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The Cabinet

July 2024
17min read

Since 1789 the members of the Cabinet have been a major source of Presidential power. As advisers, official spokesmen, and administrative assistants to the nation’s Chief Executive they are the modern equivalent of those highly placed councillors Aristotle called “the many eyes and ears and hands and feet” of ancient kings. Without them, it is fair to say, the colossal power now lodged in the Oval Office would be substantially reduced. We offer here a brief review of the Cabinet in the American past.

At the present time ten Secretaries and the Attorney General serve the President as his Cabinet. Through the executive departments each of them heads, they supervise the expenditure of more than $292 billion annually—or roughly 90 per cent of the federal budget—and direct the activities of some 1.8 million civilian employees who constitute about 61 per cent of the federal bureaucracy.

Their specific duties are a catalogue of the federal responsibilities assigned by the Constitution and Congress to the President for execution, ranging from the conduct of foreign affairs and control of the military forces to the establishment of school-lunch programs and the distribution of food stamps to the needy. They carry out regulatory functions in such areas as the food industry, the nation’s coal mines, and public transportation. They enforce civil-rights legislation, develop conservation policy, and manage public lands and the national park system. They serve as liaisons between the federal government and the fifty states. And much more—all of it reflecting the enormous growth in the federal government’s commitment to far-reaching economic and social services in the last forty years.

But impressive as their power seems to be, the members of the Cabinet are only subordinate officers in the executive branch. As such they are living proof of Emerson’s judgment that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” for they have no official life apart from the President. Despite their considerable authority the Secretaries may act only as he directs; they may assume no duties he does not authorize; they serve at his pleasure and may be dismissed—without recourse to Congress or the courts—whenever he chooses. Collectively or alone, their primary function is to provide the administrative machinery that makes the Presidency work.

As a consequence there is barely a hint of mystery about the Cabinet and its role in American government. Although it stands in the reflected glare of Presidential power, it attracts little or none of the reverence the public accords the Chief Executive. It generates none of the awe that the Supreme Court, say, is capable of producing.

The Cabinet may be, in fact, the most American of institutions, if only because it represents an attempt to bring to government the kind of managerial skill American businessmen used to transform industry and finance in the nineteenth century. From its beginnings in 1789 the Cabinet was expected to develop the means by which the broadly defined powers of the executive branch could be translated into day-to-day services for the public at large.

Seen in this light, the Cabinet is simply one more pragmatic triumph of a generation that prided itself on its practicality, a generation that saw the American Revolution as not merely a search for the true principles of government but as an opportunity—in John Adams’ words—to have those principles “reduced to practice.” Such men made use of the Continental Congress as a laboratory in popular sovereignty, both in the conduct of the war and in the development of administrative forms.

The Cabinet is one result of that experimentation, for it is the direct heir of the four executive departments Congress established in 1781 to manage the army, the navy, the treasury, and foreign affairs. The end product of six years of trial and error, the departments brought some measure of centralized control to a wartime government that heretofore had been plagued by inefficiency, tangled jurisdictions, and general executive failure.

Although the department heads were little more than secretaries in the literal sense of the word, they and their successors remained as the central administrative officers of the government for the next eight years under the Articles of Confederation. In time they provided the model the Founding Fathers included in the Presidential article of the Constitution for the machinery of the executive branch.

It is a surprising inclusion because, in general, the delegates to Philadelphia in 1787 had avoided giving specific details to the form and substance of any of the offices they created. In this case, however, they recognized, as George Washington wrote, “the impossibility that one man should be able to perform all the great business of the State. …” Thus in Article 11, Section a they offered two phrases that constitute the sole sanction the Cabinet was to receive: a reference to “the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments,” with whom the President was periodically to consult in writing, and another to “the Heads of Departments,” who might, at Congress’ discretion, be empowered to appoint “inferior Officers” of the government as the need arose.

Beyond that the Constitution is silent. As a result the Cabinet’s role has been defined historically by an admixture of custom, congressional statute, and a series of executive orders from the Presidents. Its institutionalization, on the other hand, is almost exclusively the work of George Washington, whose influence here, as in so many other areas of the Presidency, was monumental. Not only did he establish the Cabinet’s basic form, but he also created most of the legalistic precedents that have given it life ever since.

Historians remain divided over the date of the first formal Cabinet meeting, but the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the body itself are relatively clear. By September, 1789, some five months after Washington took office, Congress had authorized the formation of three executive departments—State, War, and the Treasury—and had established the Attorney General’s post. Almost immediately Washington began soliciting in writing the opinions of each departmental officer on a wide varietv of topics. Shortly he met with them individually at private breakfasts or in their offices. Perhaps in 1702, certainly by 1793, Washington brought them together on a regular basis to share in policy discussions, to hear drafts of public papers (some of which they prepared), to solicit constitutional opinions, and to impart information. By April, 170S, when John Adams was in the Presidency, members of Congress were speaking of “the great council of the nation” or of “the cabinet” to describe what had become a settled practice of the executive branch.

By then, too, Washington had established a set of informal guidelines that, hardened by tradition, have guided the Cabinet into the twentieth century. Occasionally chal lcnged but never overturned, three principles stand out:

  1. • All Cabinet officers are the President’s sulxjrdinatcs—his assistants and not his rivals for power. They use his authority at his direction; they do not share it. (hose who cannot give him unstinting allegiance or who exceed their roles must resign.
  2. • The Cabinet is the creature of the President, bound to him alone, both administratively and politically. Hc is the overseer of their work, and all Cabinet officers are answerable only to him. His request lor a resignation is by itself sufficient; a similar request from Congress has no force.
  3. • The Cabinet is independent of Congress. Although the legislature passes the enabling acts that create and delimit each department, the full responsibility for implementation and supervision rests with the President. The exceptions are impeachment and the special status of the Secretary of the Treasury on certain fiscal matters because of congressional control of the money power as provided for in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. In addition, Cabinet members are expressly enjoined from serving in Congress while in the President’s service by the terms of Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution, which prohibits dual officeholding.

The effect of these principles is visible in the independence that virtually every President since Washington has enjoyed in making departmental appointments. Although the Founding Fathers apparently intended the Cabinet to serve as a check on Presidential power, both Congress and the nation almost immediately accepted the right of the Chief Executive to surround himself with assistants politically loyal to him, favorably disposed toward his political philosophy and goals, and dedicated to advancing his political fortunes.

Again, George Washington supplied the precedent. A leader clearly disposed to seek advice wherever he could find it—he maintained a wide circle of correspondents in every part of the country to keep himself informed of regional views while in the Presidency—he nonetheless turned the Cabinet into a political instrument of uniform views early in his second term.

The change was precipitated by the feud that had developed between his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Following Jefferson’s angry resignation in 1793 because the majority, including Washington, supported Hamilton’s position on the future course of the country, the President announced that henceforward he would not knowingly appoint to office any Secretary “whose political tenets are adverse to the measures which the general government are pursuing. …” To do otherwise, Washington said, “would be a form of political suicide.” Other Presidents have taken a similar view on the partisan nature of the Cabinet. In the last fifteen years, for example, the only appointees not of the President’s party were C. Douglas Dillon and Robert McNamara, Republicans who served, respectively, as Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of Defense to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Democrats.

Aside from the obvious political qualifications there are no hard-and-fast rules governing the appointment of Cabinet officers. In general the persons appointed to the four “policy” departments (State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice) have achieved national stature in government service at the federal or state level or in business. Appointees to the so-called client or service departments (Agriculture, for example) are often drawn from Congress, the state governments, or the special-interest groups they are to represent at the Cabinet level.

Every President attempts to secure a broad geographic base in his selections and to pay political debts to his party in one or more of his appointments. Some Presidents—Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy are notable examples—have chosen relatively strong, independentminded officers because as Chief Executives they delighted in the clash of ideas and generally considered themselves strong enough to carry any point of view. Others—like Richard Nixon—have deliberately chosen relatively colorless “team players” whose allegiance to the President is unquestioning.

  1. • To date five hundred and twenty-four men and three women have served in the Cabinet. The women are Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor to Franklin Roosevelt; Oveta Gulp Hobby, the first Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under Dwight Eisenhower; and Carla Hills, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Ford.
  2. • The typical Cabinet officer is college-educated and between the ages of forty-eight and fifty-two at the time of his appointment. The oldest appointee was Lewis Cass as Secretary of State at age seventy-five to James Buchanan. Cordell Hull, Secretary of State to Franklin Roosevelt, holds the record for the longest continuous service in one post, nearly twelve years.
  3. • Only two blacks have held a Cabinet post: Robert C. Weaver, Secretary of HUD for Lyndon Johnson, and William T. Coleman, Jr., Secretary of Transportation for Gerald Ford.
  4. • Only two Secretaries of State have come from west of the Mississippi: William J. Bryan of Nebraska under Woodrow Wilson and Frank B. Kellogg of Minnesota under both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Fortythree of fifty-four Secretaries of State—about four out of every five—have come from East Coast states.
  5. • Only five Secretaries of the Treasury have been from states west of the Mississippi; the most recent was John Connally from Texas. Thirty of sixty-one Secretaries of the Treasury have been from New England or the Middle Atlantic region; eleven of them, beginning with Alexander Hamilton, from New York.
  6. • Both the State Department and the Treasury have been dominated by lawyers. Forty-four of the sixtyone appointees to the Treasury have held law degrees; forty-six of fifty-four in State.
  7. • Nine men have served in three Presidential Cabinets. The most recent was Henry Stimson, Secretary of State to Herbert Hoover and Secretary of War to William Howard Taft and Franklin Roosevelt.
  8. • One man, Elliot L. Richardson, has served in four different Cabinet posts, as head of the Departments of Justice, Defense, Health, Education, and Welfare, and, as of December, 1975, Commerce.

The appointive power in Article 11, Section 2 of the Constitution is shared by the President and the Senate, but in general the Senate has accepted the President’s Cabinet choices with a minimum of controversy. Only eight appointments have been rejected to date—an astonishingly low figure of 1.5 per cent of all appointments.

  1. • Six of the eight rejections occurred in the nineteenth century. The first came during Andrew Jackson’s administration when the Senate refused to accept Roger B. Taney as Secretary of the Treasury in 1834 because of its controversy with the President over the rechartering of the Bank of the United States.
  2. • Four of the eight rejections fell to John Tyler in 1843-44 when the Whig-dominated Senate sought to punish him for his defection from Whig doctrines and his earlier use of the veto on certain bank legislation. During the same period the Senate rejected four of Tyler’s appointments to the Supreme Court.
  3. • Andrew Johnson’s attempt to reappoint former Attorney General Henry Stanbery, who had resigned his post to serve as Johnson’s counsel in the impeachment trial, was refused by the Senate in 1868.
  4. • The two appointees rejected in this century were Charles B. Warren as Calvin Coolidge’s Attorney General, because of a suspected tie to the sugar trust (1925), and Lewis L. Strauss as Dwight Elsenhower’s Secretary of Commerce, because of alleged “personal unsuitability” (1959). Strauss had earlier antagonized Senate Democrats during his service as director of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Beginning with Washington’s acceptance of Jefferson’s resignation in 1793, dismissals from the Cabinet, whether voluntary or forced, have been commonplace. The reasons for removal vary with each President, of course, but in general they represent a political division between the Secretary and the Chief Executive. It is a contest that the President always wins in the sense that his request for resignation cannot be challenged. Despite the effort of the Senate from time to time to involve itself in the removal process (holding that the power to appoint carries with it the power to remove), the Presidents have successfully resisted sharing that authority.

  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:


The origins of the Department of State, the oldest of all departments, trace back to the Continental Congress in 1775. It is the first of three executive offices created in 1789—a fact that makes the Secretary of State the ranking Cabinet officer. The department is charged with assisting the President in the formulation and administration of foreign policy and in the direction of the foreign service. Currently it represents the United States in 50 major international organizations, including the United Nations, and at 650 international conferences each year. The department supervises 129 embassies and 126 missions or consulates overseas. Its civilian staff numbered 30,400 in 1975; its budget came to about $1 billion annually.


The chief financial agent of the federal government since 1789, the Department of the Treasury is responsible for assisting the President in the formulation of domestic and international fiscal policy, the management of the public debt, and the establishment and supervision of tax programs. In addition, it has administrative control of the tariff, the Customs Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Mint, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which produces all paper currency, treasury notes and bonds, and postage stamps. The department is responsible for the regulation of about 4,600 national and District of Columbia banks. It controls the Secret Service, which protects the President and such other persons as Congress directs. Within the last three years the Treasury has assumed responsibility for federal energy policy and revenue sharing programs. Staff: 121,500 employees. Budget: $41 billion.


The successor of the Department of War (1789) and the Navy Department (1798), the Department of Defense was organized in 1947 to assist the President in the coordinated management of the American military establishment. It is the largest unit in the Cabinet, annually spending between 35 and 40 per cent of the federal budget and employing 39 per cent of the federal civilian bureaucracy. It currently maintains more than 450 major and 1,600 minor military posts in the United States and her possessions and about 300 major bases and 2,000 minor posts in 119 nations overseas. Its worldwide military force numbers 2.1 million men and women in all service branches and a ready reserve of 915,000. Civilian staff: 1.1 million. Budget: $87 billion.


The Attorney General was given Cabinet rank in 1789, during George Washington’s first administration, but he had no department to supervise until 1870. Currently the Department of Justice is responsible for all legal services required by the President, other executive departments, and the federal government generally. It is charged with federal law enforcement through U.S. Attorneys, U.S. Marshals, and the FBI . It supervises antitrust actions on behalf of the government and prosecutes violations of federal civil-rights law. In addition, the department is responsible for the Immigration Service. Staff: 51,540. Budget: $2 billion.


Established in 1849 as the “housekeeper” of the federal government—a function it still possesses in such duties as maintaining the White House grounds—the Department of the Interior currently concentrates its activities on the conservation and development of the nation’s natural resources in both the public and the private sectors. It is responsible for administering some 500 million acres of federal land, much of it in national parks, and 50 million more acres held in trust, mostly on Indian reservations. The department assists the President in establishing social and economic policies for the Trust Territories in the Pacific. It directs the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Mines, the Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, among others. Staff: 80,200. Budget: $2.2 billion.


Set up in 1862 as a federal department without Cabinet status, the Department of Agriculture secured full rank in 1889. The first of the “client” departments, its primary responsibility is to assist in the formulation and execution of programs to aid the nation’s farmers’and, through such divisions as the Extension Service, to disseminate useful information on agricultural subjects to the public at large. A major portion of its work is devoted to research and conservation. Among the services it offers farmers are marketing reports, crop insurance, commodity credits (to stabilize farm incomes), and low-cost loans for rural development, notably in providing electric and telephone service. The department is responsible for enforcing quality standards on some 300 agricultural products and for the inspection of meats and poultry. In addition, the department directs the Forest Service, which manages 155 national forests and 19 national grasslands comprising 187 million acres in 41 states and Puerto Rico. Since 1969 the department’s Food and Nutrition Service has administered the food-stamp program for low-income families and the National School Lunch Program. Staff: 121,000. Budget: $10.2 billion.


Established in 1903 to handle problems of both business and labor, the Department of Commerce was divided in two in 1913. As a separate agent for business the department is directed by statute to “promote the Nation’s economic development and technological advancement.” Among its many services the best known are the National Bureau of Standards, responsible for weights and measures, the Patent Office, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which supervises the National Weather Service and the nation’s fishing industry. In addition, the department directs the United States Travel Service, designed to encourage tourism, and is in charge of maritime affairs. Since 1972 it has controlled the Bureau of the Census. Staff: 36,200. Budget: $1.6 billion.


Earlier a bureau in Interior (1884) and after 1903 a part of the Department of Commerce and Labor, the Department of Labor secured independent status in 1913. Its principal interest is the welfare of wage earners. Its work is directed to enforcement of laws regulating working conditions and employment opportunities through the 2,400 offices of the United States Employment Service and the regional offices of the Employment Standards Administration, which, among other duties, administers wage regulations. The department is responsible for establishing health and safety standards for industry. Its Employment and Training Administration, through the Job Corps and other agencies, provides training programs for unemployed and underemployed workers. It also manages the Unemployment Insurance Service. The department is the smallest in the Cabinet. Staff: 14,800. Budget: $17.6 billion.


According to its own assessment the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare ” touches the lives of more Americans than any other Federal agency.” Organized in 1953, it now spends the largest single portion of the federal budget to finance a broad range of programs, including those of the Office of Education, the Office of Consumer Affairs, the Office of Civil Rights, and the Public Health Service. The department supervises the Social Security Administration. It also has responsibility for three federally aided corporations: the American Printing House for the Blind, which distributes Braille and talking books to educational institutions; Gallaudet College for the deaf; and Howard University, which was chartered by Congress in 1867 for the instruction of freed slaves. Staff: 147,125. Budget: $112.5 billion.


Now eleven years old, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has assumed the functions of several executive agencies that, from the New Deal onward, involved the federal government in public and private housing programs. Its overall charge since 1965 has been to provide for the “sound development of the Nation’s communities and metropolitan areas.” It offers comprehensive assistance to state and local planners and to builders. Among the department’s responsibilities are the Model Cities program, Urban Renewal, and Federal Disaster Assistance. In addition, it supervises various mortgage, insurance, and credit programs to encourage new construction or urban rehabilitation. Staff: 17,000. Budget: $7.5 billion.


The newest of the Cabinet departments, the Department of Transportation was created in 1966. It is composed of elements drawn from eight other agencies and is responsible for coordinating national transportation policies. It manages the Federal Highway Administration, which, through the Highway Trust Fund, directs the construction of the 42,500-mile Interstate Highway System and the improvement of 872,000 miles of primary and secondary roads. The Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the U.S. Coast Guard are under the department’s control. In addition, the department supervises the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the National Highway Traffic Safety program, and federal policies for urban mass transportation. Staff: 75,000. Budget: $9.2 billion.

By any measure, the duties thus assigned to the eleven members of the Cabinet are impressive. As an expression of the power now concentrated in the hands of the President, they are awesome. Certainly no one person alone is capable of overseeing them all. As the record shows, that task has fallen to the Cabinet officers, who are the servants of the President first but ultimately, as Dwight Eisenhower liked to say, “the stewards of the people” as well.

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