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Advising the President

Lindsay Chervinsky on the President's Cabinet

Cite as: Lindsay Chervinsky, Advising the President, Quill Project at Pembroke College (Oxford, accessed 2023)


During the Imperial Crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, many Americans blamed the King’s ministers when Parliament passed oppressive legislation. They also believed that the British cabinet blocked reconciliation efforts between Parliament and the colonies. Given the widespread American distrust of the British cabinet, it is surprising the delegates did not spend more time debating the best way to provide support for the President.

All of the plans proposed to the Convention initially included some sort of council. The Virginia Plan contained a council of revision consisting of the executive and a number of judges from the national judiciary. This council would gather to help the executive review and enforce legislation.

George Mason presented another option—a council of state similar to the one established in the Virginia Constitution. The Virginia legislature appointed the council to provide advice to the governor, but also to check the power of the state executive. Mason voiced his support for the other council proposals discussed in August and hoped that the Grand Committee on Postponed Questions would attach a privy council to the executive branch. After the Committee rejected a proposal for a privy council, Mason proposed a council of state on September 7. Six members would sit on this council—two members each from the northern, middle, and southern states. Congress would appoint this council as well.

Charles Pinckney proposed a third type of council. This council included the President, the department secretaries appointed by the President, and the President’s personal secretary. The President could summon this council for advice at his leisure. Unlike Mason’s council of state, Pinckney’s proposal did not obligate the President to follow the council’s recommendations.

The delegates rejected all three options for an advisory council. The delegates expressed concerns that an established council would corrupt the executive. Additionally, the executive might hide behind the council and use his advisers to obscure the decision-making process. Instead, the delegates included two advice mechanisms to support the President in the final Constitution. First, he could request written opinions from the department secretaries. Second, he could consult with the Senate on matters of foreign affairs.

After his inauguration on April 30, 1789, President George Washington utilized the options provided by the Constitution. On August 22, 1789, Washington visited the Senate to discuss an upcoming summit between representatives from the federal government, the Carolinas, and the Cherokee and Creek nations. Prior to the meeting, he submitted the current treaties with other Native nations for the Senate’s review. On August 22, Washington delivered a statement and then presented questions for the Senate to answer. The Senators sat in uncomfortable silence for several minutes before recommending that the issue be referred to a committee for further discussion. Accustomed to efficient councils of war during the Revolution, Washington was furious. He protested that the delay defeated the purpose of his visit—to obtain prompt, meaningful advice. Washington did return a few days later for the Senate’s recommendation, but he concluded that the legislative body was too large to provide the timely advice needed in diplomacy.

Washington also requested written opinions from the department secretaries almost immediately after taking office. He quickly discovered, however, that many of the issues facing the government could not be dispatched through correspondence and required in-person conversation. In April 1793, war between England and France threatened to engulf the United States. Faced with unprecedented foreign policy decisions, Washington summoned frequent cabinet meetings for the first time. After establishing a policy of neutrality, Washington embraced the cabinet as a central component of the executive branch and continued to convene regular meetings. The creation of the cabinet in 1793 effectively marked Washington’s rejection of the advisory options outlined in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution.

Lindsay Chervinsky (2016)

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