Are You Ready for a Cabinet Meeting?
Hamilton: The Musical reopened on Broadway in September and students are heading back to school, so many teachers will include songs, lyrics, and video clips in their curriculum. As they should! The musical helps the history come alive and encourages viewers of all ages to think of historical figures as real humans. Because the musical is extraordinary art, it’s helpful to know what actually happened and what events inspired key songs. Perhaps two of the most important songs to understand are the Cabinet Battles — not necessarily for the development of the musical, but because of what those songs represent for history, the precedent establishing during the Washington presidency, and their legacy.
First, the room where it happened. George Washington convened the first cabinet on November 26, 1791. The secretaries — Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph — gathered in Washington’s private study on the second floor of the President’s House. The room was 15 x 21 feet and full of furniture to cater to the president’s needs, including a huge desk, bookcases, a stove, a globe, Washington’s dressing table, and temporary chairs and a table for the secretaries when they gathered for a meeting. The room was intensely personal and private, Washington invited only a select few people to share the space with him. Neither Vice President John Adams nor Representative James Madison were ever invited to Washington’s cabinet meetings.
Accordingly, Cabinet Battle #1, which covers events in 1790, didn’t take place in person as the cabinet didn’t exist yet. Washington spoke to Hamilton and Jefferson individually about the issues in the song, but the negotiations were conducted in writing. Additionally, Madison wouldn’t have contributed to the debates in either Cabinet Battle #1 or #2.
Cabinet Battle #1
This song condenses a few critical financial issues — the assumption of states debts, the creation of a national bank, and an excise tax on whiskey — into one battle, when in reality Jefferson, Hamilton and their respective allies engaged in three separate debates. In 1790, Jefferson and Hamilton did indeed disagree about the assumption of states debts, although Madison actually spearheaded the effort in Congress against assumption. Jefferson didn’t take office until early 1790 so he wasn’t fully engaged in the partisan battle just yet.
Here’s the backstory: during the Revolution, all the states had taken on debt to pay for everything from ammunition to food for the soldiers’ horses. In the years after the war, the states had paid the debt off at different rates, but Hamilton wanted the federal government to take over all the remaining debt. He knew other nations wouldn’t offer loans in the future if they couldn’t rely on the US to pay off its existing loans, and he didn’t trust the states to fulfill their end of the bargain. On the other side, Madison argued that assuming states’ debts would be unfair to the states that had paid off a larger portion of their debt and benefit states that had poorly managed their finances.
A few songs later, Aaron Burr sings the song, “The Room Where It Happens,” which introduces the Compromise of 1790. In 1790, Congress passed legislation that assumed the states debts, and also passed legislation establishing the federal capital on the banks of the Potomac River. While the details of the bargain are fuzzy, there is no doubt that compromise happened and resolved the funding issue.
Later that year, Hamilton and Jefferson did come to verbal blows about the other two financial issues. At the end of 1790, Hamilton delivered a proposal to Congress recommending additional financial measures, including the foundation of national bank and a national excise tax on whiskey distilleries. The bank would provide readily available credit for the federal government when it needed a loan, but Jefferson worried that it would benefit merchants and the elite, rather than providing financial services for the average farmer. The whiskey excise tax would raise much-needed funds for the national government, without targeting the wealthy or unfairly burdening the poor. Despite Jefferson’s objections, on January 27, 1791, Congress passed the bill authorized the whiskey excise tax. A few days later, Congress authorized the creation of the national bank.
However, in the Cabinet Battle #1 song, Jefferson offers an excellent bit of foreshadowing when he raps, “when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky. Imagine what will happen if you try and tax our whiskey.” In the summer of 1794, protests over the whiskey tax turned violent, which is known as the Whiskey Rebellion.
Cabinet Battle #2
The second cabinet battle is even more accurate than the first. Critically, these debates occurred in 1793 and they took place in person and were incredibly contentious. In his notes, Jefferson complained that Hamilton regularly delivered 45-minute “jury speeches,” full of wild gesticulating and pacing. While they likely weren’t rapping, the discourse was just as intense as the debates pictured in the musical.
The issues on the table are also faithfully described. Victory in the Revolutionary War would not have been possible without the Franco-American alliance, but just a few years later, the US was in no position to engage in another costly and deadly war. Furthermore, the French government had undergone radical revolution that resulted in the execution of the king. His head had quite literally fallen into a basket. Washington and the cabinet didn’t know who was in charge or whether they would be in charge in the following months.
However, the song gets two important aspects wrong. First, in the song Washington sings, “My decision on this matter is not subject to congressional approval; The only person you have to convince is me.” No president had ever declared neutrality before, so Washington’s choice would set precedent either way. Washington and the cabinet did end up declaring neutrality, and when Congress reconvened in the fall of 1793, it tacitly approved of the administration’s handling of the crisis. However, Congress could have pushed back and demanded Senate participation in foreign policy as the Constitution intended.
Second, in the song, Jefferson demands that Washington send funds and soldiers to support France in this crisis. To be sure, Jefferson was more pro-French than almost anyone. But even he knew that the US could not afford to fight another war — emotionally, financially, environmentally, or militarily. So while we wanted Washington to come up with a neutrality that was friendly toward France, he didn’t actually advocate for warfare. Especially not with an ally with a government as unstable as the French Republic.
So why do these songs, and the events they portray matter so much? The Constitution is a remarkably short document. The first office holders had to flesh out much of the government framework and the day-to-day responsibilities. The government, especially the executive, continued to evolve long after the ink dried in 1787. Some of the most critical precedents — the government’s authority to craft financial measures, the president’s jurisdiction over diplomacy, and the creation of the cabinet — are contained in these two remarkable songs. It very much matters that we know what transpired in the room where it happened.