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Cumbrous, Misleading and Slightly Ridiculous: The Creation of the Department of Commerce and Labor

February 14, 2012

The Cabinet of the United States originated under President Washington, who appointed a four person Cabinet, and is based in Article Two, Section Two of the Constitution. Excluding the Vice President, there are currently fifteen members of a Presidential Cabinet and each leads an executive department. President Roosevelt played a partial role in the creation of two current Cabinet positions.

A variety of interests had been seeking Cabinet level representation since the 1880s; including the business community, organized labor, and the agricultural industry. A Department of Agriculture and Labor passed both houses of Congress in 1887, but died in conference. The next year agricultural interests were able to jettison the “and Labor” with the creation of a Cabinet level Department of Agriculture. After becoming President, Roosevelt favored a Department of Commerce and Industries. However, opposition from labor eventually influenced a name change, apparently to Roosevelt’s chagrin. In a letter to Senator Hanna, he requests that “and labor” be removed from the bill and describes those two clearly superfluous words as “cumbrous, misleading and slightly ridiculous.” His appeal unheeded, President Roosevelt signed the bill creating the United States Department of Commerce and Labor on February 14, 1903.

The first Secretary of Commerce and Labor was George B. Cortelyou, who had been working as Roosevelt’s private secretary. The new department began full operation at the beginning of July 1903 but would only last for a decade. On March 4, 1913, the last day of President Taft’s term, the department’s labor functions were transferred to the new Department of Labor. This left the Department of Commerce and Labor as simply the Department of Commerce, belatedly fulfilling the request made by President Roosevelt, now out of office.

Posted by Grant Carlson on February 14, 2012 in History  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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