September 11, 1789
On September 11, 1789, the new federal government under the Constitution took a large step forward. On that day, the president of the United States sent his first cabinet nomination to the Senate for its “advice and consent.” Minutes later, perhaps even before the messenger returned to the president’s office, senators approved unanimously the appointment of Alexander Hamilton to be secretary of the treasury.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and in the subsequent campaign to ensure the Constitution’s ratification, Hamilton vigorously supported provisions that divided responsibility for appointing government officials between the president and the Senate. He believed that a role for the Senate in the filling of key government positions would prevent the president from selecting friends, neighbors, relatives, or other “unfit characters” to jobs for which they lacked the necessary skills, temperament, or experience.
Aside from the appointment process, the Constitution included only a passing reference to the operation of executive branch agencies. The framers assumed that the Congress would draft suitable legislation to allow the executive to manage the basic governmental functions of finance, foreign relations, and defense.
In establishing the first cabinet departments, Congress considered treasury to be the most important. Legislators spelled out its responsibilities in great detail and provided staff resources greater than all other government agencies combined.
Alexander Hamilton campaigned actively for the position of treasury secretary, even though friends had advised him to avoid that job at a time when the nation’s finances were in a “deep, dark, and dreary chaos.” They urged him, instead, to seek nomination as chief justice of the United States or to run for a seat in the Senate.
Robert Morris, the Pennsylvania senator and financier, counseled President George Washington to nominate the 34-year-old Hamilton, whom he described as “damned sharp.” Nine days after the president signed legislation creating the Treasury Department, he dispatched his messenger to the Senate with Hamilton’s nomination.
Alexander Hamilton’s intense ambition, his passion for order and efficiency, together with his tendency to meddle in the operations of other cabinet agencies, made him the administrative architect of the new government. The combination of special congressional powers vested in the Treasury Department and the president’s relative inexperience in financial affairs allowed the secretary to pursue a course of his own choosing. One member of Congress commented, “Congress may go home. Mr. Hamilton is all-powerful and fails in nothing that he attempts.”