Today’s post comes from Dan Ruprecht, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
On September 11, 1789, President George Washington sent the first cabinet nomination under the new U.S. Constitution to the Senate. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution gave the power to determine federal officers to both the executive and legislative branches:
[The President] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.
Washington’s message was brief and to the point: “Gentlemen of the Senate, I nominate. . .” followed by a list of names and their respective positions, establishing a precedent for brief nominations that continues today.
The President’s message did not list the credentials of the nominees nor did it include any comments from Washington regarding his choices; it simply listed the names.
It was then up to the Senate to debate each candidate’s ability and determine whether or not the nominee would receive the Senate’s consent.
This first nomination included Alexander Hamilton to be Secretary of the Treasury. On the same day the Senate received the President’s nomination, it unanimously consented to Hamilton’s nomination.
Hamilton, who had served with Washington in the Continental Army and in the Constitutional Convention, had also proven himself a brilliant administrator and thoughtful political theorist in his essays written for the Federalist Papers.
His term as the Secretary of the Treasury was a time of incredible productivity in which he created a national bank, founded the U.S. Mint, and established the Coast Guard.
Seventy-five years later, many of the same traditions remained regarding Presidential nominations. Like Washington’s message, President Abraham Lincoln’s nomination of Ulysses S. Grant was succinct.
In nominating Grant to the position of lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, Lincoln made a bold move. Only two men, George Washington and Winfield Scott, had held the rank of lieutenant general before Grant, and Scott’s was a brevet (honorary) appointment. Lincoln’s nomination made Grant the highest-ranking officer in the most important American conflict since the Revolution.
The letterhead indicates that the nomination was sent from the “Executive Mansion.” Until President Theodore Roosevelt formalized the name “White House” in 1901, the White House was referred to as either the President’s House or Executive Mansion.
Another curiosity with regard to this particular nomination: the President wrote the note on lined paper that looks to be pulled out of a student’s notebook. Lined paper was first used in the United States around the mid-1800s, and it became incredibly popular—even for a formal nomination.
Unlike Washington’s nomination, which was written by his secretary and simply signed by Washington, Lincoln’s nomination of Grant is entirely in his own handwriting.
President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court followed the familiar patterns of a Presidential nomination.
The cursive heading was meant to give the letter a sense of formality and personalization at a time when the message could have easily been all typed.
The Senate met O’Connor’s nomination with unanimous approval, but that did not mean she was without critics. Some senators believed that she lacked experience and constitutional knowledge, while others saw her as a weak supporter of feminist issues.
Her appointment was, in fact, the result of a campaign promise Reagan made in 1980 to nominate the first woman to the Supreme Court.
During O’Connor’s 24 years on the Supreme Court, she was joined by one other female Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (after O’Connor’s retirement, two more women were appointed to the Supreme Court—Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan).
While the format of nominations has changed slightly over the years, Presidential nominations to any position, be it to the cabinet, the military, or the Supreme Court, have more or less remained the same: in a message to the Senate, the President allows his nominee’s name to speak for itself.