Creating the Executive Departments    

Meet the first Congressional Cabinet in American history (1781): Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance; Benjamin Lincoln, Secretary of War; and Robert Livingston, Secretary of Foreign Affairs:

robert morris                benjamin lincoln                robert livingston

No one referred to these gentlemen as a Cabinet; there is no record of any use of the term in an American context until the Washington administration.  But, as heads of executive departments, they were the forerunners of today’s Secretaries of Defense, Treasury, and State—and they were answerable to Congress, not to a President.

The creation of these departments technically predated the Articles of Confederation; Congress created the departments in January and February 1781, just before ratification.  But, the departments were fleshed out and staffed under Confederation, and formed the nucleus of an executive branch ready and able to be taken over by George Washington when he took office as President under the Constitution of the United States (COTUS) in 1789.

It may seem odd that no government departments existed until 1781.  The United States had been fighting a war since April 1775, and had been independent since July 1776.  But, the early Continental Congresses wanted no executive branch.  Executives were associated with the British Crown, which appointed royal governors to harass and oppress the representatives of the people in colonial legislatures.

The early Congresses placed administration of government in the hands of committees of their own members.  The work load grew.  “Every morning at the commercial committee,” delegate John Fell of New Jersey wrote to his governor.  “Afterwards at Congress, and three stated nights a week at the marine committee, besides occasional committees; in short, there have been very few nights this winter that I have not been engaged in business.”

Eventually, Congress created Boards of Admiralty, Treasury, and War, with outside commissioners mixed with members of Congress.  This was still an administrative mess; members of Congress came and went, and the policies of each Board might change from day to day depending on who showed up.

Finally, in early 1781, Congress passed a resolution (January 10) creating a Department of Foreign Affairs, and another (February 7) creating Departments of War, Finance, and Marine.  Each would be headed by a single individual, elected by Congress and answerable to Congress, but not a member of Congress.  The Department of Marine was never staffed, as the Navy dissolved with the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.  But the other three departments were staffed and up and running by the end of 1781.

Congress filled the Finance position first, electing Robert Morris as Superintendent on February 20, 1781.  For details of Morris’s tenure, see The Bank of North America.  Six months later, Congress chose Robert Livingston, then serving as Chancellor (that is, the highest judicial official) of New York, as Secretary of Foreign Affairs.  Livingston took office on October 20.  Finally, Congress elected Benjamin Lincoln, a major general in the Continental Army, as the first Secretary of War on October 30, 1781.  

Since there was no President, the department officers had no fixed term of office; each served until he chose to resign.  (Congress could have dismissed an officer, but never did so.)  Livingston resigned first, in June 1783, and returned to his judicial duties.  He complained, as did most Confederation officials, that his expenses exceeded his salary.  Congress elected veteran diplomat John Jay to the vacant Foreign Affairs post in May 1784.  As Secretary, Jay presided over the contentious attempt to negotiate a commercial agreement with Spain (see The Treaty That Wasn't).  Jay also played a key role in inducing Congress to settle itself and its executive departments in New York (seWhere Was the National Capital?).  Jay’s staff included an under-secretary, a doorkeeper, a messenger, two clerks, and several interpreters. 

Benjamin Lincoln served as Secretary of War until November 1783.  He oversaw the end of the Revolutionary War, then resigned and gave way (1785) to Henry Knox.  Knox oversaw the reinvention of the United States Army as a police force for the Northwest Territories (see Interlude: The Reanimation of the United States Army).  Knox operated with a small staff of three clerks and a messenger, but was responsible for an army which grew, by the end of the Confederation period, to about one thousand men.  In 1787, Lincoln (then serving as a state militia officer) and Knox combined to bring state and federal authority to bear in the suppression of Shays’ Rebellion (right) in Massachusetts.

The last of the three original officers, Robert Morris, resigned as Superintendent of Finance in 1784. Congress then placed the department under a three-person Board of Commissioners.  Many members of Congress felt that Morris, as single head of Finance, had been too powerful.  The first three individuals elected as Commissioners all declined to serve.  Samuel Osgood and Walter Livingston, two former members of Congress with mercantile experience, eventually agreed to accept election to the Board, along with Arthur Lee, who was both a physician and a lawyer.  Lee had been one of Morris’ most hostile critics, but once in office came to adopt his policies.  The three commissioners oversaw a sizable staff of accountants, loan officers, and clerks. 

In 1789, the Articles of Confederation gave way to the Constitution of the United States (COTUS), but the three executive departments did not disappear.  Congress under the COTUS continued the Department of War, and simply renamed the Departments of Foreign Affairs (to State) and Finance (to Treasury).  Many of the Confederation staff members and two of the officers remained on duty; President Washington retained Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and also retained John Jay as Secretary of State on an interim basis until 1790.

The Post Office, created in 1775, was not considered an executive department, but must be added to the roster of government agencies operating under the Confederation.  See Congress and the Post Office for its story.

Source:  Jennings Bryan Sanders, Evolution of Executive Departments of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 1935; Journals of the Continental Congress, Volumes 19 and 21

Lincoln, Knox, and Shays' Rebellion


For once, the Secretary of War had good news to report. The Confederation government, by 1786, was lacking in money, but it did have a sizable store of weapons, powder, and shot left over from the Revolutionary War. Most of it was stored at the federal arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts, and one of the duties of the Secretary of War was to inspect the arsenal. On September 20, 1786, Henry Knox did so and reported that guns and bayonets “about seven thousand in number” had been “taken to pieces, cleaned, and put in perfect condition for use”, and “upward of thirteen hundred barrels of excellent quality” powder had been “shifted, dried, and repacked”. Everything was “well deposited” and in “exact order”. 

But alas, by 1786, for the Confederation government, every silver lining had a cloud. Even as Knox wrote, rebels were gathering in western Massachusetts, seeking to shut down state courts so as to halt foreclosures against debt-ridden farmers. Daniel Shays, a farmer and war veteran from Pelham, Massachusetts, assumed leadership of the rebellion. 

On September 26, 1786, the insurgents converged on Springfield to prevent a planned sitting of the state criminal court. The rebels were many in number (more than a thousand) but poorly armed. The arsenal stood but a short distance from the courthouse. If the rebels could seize the arms--so clean and in such perfect order!--which were defended by only a tiny federal garrison, they would be unstoppable. 

An alert local militia commander, William Shepard, reinforced the arsenal with the Massachusetts state militia, and commandeered the arsenal’s weapons to arm his troops. Knox approved his action after the fact. The day of September 26 was a standoff—the rebels did indeed prevent court from sitting, but they shrank from attacking the arsenal. This was but a truce, and both sides waited for the other shoe to fall. 

Both Massachusetts and the federal Congress hurried to put more men under arms. Congress authorized an additional 1,300 men for the army, but had no money to pay them and recruiting foundered. Massachusetts sought to increase the size of its militia, but also struggled to raise money.  Massachusetts named Benjamin Lincoln, Knox’s predecessor as Secretary of War, to command such additional militia as it could raise.  Lincoln made a personal appeal to the Boston business community for money, emphasizing the rebel danger to creditors and to property in general. Finally, Boston responded and Lincoln was able to raise, pay, and supply a militia of about two thousand men. 

Before Lincoln could march to western Massachusetts, the rebels struck again. Shays and his men attacked the Springfield arsenal on January 25, 1787, and again Shepard was the local officer on the spot. He again commandeered the weapons in the arsenal, and deployed cannons to guard the approach. Shays attacked, Shepard ordered the cannons to fire, and four rebels fell dead. The remainder fled. Lincoln, marching from eastern Massachusetts, then attacked and scattered the insurgent band at the nearby town of Petersham, after which the rebellion faded out of existence. 

On the surface, Shays’ Rebellion was much ado about nothing. The state of Massachusetts, with help from federal arms, had put down a ragtag insurgency which melted away at the sound of gunfire. But, it had been frightening while it lasted. The struggles of both Massachusetts and the federal government to raise money were embarrassing, and the Articles of Confederation allowed no formal mechanism for cooperation between the state militia and the federal army.

The standoff convinced many men of property, especially in Massachusetts itself, to support the movement to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new constitution (see Ending Government Under the Articles). The Constitution of the United States (COTUS) grants the federal government explicit power to protect the states “against domestic Violence”, and allows the president to summon the state militias (now called the National Guard) into federal service in time of crisis. 

Sources: Sean Condon, Shays’s Rebellion, 2015; Joseph Parker Warren, The Confederation and the Shays Rebellion, American Historical Review, October 1905; Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 31


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