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The Kitchen Cabinet was a mocking term applied to an official circle of advisers to President Andrew Jackson. The term has endured through many decades, and now generally refers to a politician's informal circle of advisers.
When Jackson came into office after the bruising election of 1828, he was very distrustful of official Washington. As part of his anti-establishment actions, he began to dismiss government officials who had held the same jobs for years. His reshuffling of the government became known as the Spoils System.
And in an apparent effort to ensure that power rested with the president, not other people in the government, Jackson appointed fairly obscure or ineffectual men to most of the posts in his cabinet.
The only man considered to possess any real political stature in Jackson's cabinet was Martin Van Buren, who was appointed secretary of state. Van Buren had been a very influential figure in politics in New York State, and his ability to bring northern voters in line with Jackson's frontier appeal helped Jackson win the presidency.
Jackson's Cronies Wielded the Real Power
The real power in Jackson's administration rested with a circle of friends and political cronies who often did not hold official office.
Jackson was always a controversial figure, thanks largely to his violent past and mercurial temperament. And opposition newspapers, implying there was something nefarious about the president receiving much unofficial advice, came up with the play on words, kitchen cabinet, to describe the informal group. Jackson's official cabinet was sometimes called the parlor cabinet.
The Kitchen Cabinet included newspaper editors, political supporters, and old friends of Jackson's. They tended to support him in such efforts as the Bank War, and the implementation of the Spoils System.
Jackson's informal group of advisers became more powerful as Jackson became estranged from people within his own administration. His own vice president, John C. Calhoun, for example, rebelled against Jackson's policies, resigned, and began to instigate what became the Nullification Crisis.
The Term Endured
In later presidential administrations, the term kitchen cabinet took on a less derisive meaning and simply came to be used to denote a president's informal advisers. For example, when Abraham Lincoln was serving as president, he was known to correspond with newspaper editors Horace Greeley (of the New York Tribune), James Gordon Bennett (of the New York Herald), and Henry J. Raymond (of the New York Times). Given the complexity of issues Lincoln was dealing with, the advice (and political support) of prominent editors was both welcome and extremely helpful.
In the 20th century, a good example of a kitchen cabinet would be the circle of advisers President John F. Kennedy would call upon. Kennedy respected intellectuals and former government officials such as George Kennan, one of the architects of the Cold War. And he would reach out to historians and scholars for informal advice on pressing issues of foreign affairs as well as domestic policy.
In modern usage, the kitchen cabinet has generally lost the suggestion of impropriety. Modern presidents are generally expected to rely on a wide range of individuals for advice, and the idea that "unofficial" persons would be advising the president is not seen as improper, as it had been in Jackson's time.