A Diverse Cabinet will Make Joe Biden a Better President and Unify the CountryRoundup
tags: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, presidential history, Joe Biden, early Republic, Alexander Hamilton, 2020 Election, founders, cabinets
Lindsay M. Chervinsky is scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies and a senior fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies. She is the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.
As they declared victory, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris noted that President-elect Joe Biden had the “audacity to choose a Black woman to be his running mate.” In the next few months, Biden may create even more firsts by nominating women, people of color and openly LGBTQ individuals to key positions in his Cabinet.
Biden will have to make his Cabinet decisions carefully to appeal to a divided Senate, as well as the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party. And yet, he is also focused on building an administration that reflects the diversity of the country. These appointments are not only about political symbolism. Rather, a diverse Cabinet will provide Biden with better advice and encourage more Americans to feel invested in his presidency, just like diverse cabinets have served his predecessors well.
The cabinet is not in the Constitution, but President George Washington created the institution in November 1791 because he recognized that some issues were too big and complex to discuss with just one adviser. International crises, domestic rebellions and constitutional questions touched on issues in several departments, and Washington found it helpful to gather his department secretaries to debate and offer different opinions. From the very beginning, Washington depended on his secretaries to provide diverse perspectives — even if that meant disagreeing with him or one another.
Washington’s attitude toward the cabinet was a continuation of his vision for federal departments themselves. In 1789, he appointed Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph to his administration. Though they were four White men, contemporaries viewed Washington’s appointments as diverse and representative of the citizenry.
Hamilton had made his home in New York City and cozied up to the merchant elite. He thought the federal government should invest in a strong military, industry and trade. Hamilton thought cities were the future of the nation and favored a close relationship with Great Britain, the U.S.’s largest trading partner.
Jefferson, by contrast, was born into a slave-owning, elite plantation family in Virginia. He believed the ideal citizen was a yeoman farmer and that cities were dens of sin, corruption and disease. An ardent Francophile, Jefferson preferred a close alliance with France and hated Britain.
Knox and Randolph are less well-known, but they also offered important perspectives. Knox was originally from Boston, but had claimed Maine as his home state and represented the newer Northern states, which often pursued a different agenda than the more-established Massachusetts or New York. Like Jefferson, Randolph was from Virginia, but he was one of the foremost legal minds in the nation and his expertise as the first attorney general was invaluable.
This diversity was essential because the nation was holding together by a thread. Most citizens felt strong state allegiances, but there was no sense of nationalism. Washington used his Cabinet and other federal appointments to build emotional ties between citizens and the new government. He knew that if people felt represented in the administration, they would be more likely to support it. Washington also wanted to serve all Americans — not just Virginians — and sought out different opinions accordingly.
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