The Cabinet

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  1. • The most notable attempt of the Senate to control resignations came with the passage of the Tenure of Office Act, passed over Andrew Johnson’s veto, in 1867. The act required the President to submit all removals to the Senate for approval. Johnson’s direct violation of the law by his dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton led to his impeachment. Congress repealed the act in 1887. Subsequently, in 1926, the Supreme Court in Myers v. U.S. affirmed Johnson’s contention that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional.
  2. • Only four Presidents have made no changes in their Cabinets during their administrations: William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, and James Garfield. But only Pierce lived the full four years of his term.
  3. • By contrast, Ulysses Grant over two terms, and Franklin Roosevelt in three full terms and part of a fourth, each made twenty-five Cabinet appointments. Richard Nixon holds the record with twenty-nine appointments in five years.
  4. • Andrew Jackson twice forced dramatic reorganizations of his Cabinet. The first came in 1831 as a result of the continued refusal of Cabinet officers’ wives to accept Peggy Eaton, the wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton, as a social equal. After a Cabinet meeting in which the President asserted the former barmaid was “as chaste as a virgin,” Jackson demanded the resignations of the Secretaries of the Treasury and the Navy and of the Attorney General.

Jackson’s second reorganization came during the Bank crisis in 1833. When Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane refused to order the removal of federal funds from the Bank of the United States, Jackson replaced him with William Duane. When Duane, too, proved recalcitrant, Jackson dismissed him. Roger B. Taney’s willingness to pursue the President’s plans ultimately cost him confirmation by the Senate, although he had served as Secretary for nearly a year.

  1. • John Tyler is the only President to lose virtually his entire Cabinet through mass resignation. In 1841 five of six Secretaries left office with angry denunciations of the President’s use of the veto power. Only Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State, continued to serve.
  2. • An unusual request for resignation in this century came in 1945 when Harry Truman removed Edward Stettinius as Secretary of State. The former board chairman of United States Steel had been effective in helping to organize the United Nations, but on Franklin Roosevelt’s death and Truman’s accession to the Presidency, the Vice Presidency was left vacant. Under the Presidential succession act then in force, the Secretary of State was next in line for the nation’s highest office, a position no one in Truman’s administration wanted Stettinius to hold. Early in June, Truman replaced Stettinius with James Byrnes.
  3. • There have been four major Cabinet shifts in the last forty years. In 1946 Harry Truman dismissed his Secretary of Commerce, Henry Wallace, because of a speech Wallace had given in New York City advocating a foreign policy diametrically opposed to Truman’s own. The dismissal was forced by Secretary of State James Byrnes’s threat to resign if Wallace continued in the Cabinet.

In 1970 Richard Nixon asked for and received Walter Hickel’s resignation as Secretary of the Interior after Hickel had made public a letter to the President in which he deplored the conduct of the Vietnam war.

More controversial was President Nixon’s abrupt dismissal of special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox in the “Saturday night massacre” in October, 1973. This led directly to the resignation, by “reason of conscience,” of the Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, who refused to accept the President’s action on both moral and legal grounds.

The most recent dismissal was President Gerald Ford’s removal of James Schlesinger as Secretary of Defense in November, 1975, because of policy differences between him and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

To a considerable degree the prominence of the Cabinet is dependent upon the power of the Presidency that surrounds it. As a result only a few former Cabinet officers have achieved glory in their own right. Some of the exceptions:

  1. • Eight Presidents served in the Cabinet, six as Secretary of State—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan; two as Secretary of War—James Monroe and William Howard Taft; one as Secretary of Commerce—Herbert Hoover.
  2. • Two Chief Justices of the United States served as Secretary of State—John Marshall and Charles Evans Hughes; one served as Secretary of the Treasury—Roger B. Taney.
  3. • Five Secretaries of State have received Nobel Peace Prizes: Elihu Root (1912), Frank Kellogg (1929), Cordell Hull (1945), George C. Marshall (1953), and Henry Kissinger (shared award, 1973).

For all its considerable influence the American Cabinet is poles apart from the British Cabinet, whose name it shares. For the British Cabinet is the British Executive; it was ‘deliberately created to weaken and ultimately to replace the monarch in affairs of state. By contrast, the American Cabinet, both in 1789 and today, is charged with the task of assisting the President in the execution of an extraordinary range of public services—as suggested in this profile of the Cabinet at the present time: