The Cabinet, war powers, executive privilege—these are all common terms used in American politics today, and all relating to the executive branch of government.
In the years following the birth of the United States, American politicians were still testing the waters of concepts we now take for granted. President Washington alone virtually defined the presidency, and several of his most monumental precedents resulted from a single battle fought in Ohio, just a few miles over Indiana’s eastern border near the Wabash River.
In the early 1790s, much of the United States was untamed wilderness and territory dominated by Native-American tribes. Washington was determined the US would at least attempt to establish order in this land deeded to them in the 1793 Treaty of Paris, primarily to later sell. Those attempts failed and after several embarrassing American losses against the Miami tribe, Washington ordered General Arthur St. Clair to muster an aggressive assault.
As was common during and after the Revolutionary War, creating an armed force was a costly process for the poor, infant nation, with or without an Executive order. St. Clair did the best he could, with roughly a third of his force Army regulars. The rest were militiamen.
Crossing the US in the 1790s was a slow prospect at best and just before St. Clair reached the Indiana border, he had lost nearly half his force to desertion. On November 3rd, he bivouacked his remaining 1,100 men near the Wabash River for a well-deserved rest, with no knowledge that Little Turtle of the Miami tribe and a thousand warriors watched as the army slept.
America had yet to learn how ineffective regimental warfare was against Native-Americans and that certainly contributed to St. Clair’s loss, but Little Turtle leveraged his victory in choosing WHEN to attack. He and his men had watched the American force for several days, silently stalking them through the Ohio woods. The army marched with their muskets, bedded with their muskets, carried their muskets almost everywhere…except when they marched off to breakfast. That’s when Little Turtle attacked. Hundreds of soldiers fled into the woods and the Wabash River, leaving their weapons behind.
The battle went on for hours, but calling it a battle was generous. American forces repeatedly tried clumsy regiment tactics, which might have worked well against the British, but Native-Americans easily dodged musket volleys. In the end, following a final desperate bayonet charge, St. Clair and two dozen soldiers emerged from the battle alive. Over a thousand died near the Wabash River that day, while Little Turtle lost only 61.
Word of the battle leaked back to the capital, and President Washington was supposedly furious at the ineptitude of St. Clair and the difficulty of mustering more trained soldiers, even by order of the President. Using the loss (which would become known as The Battle of the Wabash, The Battle of a Thousand Slain or St. Clair’s Defeat) as an example, Washington was able to create the country’s first army following the Revolutionary War to establish the United States’ eastern territories.
He also came under close scrutiny for his choosing St. Clair and the subsequent loss of life. To deal with the fallout, Washington gathered his four secretaries and vice president to offer advice on dealing with such a monumental problem. This would later become known as an extension of the executive branch, the Cabinet of the United States.
Among the many decisions made in Washington’s Cabinet included the suppression of materials deemed too sensitive for public scrutiny and the right to retain all originals, providing only copies of documents. In cases of civil or criminal law, neither of these would be allowed, but with the responsibility of the executive office, Congress accepted the conditions. This would become known as executive privilege.
Want to Know More?
Here’s an excellent history of the use of executive privilege, from its inception to today, prepared in 2008 for Congress.
If you’d like a more detailed account of the battle, here’s the best retelling I’ve found.