“So, how about that Cabinet, huh?” is how I imagine I’ll attempt small talk in my future retirement home. The president’s Cabinet consists of the 15 department heads, the vice president, and whichever other agency heads or other designees the president chooses. It advises the president and represents the upper echelons of executive power in the United States.
Back in March, I did a deep dive on President Biden’s current Cabinet and its diversity across race, gender, region, and sexual orientation. That project sent me down a rabbit hole of data on executive department heads — secretaries of State, attorneys general, secretaries of Energy, and so forth — and where they came from. I collected data on all 692 Senate-confirmed department heads across American history, starting with the first ever confirmed department head, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton; and ending with the most recently confirmed department head, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
George Washington only had four Cabinet secretaries: State, Treasury, War, and Attorney General. And over the decades and centuries departments and secretaries were added, combined, split, or demoted. This data includes all Senate-confirmed department heads in American history, so the postmaster general, which was a Cabinet department from 1829 to 1971, is included; as are the four secretaries of Department of Commerce and Labor — who served the department which existed for about a decade in the early 1900s before it was split into the two we have now; and secretaries of the Navy, Army, Air Force, and war, who are now combined in the secretary of defense. This accounts for 692 total Senate-confirmed heads of 21 total executive departments of which 15 exist today.1This does not account for some name changes. For example, the current head of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is Xavier Becerra, who is counted as the 25th secretary of that department, but up until its 13th secretary it was called the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and was reorganized in 1980 to split off the Department of Education. So thus we are currently on our 12th education secretary and 25th HHS secretary. But maybe it wasn’t all for nought. Maybe this exhaustive dive into the Cabinet’s history can reveal some historical oddities that better serve our understanding of the body and how it represents America. Let’s dive into the data:
States With the Most Cabinet Secretaries
This may not surprise you, but some states have had significantly more Cabinet secretaries than others simply by virtue of being around longer and having historically large populations. The mean number of Cabinet secretaries per state is about 13.6 and only 17 states have more than that average.
New York takes the cake here, with 12% of all Cabinet secretaries — 83 total — hailing from the Empire State. This makes sense from a size perspective given that New York has always been among the most populated states in the country. It also has an advantage of being one of the original thirteen colonies so, in fairness, it’s had more opportunity to have more Cabinet secretaries to begin with. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, two other original colonies, are tied for second, each providing 51 Cabinet secretaries in total.
Illinois comes in fourth place, with 39 Cabinet secretaries, followed by California with 36. Tied with California is the only other state to have contributed over 5% of Cabinet secretaries in history — another original colony, Virginia.
Two outliers in the states above the median include Iowa, which though it used to be among the largest states in the country, is now among the smallest — but has spawned 13 Cabinet secretaries. Its status as something of a historical kingmaker in presidential primaries may have something to do with this. The other notable outlier is Florida, which despite being one of the largest states in the last 50 years, has only sent 9 Cabinet secretaries to Washington. It may be above the median state, but it’s odd that Florida — which has been a state for over 175 years and has such a large population — has provided fewer Cabinet secretaries than smaller, newer states like Colorado, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
States With the Fewest Cabinet Secretaries
Among states below the median, three original colonies stand out: Delaware, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Among the three smallest states, it’s no surprise they haven’t given many Cabinet secretaries — but that New Hampshire, a critically important state in the presidential primaries, has only sent four Cabinet secretaries to Washington in the history of its existence is shocking.
The notable outliers in the bottom half include Arizona and Washington — both of which rapidly grew in the last 50 years and entered the top third of states by population, but do not have a significant share of Cabinet secretaries. But the really interesting part is the two states that have never had a Cabinet secretary: Nevada and South Dakota.
Neither Nevada nor South Dakota have ever been very large states. They’ve both hovered around (or, in Nevada’s case, been at the bottom of) the bottom quarter of states by size in the last 100 years, though they are now both among the fastest growing, with Nevada having broken into the middle third by population. Nevada was admitted into the union with only around 10,000 people on Halloween, 1864 — the smallest state by population to receive statehood. South Dakota had around 100,000 when it was admitted about 20 years later in November, 1889.
These tiny population sizes may explain why these two states are notable outliers, though they’ve both been around for long enough that it’s unusual that the most recently-admitted states of Alaska and Hawaii (neither of which have particularly large populations either) each have had at least one Cabinet secretary. Nevada’s case is particularly unusual because it has been a critical swing state for much of its history, voting Democratic in 50% of presidential elections it has been around for, voting Republican for 48%, and voting for a third party candidate in just one,2Nevada went for James Weaver in 1892, the People’s Party candidate. while South Dakota has only voted Democratic in four of its 33 presidential elections, and Republican in 28.3South Dakota went for former president and Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
What these two states have in common is they both provided prominent Senate leadership in the last 30 years. South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle served as the Democratic leader for ten years starting in 1995 and was then succeeded by Nevada Senator Harry Reid as Democratic leader for 12 years starting in 2005 (Reid also served as the whip — the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate — for most of the time Daschle lead the party in the chamber). It’s possible that presidents since the 1990s felt these states had enough representation relative to their small sizes and opted against Cabinet representation.
Representation by Department
If you want to get even more in the weeds, take a look at the trends in individual Cabinet positions. Here is a chart of each position, how many total secretaries there have been for each department, and the state which has provided the highest share of its secretaries:
New York has had the most Cabinet secretaries for seven positions, not entirely surprising given what we know about how many secretaries have been from the state. In this focus, the larger states still dominate — Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, and California all also appear more than once. Excluding the short-lived positions which had fewer than five secretaries total, however, New Jersey wins the representation race, providing 29% of all Homeland Security secretaries (by virtue of providing two secretaries in the 20-year span this department has existed). Still, New York’s representation cannot be understated — nearly a quarter of all secretaries of State, the most prominent Cabinet position, have been from New York.
There are a couple of states that stand out on this list though, both for somewhat obvious reasons. Iowa has sent the most Agriculture secretaries to DC,4This counts current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack twice, as he has been twice-confirmed to be the secretary — once under President Obama, and again now under President Biden. which makes sense given 75% of the state is farmland, a higher proportion than any other state. And Colorado was home to the most Interior secretaries. The Centennial State has a lot of federal land — though not as much as Nevada or Utah, which have the highest percentages of their state designated federal land at 85% and 65% respectively, but neither of which have provided an Interior secretary.
To wrap up this data summary, let’s end with the unusual facts you can bring back to impress your friends and coworkers:
The Department of the Navy, which held a Cabinet position for over 150 years, has had 50 secretaries. But only two of them have been from landlocked states.5Counting Great Lakes access as not landlocked, per this map. Those are Navy Secretary Nathan Goff, who served President Hayes for about three months in 1881 and hailed from West Virginia, and Navy Secretary Francis Matthews, who served President Truman for about three months in 1949 and hailed from Nebraska. This is slightly amusing as — if we do not count the Great Lakes — Nebraska is the only state in the country to be triple landlocked.
The state that has existed for the longest without a Cabinet secretary is not, as you may suspect, Nevada, which has waited 157 years since its statehood. Instead, that record (which is likely to be beaten in the next few years) is currently held by Rhode Island. If we count the time since statehood, Rhode Island waited 173 years before Howard McGrath became Attorney General for Truman in 1949. But, given Rhode Island was a state before our current system of government even existed, it’s probably more fair to count the years starting with the first Cabinet in 1789, in which case Rhode Island waited 160 years before representation in the Cabinet. Another state that waited longer than you might think? Florida, which waited 122 years since its statehood before Alan Boyd became the first ever Secretary of Transportation for President Johnson in 1967.
Finally — be sure to tell your friends about Elliot Richardson of Massachusetts, the only man to lead four separate Cabinet departments.6George Shultz is often considered an equal, having served as Labor Secretary, then Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director, and then Treasury Secretary for Nixon, before eventually serving as Secretary of State for Reagan. But, as OMB is not an executive department (though its director does sit in the Cabinet), we have not included it in our data. Starting in 1970, he served as the Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary for President Nixon; he then became Defense Secretary in 1973, which he held for about four months before becoming Attorney General, which he held for five months before resigning in October of 1973 in protest of Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. He came back about two years later to serve President Ford as Secretary of Commerce. And if your friends aren’t impressed with that, be sure to remind them that James Wilson was the longest-serving member of the Cabinet, serving 16 consecutive years as Agriculture Secretary under Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft. That’s pretty amazing for a man who, in Hamilton’s spirit, immigrated to the United States as a young man and rose to the upper echelons of executive power.