Commentary: Washington’s Cabinet mirrored his own traits

By Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The recent History Channel series depicting his life and legacy, combined with the proximity to the tricentennial of his birth and present focus on the views of the Framers in creating the American presidency, all point to the continuing relevance of George Washington. On his birthday, it is appropriate to ponder how Washington was able to select such an illustrious initial Cabinet to assist him in administering the government and running the country.

Washington’s personal traits defined him as a person and a leader. Among the characteristics which are most mentioned in describing him are humility, principle, competence, unity, trust, loyalty, and sacrifice. The last of the aforementioned features was critical to the respect and reverence others afforded Washington, as he lived by example.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Although not overly religious, his belief in Providence conveyed his spiritual faith and hope. All of these personal features were helpful in Washington’s selection of men who would assist him in some manner or another, whether in the military, in the government, or in his many business enterprises.

Pertaining to his initial cabinet, it is apparent how those selected to serve mirrored Washington’s traits if not always his views.

Granted, Washington did not always choose the right staff, as evidenced by the betrayal by Benedict Arnold and Horatio Gates during the American Revolution. But by and large, his selections were stellar, a veritable all-star team.

For instance, his first secretary of state was Thomas Jefferson. From his role in writing the Declaration of Independence to his political positions in Virginia, Jefferson’s talents and charisma were certainly appreciated by Washington.

Jefferson expertly organized the State Department, got its budget on solid footing, and supported more friendly relations with France. Jefferson left the team at the end of Washington’s first term. Even though Jefferson subsequently opposed many of Washington’s initiatives, he never lost his admiration for him.

At the Treasury Department, Washington tapped Alexander Hamilton, his close ally and aide during the American Revolution. Hamilton, whose contribution to the Federalist Papers helped to establish a strong central government, implemented a series of important policies to get the country on solid economic footing, including sale of western land, paying off debts, creating a national bank, and envisioning a future manufacturing-based economy. Though Hamilton resigned in 1795, he continued to assist the Federalist cause in support of Washington’s policies.

The initial Secretary of War was Henry Knox. Not only was Knox an effective commander during the American Revolution, but he likewise served as the War Secretary during the Articles of Confederation.

In addition to having to deal with foreign powers on American soil, Knox also had to craft a policy toward Native American tribes and contend with a revolt by Pennsylvania farmers over whiskey taxes. Knox left the Washington administration in 1794 and was succeeded by two other secretaries.

Another Virginian, Edmund Randolph, was tapped to serve as the first attorney general of the United States. In some ways, this was a natural choice: Randolph was an aide to Washington during the Revolution, served in the Continental Congress, and was the first attorney general of Virginia once it gained statehood.

Conversely, Randolph rejected the plan for the Constitution at the conclusion of the 1787 Convention, pitting him against Washington and other supporters. Randolph contributed to Washington’s Neutrality Proclamation. He left the team in 1794 amid controversy and was succeeded by two other picks.

The Washington administration and Congress had to fill in the blanks within Article III of the Constitution pertaining to the creation of a Supreme Court. Accordingly, the choice of the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was especially important to get right. Washington’s selection of John Jay for the latter post certainly demonstrated loyalty, as Jay was one of the three contributors to the Federalist Papers.

Too, Washington cherished Jay’s competence as a former chief justice of the New York Supreme Court. Jay worked to organize the Federal court system and to pass the 1789 Judiciary Act. Jay’s service helped to institutionalize precedents and traditions which we take for granted today.

As we observe the early events of the 2020 presidential election season, we are often reminded of the difference between the person who inhabits the position of president on the one hand and the nature of the executive office on the other. That Washington combined these roles brought enough backing for the presidency to ensure its permanence in our constitutional system. That other men who have served as president have not been as successful in meshing personal and professional identity is not as much a criticism of them as a tribute to the first one.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware Society of the Cincinnati and Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. A nine-time candidate for U.S. president, Dr. Hoff has taught and published extensively on the American founding period.