The President's Cabinet: Then and Now

Two-hundred twenty-nine years ago, on September 26, 1789, President George Washington appointed the final two members to his team of executive department advisers, known collectively as the Cabinet.

It's worth explaining why the council is referred to as "the Cabinet."  In the 1500s, "a small, private chamber" was termed a "cabinet."  Because high-level political meetings were often held in such places during the sixteenth century, "cabinet" developed into the official name for the small group advising a political leader.

According to legend, James Madison coined the term "the president's Cabinet" due to its prevalent use in British politics during the eighteenth century, and for the first century of American history, Madison's name accurately captured the nature of the Cabinet.  However, the Cabinet now consists of the vice president and 15 department heads who control thousands of bureaucrats.

That "small, private chamber" must be getting cramped!

How did the Cabinet mutate from an intimate group into a 16-member behemoth?

Stage 1: 1789-1903

Upon taking office in 1789, President Washington established the Departments of Treasury, War, Foreign Affairs, and Attorney General.  Two years later, Washington added the Post Office Department.  During Washington's tenure in the Oval Office, Cabinet meetings were true to form, consisting of no more than five members.

Washington's successor, John Adams, created the Department of the Navy in 1798 to deal with the increased naval threats posed by France and Great Britain.  (In a rare instance of the national government reducing redundancy, the Department of the Navy was folded into the Department of Defense in 1947.)

Fifty years later, in 1849, as the United States expanded westward, President Zachary Taylor expanded the president's Cabinet with the Department of the Interior.  Forty years after that, in 1889, President Grover Cleveland elevated the Department of Agriculture, originally founded by President Abraham Lincoln, to Cabinet status.

Over the first century of American history, the United States increased its borders, fought several wars, and became an industrial powerhouse.  During this pivotal period, 25 presidents added only four new Cabinet positions.  (One has since been dissolved.)  Overall, this seems reasonable, given the dramatic and dynamic growth of the nation during these early years.

Stage 2: 1903-13

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Progressive Era swept across the nation.  Predicated on the philosophy that government "experts" could improve society, two progressive presidents created two Cabinet departments that vastly extended the role of the executive apparatus.

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt, a staunch supporter of government regulation, called for a "Cabinet officer, to be known as Secretary of Commerce and Industries[.] ... It should be his province to deal with commerce in its broadest sense; including among many other things whatever concerns labor and all matters affecting the great business corporations."  Shortly after his speech, the Department of Commerce and Labor was officially added to the Cabinet.

Ten years later, President William Taft, on his final day in the Oval Office, doubled down by signing a bill to split the Department of Commerce and Labor into two separate departments.  Taft, caving to political pressure, wrote, "I sign this bill with considerable hesitation."

Stage 3: 1913-present

The Progressive Era was the beginning of the "Deep State."  The period before, during, and after World War II plunged the Executive Branch into even darker and unchartered depths.

The National Security Act of 1947 completed the reorganization of the War Department.  Signed by President Truman, the new department consolidated all military branches (including the newly formed Air Force) into the Department of Defense.  The department's headquarters, the Pentagon, is the world's largest office building and number-one destination for bureaucrats worldwide.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower added the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953.  During the tumult of the Cold War, apparently, a mammoth new executive department was needed so the national government could meddle into social affairs such as health care, education, and welfare.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter split this department into the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education.  Great idea: Why not increase the national government's oversight?  Washington, D.C. bureaucrats always know best, right?

In 1965, with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the helm of the (sinking) federal ship of state, two more executive departments were added: the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation.  Can someone please explain why the national government needs to meddle in Americans' residences and roadways, not to mention city planning?  Isn't that what local and state governments were created for in the first place?

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Carter felt it necessary to put the national government in charge of energy, so he created the Department of Energy in 1979.  Wonderful!  Now Washington, D.C. can add national energy policy to its list of things to do.  Obviously, the federal government didn't have enough to do already.

Fast-forward ten years, when President George H.W. Bush, a World War II veteran, created the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Although the national government has provided benefits to veterans since the Revolutionary War, the idea that a bunch of bumbling bureaucrats can provide prompt and proficient medical care for millions of veterans is preposterous.

The most recent – and last, hopefully – executive department was created in 2002: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush created DHS to "develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks.  The Office will coordinate the executive branch's efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States."

Of course, Americans want to be protected from terrorist attacks, but the mission statement of the DHS remains unnecessarily broad.  This agency, which includes the National Security Agency, has been caught on numerous occasions unjustly and unconstitutionally snooping on American citizens, among many other purported shady activities.

The Future of the Cabinet: Although the Constitution placed no limit on the number of Cabinet positions, Washington, an ardent advocate of limited government and federalism, established only four executive departments because he sought to restrain national power, preserve individual liberty, and maintain state sovereignty.

In 2017, the 15 Cabinet departments employed more than two million bureaucrats (not including active-duty military and National Guard troops).  These agencies spent a mind-boggling $3 trillion.

Although it is unlikely that the Cabinet will be reduced to its original form, the time has come for a dramatic restoration of this bloated, sclerotic institution.

On September 26, 1789, Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state.  (The other appointee was Edmund Randolph, who served as attorney general.)  We ought to remake the Cabinet so that it adheres to Jefferson's timeless motto: "That government is best which governs least."

Chris Talgo ( is an editor at The Heartland Institute.  Emma Kaden is an intern at The Heartland Institute.