation. When his entire cabinet opposed the idea, Lincoln quipped, “Seven nays and one aye, the ayes have it.”

Washington also believed that cabinet selection should be based solely on merit — whoever is most qualified to perform the job — and should represent political and geographic diversity whenever possible. However, with the rise of political parties, and the advent of the patronage system, much of Washington's philosophy regarding cabinet appointments was lost on future generations. Cabinet selection, for the most part, simply became another opportunity for the president to reach out to various interest groups and strengthen his political base.

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