Cabinet, a term first applied in England to that portion of the privy council supposed to possess more particularly the confidence of the sovereign, and to be consulted by him privately on important matters. It is only in modern times that the cabinet council has found a recognized place in the constitutional system, and been regarded as the responsible government. An administration in Great Britain is formed by some leading statesman, supposed to possess the confidence of the majority in the commons, who will be at liberty to take such office in the government as he may prefer, and to name his associates. He is looked upon as the prime minister or premier, and will associate with himself other members of the administration to form a cabinet. The number that shall compose this council is not definitely fixed, but the first lord of the treasury, the chancellor of the exchequer, the lord high chancellor, the first lord of the admiralty, and the five principal secretaries of state are expected under any circumstances to have seats in the cabinet; and it is customary to include also the lord president of the council, the lord privy seal, and some other ministerial functionaries.
In some cases statesmen of distinguished ability are called in though they hold no office; as was the case with the duke of Wellington on several occasions, and later with Lord John Russell. The term administration is broader than that of cabinet, and includes with the members of that council all the principal officers of state, some 50 or 60 in number, whose places are vacated as of course on the formation of a new ministry, unless the incumbents are associated in the new combination. The cabinet is the head and directing body of the administration; it meets on call, though all the members are not necessarily summoned, and the premier on any occasion may summon those only whose advice he specially desires. The meetings are private; the members are sworn to secrecy, which is to be preserved inviolate after their retirement from office. The prime minister here meets his associates on an equality, and important measures are determined by vote. On leading measures, however, the premier would not be expected to yield; and in case of irreconcilable differences of opinion between him and any one or more of his associates, he may insist upon their retirement from office.
All important public measures are usually matured and important appointments agreed upon in these meetings, but the result must be communicated to the sovereign for approval. The administration must act as a unit, and in important matters must at all times be in accord with the house of commons. A vote of want of confidence by that body, or the rejection of an important ministerial measure, necessitates the resignation of the ministry, unless they choose to take the responsibility of a dissolution of the parliament, and an appeal to the people in a new election. Besides the control which the commons may exercise over the administration through a rejection of its measures, the members are also subject to impeachment for maladministration, or for pernicious advice to the sovereign, who is himself irresponsible, being supposed incapable of wrong except as influenced by his constitutional advisers. Diplomatic appointments and inferior positions in the executive department are held at the will of the existing administration.
The premier is the usual channel of communication between the cabinet and the sovereign, who does not in person attend the meetings, and the latter is expected to accept and approve their measures so long as he retains them in office; but he may dissolve the ministry at any time, and commit to some statesman of his selection the formation of a new one. But the sovereign would not under ordinary circumstances do this, or be sustained therein, unless the commons had already demonstrated their want of confidence in the ministry by their votes. The administration must have representatives in both houses of parliament. The resignation of the premier is ipso facto a dissolution of the ministry; but any other member may retire or be dismissed without breaking up the administration. - In the United States the heads of departments consist of the secretaries of state, of the treasury, of war, of the navy, of the interior, the attorney general, and the postmaster general. The constitution empowers the president to require the opinion in writing of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.
Washington originated the practice of consulting all the heads of departments on important measures, and by later presidents they have generally been convened for joint consultation, until cabinet meetings to determine the course of the administration on all questions of importance have come to be expected as a matter of course.
At these meetings the president presides. The cabinet, however, as a body of councillors, has no necessary place in the constitutional system of the United States, and each president will accord to it such weight and importance in his administration as he shall see fit. The president, not the cabinet, is responsible for all the measures of the government; and whatever is done by one of the heads of departments is considered as done by the president through the proper executive agent. In this fact consists an important difference between the executive of Great Britain and that of the United States; the acts of the former being considered those of his advisers, who alone are responsible therefor, while the acts of the advisers of the American executive are regarded as directed and controlled by him. In the United States, also, there is no premier, no leading member of the administration by whom the others are selected, but the president selects them all; and though the position of secretary of state has generally been regarded as the leading one, yet this must depend very much upon the nature and relative importance of the questions with which the particular administration has to deal, and the incumbent has not in the cabinet a recognized superiority over the other members.
The members of the American cabinet cannot under the constitution have seats in congress; while those of the British cabinet are usually members of parliament, and must be newly elected on taking office. Another important difference between the British system and the American is that there is no constitutional principle in the latter which requires the cabinet to be in accord with the congress, or with either house thereof. The president selects for his chief advisers those who concur in his views, and he is not expected to change them because the opposition may be strong enough to defeat his measures in congress. It has frequently happened that the president's friends have for a considerable period been in a minority in one or both houses of congress.