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Over the past few weeks, president-elect Donald Trump has unrolled Cabinet pick after Cabinet pick under a cloud of controversy and speculation. Some have likened his selection process to a reality TV competition.
But over 200 years ago, the Cabinet of the US was embroiled in an even crazier situation.
In fact, the mess was only resolved when future US President James Monroe opted to become the first, and only, person in history to effectively tackle two US Cabinet positions at the same time.
So, how did things deteriorate to the point where such an extraordinary bout of multitasking was necessary?
Business Insider spoke with Dr. Taylor Stoermer, who teaches the history of democracy at Roger Williams University and public history at Harvard University, about Monroe and the state of the US government during this time.
Monroe had extensive experience in government by the time US President James Madison appointed him Secretary of State in 1811. He had previously served as a US Senator, Minister to France and the United Kingdom, and Governor of Virginia, and had also fought in the Revolutionary War, nearly dying during the Battle of Trenton at the age of 18.
“He’s got a lot of experience under his belt,” Stoermer says. “Then he rolls into the administration from hell … Everything falls apart.”
Madison’s presidency was thrown into chaos as the fledgling, unprepared US found itself embroiled in another conflict against Britain: the War of 1812.
Despite having little to do with the start of the war, Monroe found himself at its forefront almost immediately. After the inexperienced Secretary of War Dr. William Eustis resigned in December 1812, Monroe subbed for him until February 1813, when Madison appointed John Armstrong to the position.
Armstrong turned out to have a fatal flaw as well. He was completely sure that the British would attempt to invade Baltimore. As a result, the nation’s capital was left vulnerable. Monroe didn’t trust this assessment.
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“Monroe was always willing to go above and beyond the strict definition of what his role is supposed to be,” Stoermer says. “He looked at the spirit of his role. He got on his horse and essentially followed the Potomac River down through southern Maryland to see whether or not he can find the British.”
Unfortunately, in August of 1814, Monroe did find the British, and saw that they were heading straight for Washington DC. As Madison and the rest of the Cabinet scattered, British troops burned most of the capital’s government buildings, including the White House on August 24, 1814.
A month after the disastrous invasion, Monroe wrote to Madison asking to be appointed Secretary of War, despite the fact he was still serving as Secretary of State, according to “A Comprehensive Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of James Monroe.”
“He had extensive experience in both areas,” Stoermer says. “That’s what enabled him to be able to effectively perform those responsibilities at the same time … He was able to succeed because he was able to gain enough of the right experience and actually apply it when the time came.”
According to the University of Virginia’s Miller Center: “Monroe was well suited to the demands of the post because of his understanding of the military and his strong organizational skills. He helped reorganize the army and brought new energy to the war effort.”
Naturally, during the fighting, Monroe’s responsibilities as Secretary of War superseded his original post. The future US president wasn’t necessarily bad at delegating. The federal government was still tiny in 1814 and bore little resemblance to the large bureaucracy we have today. If Monroe wanted to run a reconnaissance mission in Maryland or take on two Cabinet posts at once, he only had a few undersecretaries and personal aides at his disposal.
His gig as Secretary of War lasted until March of 1815, about a month after the end of the conflict. Afterwards, he remained on as Madison’s Secretary of State.
“Without James Monroe, we might have lost the War of 1812,” Stoermer says.
Monroe wasn’t quite done with the government after his tenure as Secretary of State came to a close. Bolstered by his experience and the Era of Good Feelings that ensued in the wake of the war, he went on to win the 1816 presidential election.