How the Cabinet Works

History of the Cabinet

President Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet in 1865. President Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet in 1865.
President Abraham Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation, ending the practice of slavery in the U.S., to his Cabinet in 1865. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The creation of the American Cabinet began during the Revolutionary period [Source: Hinsdale]. The first "constitution" of the United States was the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1881. This document bound the 13 colonies together as a loosely held confederation with no real centralized authority. In that same year, the Continental Congress approved the creation of four departments essential to the function of the new government in wartime: the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Finance, the Department of War and the Department of Marine. Under the Articles of Confederation, the heads of each department were chosen by (and answered to) Congress, not the executive [Source: Hinsdale].

It wasn't until the Constitution was ratified in 1789 and George Washington took office that the Cabinet took on its current form and function. As one of his first acts in office, Washington convinced Congress to create the Department of State, Department of Treasury and the Department of War. For his first Cabinet members and department heads, Washington chose his most loyal and competent advisers: Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, and Henry Knox -- Washington's Major-General during the war -- as Secretary of War [source:]. Washington met frequently with his closest advisers and established the precedent for a presidential Cabinet that continues today.

Although the Senate plays a critical role in approving nominees to the Cabinet, it has traditionally respected the president's choice of his own advisers. Very few nominees have been rejected by the Senate, and almost none during periods when both the presidency and Congress were in the hands of the same party. In the 20th century, only two Cabinet nominees were rejected by the Senate (Lewis Strauss in 1959 and John Tower in 1989), both during periods of divided government [source:].

Next we'll look at one of the most important functions of the Cabinet: Cabinet meetings.