views updated May 23 2018


Whether or not the President should have a cabinet or council was a leading issue at the constitutional convention. Such bodies were prevalent in the colonial governments and in the states that succeeded them. Another key element of the cabinet that also crystallized in the preconstitutional period was the concept of the department. Under the articles of confederation, Congress established four executive offices in 1781: a secretary of foreign affairs, a secretary of war, a superintendent of finance, and a secretary of marine.

At the Philadelphia Convention, gouverneur morris proposed that there be a Council of State, consisting of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the heads of departments or secretaries, of which there should be five, appointed by the President and holding office at his pleasure. The President should be empowered to submit any matter to the council for discussion and to require the written opinion of any one or more of its members. The President would be free to exercise his own judgment, regardless of the counsel he received. Morris's proposal was rejected in the late-hour efforts of the Committee of Eleven to complete the draft of the Constitution. Instead, the Committee made two principal provisions for advice for the President. Its draft specified that "The President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, and other public ministers, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein provided for." This provision is attributed to the New York state constitution in which the governor shared the appointment power with the Senate. The draft by the Committee of Eleven also provided that the President "may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer of each of the Executive Departments upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices."

george mason resisted this plan, declaring that omission of a council for the President was an experiment that even the most despotic government would not undertake. Mason proposed an executive council composed of six members, two from the eastern, two from the middle, and two from the southern states. benjamin franklin seconded the proposal, observing that a council would check a bad President and be a relief to a good one. Gouverneur Morris objected that the President might induce such a council to acquiesce in his wrong measures and thereby provide protection for them. Morris's view prevailed and Mason's plan was defeated. Doubtless a potent factor in the outcome was the expectation that the venerated george washington would become the first President and that a council of some power might impede his functioning. charles pinckney, who once had advocated a council, now argued that it might "thwart" the President.

With the Constitution's prescriptions so sparse, it remained for Washington's presidency to amplify the concept of the cabinet. Congress in 1789 created three departments (State, War, and Treasury) and an attorney general who was not endowed with a department. Washington's appointees—thomas jefferson as secretary of state, alexander hamilton as secretary of treasury, Major General Henry Knox as secretary of war, and edmund randolph as attorney general—reflected Mason's emphasis on geographic representation, for they were drawn from the three principal sections of the country. Washington frequently requested the written opinions of his secretaries on important issues and asked them for suggestions for the annual address to Congress.

In 1793, the diplomatic crisis arising from the war between Britain and France caused the cabinet to take firmer shape as an institution. Washington and his secretaries gathered in a series of meetings, including a notable one of April 19 at which the issuance of the proclamation of neutrality was agreed upon. Jefferson recorded that the meetings occurred "almost every day." Because the crisis persisted throughout 1793, the collegial character of the cabinet became well established. Jefferson, Randolph, and Madison referred to the assembled secretaries as the "cabinet," but Washington did not employ the term. Although "cabinet" was long employed in congressional discussion, it did not appear in statutes until the General Appropriation Act of 1907.

The Constitution's meager provisions left Washington largely free to tailor the cabinet to his own preferences. He selected his secretaries on the basis of their individual talents, without regard to their political or policy predispositions. This procedure proved costly, leading to continuous dispute between Hamilton and Jefferson that required a remaking of the cabinet. Washington then resolved not to recruit appointees strongly opposed to his policies. Presidents have applied this principle in constituting their cabinets ever since.

Washington did not consider himself limited by the Constitution to seeking advice only from his department heads. Congressman james madison was a frequent adviser on Anglo-American diplomatic issues, on executive appointments, and on the President's reply to the formal addresses of the two houses of Congress. Chief Justice john jay provided counsel on diplomatic questions, addresses to Congress, and on the political aspects of a presidential tour of the New England states.

Washington was less successful in seeking counsel from the Senate and the Supreme Court. He visited the Senate to discuss issues arising from an Indian treaty under negotiation, and was rebuffed when legislators made clear that his presence constrained their deliberations. The supreme court, equally self-protective, declined to render advisory opinions.

Washington set the pattern for future presidencies in reaffirming the constitutional arrangement of a strong, independent, single executive, and in rejecting any division of responsibility between the President and the cabinet. Ever since, the view has prevailed that the Constitution confers upon the President the ultimate executive authority and responsibility, which he does not share with the department heads individually or collectively.

Like the President, the cabinet is subject to such basic principles as separation of powers and checks and balances, on which the Constitution was constructed. Consequently, both the cabinet and the President are susceptible to the influence of the other two branches. The paucity of constitutional provision and the circumstances of the cabinet's beginning in Washington's administration, together with its continuous presence in all succeeding administrations, cause the cabinet's institutional status to rest upon custom. Since its founding in 1793, the cabinet, as Richard F. Fenno, Jr., has written, has continued to be "an extra-legal creation, functioning in the interstices of the law, surviving in accordance with tradition, and institutionalized by usage alone." Its influence and, to a large degree, its form rest on the will of the President of the moment.

Not surprisingly, given its acute dependence on the President, the cabinet has varied widely in its functions and its importance. Jefferson recruited a cabinet of supportive fellow partisans, but john quincy adams drew into his cabinet representatives of his party's great factions who had contested his rise to the Presidency. james monroe used his cabinet for the arduous crafting of the monroe doctrine, but abraham lincoln is one of many Presidents who used his cabinet sparingly. andrew jackson preferred the counsel of his "kitchen cabinet," an informal, unofficial body of friends who did not hold high position. john tyler rejected the request of his Whig cabinet that matters be decided by majority vote, with each secretary and the President having but one vote. andrew johnson added fuel to the flames of his impeachment when he removed Secretary of War edwin m. stanton. Johnson's congressional foes contended that he violated the tenure of office act of 1867, which purported to deny the President the right to remove civil officials, including members of his cabinet, without senatorial consent.

The twentieth century, too, has seen wide variation in the demeanors of Presidents toward their cabinets, from warren g. harding, who considered it his duty to build a cabinet comprised of the "best minds" in the nation, to woodrow wilson and john f. kennedy, who used their cabinets little and chafed under extended group discussion. dwight d. eisenhower endeavored to make the cabinet a central force in his administration through innovations to enhance its operating effectiveness. He created the post of secretary of the cabinet, empowered to arrange an agenda for cabinet meetings and to oversee the preparation of "cabinet papers" by the departments and agencies presenting proposals for cabinet deliberation and presidential decision. The results of cabinet discussions were recorded, responsibilities for implementation were allotted among the departments and agencies, and a system of follow-up was installed to check on accomplishment.

richard m. nixon designated four members of his cabinet counselors to the President and empowered them to supervise clusters of activity in several or more departments and agencies. With his popularity dropping and an election looming, jimmy carter reshuffled his administration on an unprecedented scale in 1979 by ejecting discordant cabinet secretaries and replacing them with more supportive appointees. ronald reagan instituted a structure of cabinet councils for broad policy areas with memberships of department secretaries and White House staff, supported by subcabinet working groups.

The cabinet's lack of specific delineation in the Constitution contributes to its weakness in coordinating the farflung activities of the executive branch and in producing innovative policy on the scale and at the pace the President requires. These shortcomings have caused the cabinet to be overshadowed by more recent institutions of the modern presidency that assist in policy development and coordination. These are largely concentrated in the Executive Office of the President, which includes, among other units, the White House Office, the office of management and budget, the National Security Council, and the Council of Economic Advisers.

The cabinet's frail constitutional base has made the development of the departments susceptible to forces inimical to the cohesiveness that the concept of a "cabinet" implies. Often departments, such as Labor, Agriculture, and Commerce, were brought into being more by the pressures of their client groups than by the President's preference, and without a clear concept of what a department should be. Frequently alliances are formed between the client groups, the department's bureaus, and congressional committees with jurisdiction over the department. These alliances' combined strength has often exceeded the President's and frustrated his will. Even department heads have sometimes proved more responsive to their alliances than to the President.

Because the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances bring the cabinet and its departments within reach of the courts and Congress, those branches too have shaped those executive institutions. The Supreme Court, for example, in Kendall v. United States (1838), circumscribed the President's discretionary power over the department head when it upheld a lower court decision ordering the postmaster general to pay a complainant money owed by the United States. The payment was a ministerial act which gave the President "no other control over the officer than to see that he acts honestly, with proper motives." Despite the silence of the Constitution concerning the power of removal, Presidents have long removed department heads for any cause they see fit, and in myers v. united states (1926) the Court upheld an order of the postmaster general to remove a first-class postmaster despite a statute requiring that the removal be by the advice and consent of the Senate.

The cabinet departments depend on Congress for money, personnel, and other resources necessary to function. In effect, department secretaries look to Congress for the means of survival, sometimes straining their ties with the President. Much of the substance of cabinet rank is provided by Congress: salary, title, membership in bodies such as the National Security Council, place in the line of presidential succession. Members of Congress often assert that department heads, notwithstanding their relation with the President, have responsibilities to the legislators. The powers and functions of the department head are conferred by acts of Congress. Although Congress respects the cabinet secretary's advisory role to the President, he is not solely the President's aide in his extra-cabinet functions, but performs in a shadow area of joint executive-legislative responsibility, and struggles with the resulting dilemmas. It is virtually indispensable that a department secretary attract the confidence of Congress as well as that of the President.

The cabinet's few moorings in the Constitution make its relationships with the political parties uncertain and fluctuating. Wilson once conceived of the cabinet as a potential link between the President and his party in Congress. He subsequently abandoned this view and like many other Presidents emphasized loyalty and competence in cabinet selection. john quincy adams, Warren G. Harding, harry s. truman, and other Presidents used the cabinet to diminish intraparty factionalism, chiefly by appointing their rivals for the presidential nomination to cabinet posts. Eisenhower allotted several posts to persons with ties to his rival, robert a. taft. Parties, however, have considerably less influence on the cabinet than the chief executive or Congress.

Louis W. Koenig


Fenno, Richard F., Jr. 1959 The President's Cabinet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hinsdale, Mary 1911 A History of the President's Cabinet. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Horn, Stephen 1960 The Cabinet and Congress. New York: Columbia University Press.


views updated May 21 2018

cabinet. The executive committee of the government, appointed by and answerable to the prime minister. It evolved in the later 17th cent. out of the Privy Council, which had become too large and too miscellaneous to be efficient. During Anne's reign, the inner group of ministers called themselves the cabinet when the queen was present, the lords of the committee when she was not. In 1710/11 there were 62 cabinet meetings and 106 committee meetings, the attendance at cabinet averaging eleven and at the committee five or six. Two developments of crucial importance were the withdrawal of the monarch from attendance during George I's reign, allowing the first minister to take the chair and impose his views on his colleagues, and the slow growth of the principle of cabinet solidarity.

In the 18th cent., the cabinet was overwhelmingly aristocratic. George Grenville in the 1760s had a cabinet of nine, in which he was the only commoner—yet he was the nephew of a viscount and younger brother of an earl. Not until the later 19th cent. did commoners predominate: in 1892 Gladstone's cabinet had five peers and twelve commoners. Like most committees, the cabinet has tended to grow, with periodic attempts to prune it, particularly in wartime. The Fox–North coalition in 1783 had seven cabinet members; Liverpool in 1812 had thirteen; Peel in 1841 had fourteen; Salisbury in 1895 had nineteen; MacDonald in 1924 had 20, and John Major in July 1995 had 23.

J. A. Cannon

In Bagehot's words, the cabinet links the legislative part of the state to the executive. Its members are normally drawn from the majority party in the House of Commons, together with some peers: at the same time, they head the executive departments and effectively constitute the leadership of the party. The government as a whole consists of about 100 ministers, ministers of state, junior ministers, and whips: as a body, it never meets. The decisions of the cabinet are the decisions of the government. Its internal disagreements are governed by the hallowed doctrine of collective responsibility, which declares that decisions taken by the cabinet are binding on all its members, and indeed on all members of the government. A minister who disagrees with his cabinet colleagues may express those differences within the cabinet room, but unless he resigns, he may not voice them outside. To the world beyond, the cabinet presents a united front, however harsh the disputes may have been.

The 20th cent. saw the transformation of the 19th-cent. cabinet under the twin impact of war and welfare. The First World War led to the introduction of the cabinet secretariat, one of whose tasks was to minute the decisions of the cabinet. What is remarkable is that the cabinet had for so long been run on the basis of human memory. The exigencies of war meant that the cabinet could no longer work in such a casual way, but the growing functions of the state in economic and social matters would, in any case, have required the development.

The extension of the state's functions imposed a further burden on an institution better suited to the minimal state of the 19th cent. Committees had long been a feature of the cabinet but they were ad hoc and temporary. The modern system of permanent standing committees of the cabinet dates effectively from the Second World War. Small committees of ministers, chaired by either the prime minister or a senior member of the government and including ministers not in the cabinet, deal with matters too important, too sensitive, or too broad to be determined within a single department. Over the years the system developed, so that by 1995 there were nineteen cabinet committees or subcommittees. These included the committee on economic and domestic policy, chaired by the prime minister; another on the environment, presided over by the deputy prime minister; and a committee on public expenditure whose chairman was the chancellor of the Exchequer.

These committees have, in effect, become subcabinets. Membership is small and largely consists of those ministers whose departments are most closely concerned. Their brief is to resolve as many issues as possible without going to the full cabinet, and if they cannot reach a decision to refer the question to that body. The powers of cabinet committees are therefore extensive and the principle of collective responsibility applies as forcefully there as to the cabinet itself.

The permanent committees are not the only way in which decisions are taken outside the full cabinet. Quite apart from decisions ministers reach in their departments, decisions may be taken by officially constituted ad hoc committees or by the prime minister after consultation with another minister or after discussion with informal groups of ministers. Many decisions going beyond departmental boundaries, or involving questions of general government policy, are taken outside the traditional full cabinet.

The crucial problem of 20th-cent. cabinet government was to adapt an institution which developed in the 19th cent. Though the cabinet has grown in size in absolute terms, a smaller proportion of ministers are appointed to it. Cabinet committees were one response: another solution has been to create super-ministries, e.g. the Department of the Environment, headed by a secretary of state who sits in the cabinet, containing a number of subordinate ministers who, in earlier years, would have been heads of their department and would have had a seat in the cabinet.

The growth of cabinet committees has meant that the cabinet itself no longer has the central importance it once had. ‘Cabinet meetings’, said Nigel Lawson, former chancellor of the Exchequer, ‘are ninety per cent of the time a dignified [rather than an] efficient part of cabinet government.’

Recent discussion has emphasized the increasing power of the prime minister and the declining status of the cabinet. The argument has perhaps been overdone, but there is little doubt that during the 20th cent. the office of prime minister expanded in power, partly at the expense of the cabinet. However, the cabinet remains the ultimate court of appeal within the government. Moreover, it remains, along with Parliament and in certain fields the judiciary, one of the organs which confers legitimacy possessed neither by cabinet committees nor by the prime minister himself.

Hugh Berrington


views updated Jun 08 2018


CABINET. This body, which has existed since the presidency of George Washington, rests on the authority of custom rather than the Constitution or statute. During Washington's presidency the cabinet consisted of only four positions: secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, secretary of war, and attorney general. The size of the cabinet has grown steadily since. By the early 2000s, it was composed of the heads of the major federal administrative departments: State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Veterans Affairs, and Education. In terms of money spent, number of persons employed, and scope of legal authority, these are the most significant units of the administration. The heads of these departments are presidential appointees, subject to confirmation by the Senate and serving at the choice of the president.

Although all presidents have, periodically, held formal cabinet meetings, the role of the cabinet in presidential decision making has generally been limited. The importance of the cabinet varies depending on the particular president (for example, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson relied on the cabinet more than Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy did), but as a collective body it does not play a central role in any administration. Frequently cabinet meetings are largely symbolic; they are held because of the expectation that such meetings take place. The cabinet collectively may lack significance, but individual members can have great influence in an administration because of their expertise, political skill, or special relationship to the president. Examples of this kind of influence were noted with the service of John Mitchell as attorney general under Richard M. Nixon; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara under Kennedy and Johnson; Attorney General Robert Kennedy under Kennedy; and Secretary of State James Baker under George H. W. Bush.

Frequently and increasingly, the expanding White House staff (personal assistants to the president) has over-shadowed cabinet members. Also of considerable importance in any administration are informal advisers to and confidants of the president. In no area have cabinet members found their influence with the president more severely challenged than in the realm of foreign affairs. In particular, the post of national security adviser, a non-cabinet position, has consistently generated conflict and rivalry with the secretary of state. Although the secretary of state technically holds a higher-ranking position, the national security adviser typically enjoys comparable access to the president, and in some cases even greater access, as during the administrations of Kennedy and Nixon. Similar rivalries continue to characterize the cabinet's relationship with the ever-expanding White House staff.

The cabinet in the United States, unlike that in most parliamentary systems, does not function as a collegial executive; the president clearly is the chief executive. Cabinet members in the course of their work find that their survival and success generally do not depend on their colleagues or on any sense of collegiality; rather, they must often fend for themselves. Particularly crucial are their own relationships to the president, the clientele of their agency, the Congress, and the national media. Also in contrast to parliamentary systems, U.S. cabinet members may not serve concurrently in the legislative body. If a person is a member of Congress when appointed to the cabinet, that person must resign the congressional seat.


Fenno, Richard F. The President's Cabinet: An Analysis in the Period from Wilson to Eisenhower. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Neustadt, Richard E. Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan. New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1990.

DaleVinyard/a. g.

See alsoCouncil of National Defense ; Environmental Protection Agency ; Federal Agencies ; National Security Council ; President, U.S.


views updated May 17 2018


The curtain-enclosed space in which mediums claim to condense the psychic energy necessary for séance-room manifestations. Hereward Carrington suggested an electrical analogy: less expenditure of energy is required to charge a small electric conductor to a given voltage than a large one, so it may be with the cabinet, "which acts as a sort of storage battery, retaining the energy and liberating it in bundles of quanta during the séance."

Nineteenth-century biblical scholar Allen Putnam saw the ark of the covenant as an interesting model by which to under-stand the Spiritualist cabinet:

"The ark of the covenant was constructed expressly for use as a spirit battery, or an instrument through which to give forth the commands of the Lord. The special care taken to have the ark and all its appurtenances charged with the auras or magnetisms of a selected class of workmen, becomes very interesting in these days when much wonder is expressed at the customary stickling of spirits and mediums for right conditions. Biblical history furnishes precedent for great particularity, when constructing a cabinet for manifestations."

The cabinet is usually of very simple construction. It need not be more than a curtain thrown across a corner of the room. The Davenport brothers employed a special one. It had three doors; the middle door had a curtained opening on the top. Through this opening, phantom hands were immediately thrust out after the doors were shut on the mediums tied within to their seats. However, such an elaborate arrangement suggests a conjuror's apparatus, and the phenomenon of the Davenports is considered by many people to have been a stage illusion. It is described in some detail by Houdini in A Magician among the Spirits.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the famous mediums, such as D. D. Home and Stainton Moses, had never used the cabinet. Through the course of the twentieth century it has gone almost entirely out of use; the majority of contemporary psychics and channels have never used the cabinet.


Houdini, Harry. A Magician among the Spirits. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924. Reprinted as Houdini: A Magician among the Spirits. New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Putnam, Allen. Bible Marvel Workers. Boston, 1876.


views updated May 29 2018

cab·i·net / ˈkabənit/ • n. 1. a cupboard with drawers or shelves for storing or displaying articles: a medicine cabinet. ∎  a wooden box, container, or piece of furniture housing a radio, television set, or speaker.2. (in the U.S.) a body of advisers to the President, composed of the heads of the executive departments of the government: [as adj.] a cabinet meeting. ∎  (also Cabinet) (in the UK, Canada, and other Commonwealth countries) the committee of senior ministers responsible for controlling government policy.3. archaic a small private room.


views updated May 18 2018

cabinet Body of people collectively responsible to the legislature for government in a parliamentary system. Most cabinet ministers have individual responsibility for the management of a department of state. In the UK, cabinet ministers are chosen by the prime minister, but officially appointed by the crown. A cabinet minister need not sit in either House of Parliament, but usually sits in the House of Commons. In a presidential system, cabinets may be formed out of heads of major departments, but have only advisory status in relation to the president. Most present-day cabinets have about 20 members.


views updated May 29 2018


The counsel or group of advisers of a king or other chief executive of a government. A group of individuals who advise the president of the United States.

The president's cabinet was created by custom and tradition and was instituted by the first president. The heads of each of the executive departments of the government, including the secretary of state, the secretary of the treasury, the secretary of defense, the attorney general, the secretary of the interior, the secretary of agriculture, the secretary of commerce, the secretary of labor, the secretary of health and human services, the secretary of education, the secretary of housing and urban development, and the secretary of transportation, comprise the cabinet.


Executive Branch.


views updated Jun 11 2018

1. Cabin.

2. Relatively small room used for interviews or private conferences by e.g. a sovereign.

3. Small room, often richly ornamented, designed for the display of valuable objects. The ‘porcelain cabinets’ of Rococo palaces in Germany (e.g. in the Residenz (Seat of the Court), Ansbach (1739–40)) are examples.

4. Garden-compartment or arbour.


views updated May 29 2018

cabinet †hut, tent; †small chamber; †room for exhibiting works of art, etc.; case for keeping valuables XVI; †council room; body of councillors (orig. cabinet council) XVII. Early vars. are cabanet, cab(b)onet; perh. f. cabane, cabon CABIN, after F. cabinet (XVI), if the Eng. word is not to be considered as directly — F.; see -ET.


views updated May 14 2018


a body of persons, usually a limited number, of the ministers of state of a country, 1630; a secret store-house, hence, its contents.

Examples: cabinet of animal functions, 1667; of my secret thoughts, 1549; of his secret will, 1634.