The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution by Lindsay M. Chervinsky
George Washington is a model of leadership. In both his accomplishments and demeanor. Lindsay M. Chervinsky’s book The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution highlights many examples.
Whether in leading the American army against the British during the Revolutionary War or as the 1st president he did not rush to make decisions. Washington used caution and was quick to get advice from trusted advisors before making the final decision. Typically he got everyone’s written advice so he could get their accurate and well-thought-out opinions, which he could then reflect on later.
The President’s cabinet which we take for granted today is not explicitly written in the Constitution. But over Washington’s 8 years in office, it evolved into an effective institution. The cabinet was similar to the advisors of the British monarch, which is why Washington and others were hesitant to even have a cabinet and a strong executive. But Washington’s experiences in wartime and after proved that without strong centralized power congress would not typically act swiftly. Fear of an all-powerful president and the distribution of power between the executive branch and the legislative is still with us today.
Washington like most of the upper-class of the time cared strictly about their honor and reputation. While the U.S. has evolved to have less severe class distinctions, Washington’s awareness of republican virtue was admirable. He acted humbly and was not obsessed with gaining as much power as he could. The way he set precedents for future presidents and the republic was admirable and a lesson in leadership we can all apply to the people around us, no matter our position. Washington wanted to be an example for the elite, but also for the common man.
Washington’s presidential cabinet, (Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General), like his advisors during wartime, had different abilities and experiences then he did. His humility in picking intelligent cabinet members helped to make him a better informed and decisive president.
Washington knew the importance of social relationships for an effective administration. This was evident in the atmosphere Washington fostered among all the troops and his closest advisors. Strong social bonds and meaningful relationships were meant to be bulwarks against disagreement and harsh times, like surviving the harsh winter at Valley Forge. Although social engagements could not mend the strong difference of opinions between Jefferson and Hamilton.
Washington was a model of republican virtue. This is why he was seen as the only one who could carefully guide the tenuous existence of this new country in 1789. The end of the war with Great Britain in 1783 meant large debts and the states were loosely tied together by the Articles of Confederation. It would not be until the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and ratification in 1788 that there would be a central government with real influence. Republican virtue was shown through service and sacrifice. While this was a prescription mostly for the elite, they could not just rely on birthright. There were strict manners, educational attainment, and humility to be shown. The manners of language and dress may seem antiquated today, but stricter codes of conduct can be useful for maintaining a more respectful and cooperative politics.
George Washington, like most of the founding fathers, had a strong aversion to monarchy. This affected the balance of powers in the three branches of government. In today’s government, the executive branch has only gotten larger and stronger. Washington wanted the power to take decisive action when it came to diplomatic negotiations with France or Great Britain, or quelling the Whiskey Rebellion and did not want to be hampered by the slow-moving Congress. This is probably part of the tendency for the President and his administrators to get more powerful over time. Multiple wars or national emergencies like the Great Depression have been times when the president felt like he could not wait for Congress to assist in making timely actions or have too much influence. That being said, it is not bad to think hard about the downsides of one person holding too much power, regardless of ample ability and positive motivations.
Washington was not perfect as some may think he was. He was thin-skinned and resented criticism from the newspapers and citizens alike. Criticism of the president would only get worse with time. Washington was also a slave-holder. This original sin of America was a historical blight, that can never be forgotten, but it should not consume the admirable traits Washington possessed or the leadership he provided an infant republic that still stands strong in many respects over two centuries later. His parting words after his second term are never more true than in current times of great national strife. Washington recommended we focus on the things that bring the country together as one. The national, economic, and emotional ties that bind Americans together even in the face of partisanship and regional differences. It may be hard to ignore what seems insuperable ideological differences or different moral values today, but inclusive nationalism, economic cooperation, and social connection can be steps in a more positive direction.