A critical cabinet moment that came toward the end of Adams’s administration and created one of the most important precedents in presidential history. On May 12, 1800, Adams fired a department secretary — the first time the president had forcefully removed a cabinet member.
Let’s rewind to the beginning of the Adams administration to explain how we got there. Washington’s retirement in early 1797 and Adams’s accession to high office was a momentous, historic event. It’s easy to play down the drama of the moment from our perch in 2020. After all, almost all elections since have been accompanied by a peaceful transfer of power. We have come to expect it. But in 1797, Washington, Adams, and most Americans looked around the globe and saw transfers of power brought on my death, the guillotine, or revolution. A peaceful transfer of power was just not done.
With that context in mind, their anxiety and Adams’s eagerness to provide some stability is understandable. He also wanted to foster the development of institutional knowledge, which is another admirable goal. These factors convinced Adams to keep Washington’s secretaries in office.
This decision quickly proved to be a mistake. Adams understood his reputation would never match up against Washington’s, and he knew that he didn’t have close, personal relationships with most of the secretaries. But he had faith that they would remain loyal to the office of the presidency, if not the president himself. Instead, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Secretary of War James McHenry, and Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr. were loyal to Alexander Hamilton and fellow High Federalists in Congress.
Over the next few years, they tried to sabotage Adams’s foreign policy, thwarted his efforts to keep the country out of war, and undermined his reelection campaign. Why Adams kept them in office for so long, I’m not sure, but by May 1800, he was done. He had secured the Federalist presidential nomination and was spoiling for a fight.
On May 5, McHenry visited Adams at the President’s House to discuss potential nominees for open government positions. After dealing with that business, Adams turned to the upcoming election and accused Hamilton of trying to destroy his election chances. Years of frustrations boiled to the surface, and Adams unleashed the worst of his wrath and sharp tongue on McHenry. Shocked and chagrined, McHenry immediately offered to resign and sent the official letter the next morning.
McHenry was certainly guilty of reporting to Hamilton and engaging in shenanigans behind Adams’s back. But he was no political mastermind — and Adams knew it. So he decided to cut to the source of the problem and get rid of Pickering.
On May 10, Adams sent a gracious letter to Pickering, writing, “As I perceive a necessity of introducing a change in the Administration of the office of State, I think it proper to make this communication of it to the present Secretary of State that he may have an opportunity of resigning, if he chooses. I should wish the day on which his resignation is to take place to be named by himself.” He didn’t accuse Pickering of wrongdoing or bring their personal differences to light. Instead, he offered Pickering the opportunity to resign, which was the gentleman’s way out.
Two days later, Pickering replied, saying that he preferred to stay in office and that he did “not feel it to be my duty to resign.” This time, Adams would not be cowed and sent a brusque letter in return. I think the entire text is worth sharing, because it really conveys the tone:
Diverse Causes and considerations essential to the Administration of the Government, in my Judgment requiring a Change in the Department of State you are hereby discharged from any further Service as Secretary of State.
John Adams, President of the United States”
So why does this moment matter? During the summer of 1789, the First Federal Congress had created the executive departments and spent days debating who would have the power to remove the secretaries. They ultimately concluded that the president needed to have the sole power of removal the department secretaries (except for impeachment). There are a number of reasons why the First Federal Congress decided on this delegation of authority, but here are a few of the most important ones. First, if Congress shared this authority, then the secretaries wouldn’t really answer to the president, they would be forced to go between both the executive and legislative branches. That’s confusing, undermines efficiency, and also permits executive branch officials to meddle in legislation. Second, if Congress has the ability to remove department secretaries for political purposes, the executive branch wouldn’t serve as a check on legislative authority.
Those are great reasons, but that logic had never been tested. Washington had experienced significant cabinet turnover, but it was all voluntary and the secretaries had offered their resignations. May 12, 1800 was the first time the president had fired a secretary. Pickering had a lot of supporters among the High Federalists in Congress and it’s theoretically possible that they could have pushed back on Adams’s decision. Instead, Congress remained quiet and accepted Adam’s nomination as John Marshall as the fourth secretary of state in U.S. history.
As we’ve seen over the last several years, so much of our federal government system is based on precedent and custom. Presidents and Congress build on what came before them and what’s the expected norm. By asserting presidential authority over the department secretaries and exercising his prerogative to remove them, Adams ensured that the written stipulation provided by the First Federal Congress was also accepted precedent.