The President’s Office: How George Washington and Thomas Jefferson Used Private Space to Shape the Cabinet

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:50 PM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Lindsay Chervinsky, Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University
Twenty-first century presidents meet with their department secretaries in the oval office or the cabinet room—both highly visible rooms with a stated official purpose that reflect the institutionalized role of the cabinet in the executive branch. In the Early Republic, anyone could visit the President’s House in Philadelphia and then the White House, but only the secretaries and family members were permitted in the President’s private study. In this space, they discussed diplomatic crises, constitutional conflicts, and the executive’s relationship with Congress. The meetings in the private study reflected the cabinet’s role as a personal advisory body to the President to be called at his discretion.

Washington designed his office to be a comfortable, practical space and gave little attention to decoration. Other than an ornate French desk, he filled the room with simple furniture. There is no record he selected special art for the walls, drapes for the windows, or rugs for the floor. Washington only requested fresh, simple paint for the walls when he moved into the residence. Jefferson’s space, on the other hand, overflowed with plants, books, maps, and specimens from the west. Jefferson’s pet mockingbird also resided in a cage in the corner of the room. This paper will explore in greater detail the contents of each room and will provide images of the reconstructed spaces. This paper also compares how these spaces reflect Washington and Jefferson’s leadership styles and how they used their private offices to shape cabinet deliberations. By analyzing the role of the physical space, this paper brings together a material culture approach with traditional political history and leadership studies.