Interview with historian Lindsay M. Chervinksy

My special guest helping to kick off a new month and new week is Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D.. We’re chatting about her historical book, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.

During her virtual book tour, Lindsay will be awarding a $50 Amazon or Barnes and Noble (winner’s choice) gift card. To be entered for a chance to win, use the form below. To increase your chances of winning, feel free to visit her other tour stops and enter there, too!


Bio:
Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. a historian of Early America, the presidency, and the government – especially the president’s cabinet. She shares her research by writing everything from op-eds to books, speaking on podcasts and other media, and teaching every kind of audience. She is Scholar-in-Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies and Senior Fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies. Previously, she worked as a historian at the White House Historical Association. She received her B.A. in history and political science from the George Washington University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. She has been featured in the Law and History Review, the Journal of the Early Republic, TIME, and the Washington Post. Her new book, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, was published by the Belknap Imprint of Harvard University Press on April 7, 2020.
The New Criterion recently said of her book, “Fantastic…Unlike many works of popular history, The Cabinet never feels like hagiography. It lacks the reverence of works like Joseph J. Ellis’ Founder Brothers or the revisionist obsequiousness that now greets Alexander Hamilton’s name on stage…Chervinsky exemplifies the public-history ethos in her new book. The writing is clear and concise…She takes what could have been a dry institutional and political history of the Early Republic and transforms it into a compelling story of people and places.”
When she isn’t writing, researching, or talking about history, she can be found hiking with her husband and American Foxhound, John Quincy Dog Adams (Quincy for short).

Welcome, Lindsay. Please share a little bit about your current release.
The US Constitution never established a presidential cabinet―the delegates to the Constitutional Convention explicitly rejected the idea. So how did George Washington create one of the most powerful bodies in the federal government?

On November 26, 1791, George Washington convened his department secretaries―Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph―for the first cabinet meeting. Why did he wait two and a half years into his presidency to call his cabinet? Because the US Constitution did not create or provide for such a body. Washington was on his own.

Faced with diplomatic crises, domestic insurrections, and constitutional challenges―and finding congressional help lacking―Washington decided he needed a group of advisors he could turn to. He modeled his new cabinet on the councils of war he had led as commander of the Continental Army. In the early days, the cabinet served at the president’s pleasure. Washington tinkered with its structure throughout his administration, at times calling regular meetings, at other times preferring written advice and individual discussions.

The book reveals the far-reaching consequences of Washington’s choice. The tensions in the cabinet between Hamilton and Jefferson heightened partisanship and contributed to the development of the first party system. And as Washington faced an increasingly recalcitrant Congress, he came to treat the cabinet as a private advisory body to summon as needed, greatly expanding the role of the president and the executive branch.


What inspired you to write this book?
I couldn’t figure out where the president’s cabinet came from, so I decided I’d try and answer that question. I was so surprised that the last book on the subject was published in 1912, so something new was long overdue!

Excerpt from The Cabinet:
When Washington and Knox arrived at Federal Hall at 11:30 a.m., the doorkeeper announced their arrival. Washington sat at the front of the chamber, and Knox took the chair to his right. Washington handed his remarks to Knox, who in turn handed them to Vice President John Adams. Adams read the statement, but as Senator William Maclay from Pennsylvania recalled, the senators could “not master . . . one Sentence of it.” Adams wasn’t known for his public speaking skills, but the senators’ struggles weren’t entirely his fault. The Senate gathered for their work in the large chambers that occupied the first floor of Federal Hall. Because of the August heat in New York City, the doorkeeper had opened the windows in search of a cooling breeze. But along with fresh air, noise from Wall Street’s pedestrians, carriages, peddlers, and horses flowed into the Senate chambers. The clamor overpowered Adams’s voice, so few senators could make out the words that Washington had carefully crafted. After a few complaints, Adams repeated the speech from the beginning. Washington’s remarks offered a brief synopsis of the current diplomatic state between the United States and the Southern Indians, and posed seven questions for the Senate to answer with an aye or a no.
Adams finished his recitation and sat. The seconds ticked by as the senators remained in awkward silence. A few shuffled papers or cleared their throats. Maclay speculated in his diary that his colleagues were so intimidated by Washington’s presence in the Senate chamber that they cowered in shameful silence. Eager to show that they could be active participants in the creation of foreign policy, Maclay stood up and suggested referring Washington’s seven questions to committee for discussion in detail. Washington lost his temper, stood up, and shouted, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” The senators fell into a stunned hush before Washington acquiesced to Maclay’s suggestion and offered to return to the Senate a few days later. Although he did return the following Monday, his first visit to the Senate was an inauspicious start to the executive-legislative relationship. As he returned to his carriage, Washington muttered under his breath that he would never return for advice. He kept his word—August 22, 1789, was the first and last time he visited the Senate to request guidance on foreign affairs. Unfortunately, the diplomatic challenges facing the United States during the Washington presidency were just beginning…

What exciting story are you working on next?I can’t quite get cabinets out of my system. I’ve become convinced that they are the best way to evaluate a president’s time in office and they reveal so much about leadership. So I’m comparing the cabinets of John Adams (one of the worst cabinets) and Thomas Jefferson (one of the best). But really, it’s a story of power, ego, and ambition and how presidents manage those things at the highest levels of government—so it should be very relevant for today.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I didn’t really consider myself a writer until I got my book in my hands. I know that sounds crazy, but I thought of myself as a historian and story teller, which I generally preferred to do with my voice because that came easier to me. Writing seemed like it was secondary or a requirement. But now I can’t get enough and I’ve fully embraced it as part of my identity!

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?

I work as a historian full time, so a big chunk of the day is spent writing, whether that’s opinion editorials, articles, blog posts, or books. But I also spend a lot of time reading, researching, and working on other projects (like podcasts). I generally try and put my intellectually intensive work in the mornings when I’m sharpest, then save meetings, emails, and other busy work in the afternoon. I also try and block off at least one day a week to work on my book projects. Otherwise they will get pushed down the list in favor of smaller, easier-to-complete tasks.
But I’m also a big believer that if you have a flexible schedule, you should take advantage of it! Some days I just really need a break or need to work only half a day, then I’ll work in the evening or on the weekends if I’m feeling more motivated.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I love to write with noise. At home, I’ll listen to music, often with lyrics, and I love writing in coffee shops. The business and white noise really creates the perfect environment. In fact, silence is super distracting for me!

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

First, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I love animals of all kinds and had a knack for caring for them. But I was terrible at biology, so that didn’t work. Then I wanted to be a lawyer (my dad, brother, and now husband are all lawyers, so that’s in my blood). But I realized that would actually make me really unhappy. So I started to explore what I could do with history, since I had been passionate about the subject since I was super small.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?

I really appreciate their support! I didn’t realize until I published my own book how much time and effort it takes, nor how much it would mean to me to engage with readers and receive their reviews. I now try and leave a review for everything I read because I know how important they are! So I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to meet and chat with new readers!

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