Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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MINISTRY, the body of officers of state who compose the executive government of a sovereign or supreme ruler of a kingdom or empire—Formerly, and as lately as the reign of Charles I., under the English system of government, the king's privy council constituted his executive advisers. This council existed at a very early period of English history. At first it was a small committee, chosen by the king from the parliament, then called the "great council," and was possessed of much power, a part of which was the right to inquire into all offenses against the state, and to commit offenders for trial before the proper courts of law. It was composed of the chancellor. the treasurer, the justice of either bench, the escheator, the sergeants, some of the principal clerks of chancery, and some bishops, earls and barons, nominated by the king. This court has long ceased to exercise the function of advising the king on matters pertaining to the executive government, having grown too cumbrous for such practical work. A smaller body, called the cabinet, composed of from eleven to seventeen of the leading members of the ministry in power, has taken its place. This committee of the ministry, or cabinet, is merely a deliberative body; yet eminent public men have claimed for it, under the British constitution, a defined and acknowledged power for carrying on the executive government of the country. Its members, as a body, have no power to issue orders or proclamations, but all the weighty measures that call for the attention of the government, relating to the interests of the people, both at home and abroad, are considered by the cabinet, who determine what legislation shall be initiated by the ministry of which they are the principal members.


—At the head of the ministry is the premier or prime minister, called first lord of the treasury, to whom is entrusted the selection of his associates in the ministry and the subordinate members of the government. He is generally a statesman of great national prominence, and the leader of his political party. As he is ordinarily called by the sovereign to the position of chief of the government on account of the triumph of his political party on some measure of great public interest, he selects his associates in the government from among leading men of his own party. so that his administration may conform to the will of the popular majority, as represented by a majority in the house of commons. He himself is placed in the executive branch of the government as the first lord of the treasury, and its other necessary heads are the lord chancellor, the chancellor of the exchequer, the secretaries of state for home, foreign, colonial and Indian affairs, the secretary for war, the lord president of the council, the lord of the privy seal, and the first lord of the admiralty. Ministers holding the offices of president of the board of trade, president of the poor-law board, vice-president of the committee of council on education, postmaster general, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, and chief secretary for Ireland, have or have not seats in the cabinet, according to circumstances. It depends, in every case, upon the position of the minister in the ranks of statesmanship, and, to some extent, on the importance of the measures affecting his department which the prime minister intends to propose for legislation.


—There are many important officers of the government who do not possess seats in the cabinet, to wit, the attorney general and solicitor general for England; the lord advocate and solicitor general for Scotland; the lord lieutenant, attorney general and solicitor general for Ireland; the first commissioner of works, the lord chamberlain, and others. The prime minister sometimes holds the chancellorship of the exchequer in addition to the office of first lord of the treasury.


—Cabinet meetings are usually held on the summons of any member of the ministry; their proceedings are secret, and no record is preserved. Each measure relating to the public service is committed for action to the head of the department to which it properly belongs. The members of the government have seats in parliament, and the prime minister endeavors, in forming his ministry, so to distribute the great offices of state, that when a principal secretary has a seat in one house, the under secretary shall be a member of the other. It is the custom for ministers to make periodic statements in parliament concerning the business of their departments, and they may at any time be called upon to explain their conduct. (See INTERPELLATION.)


—Under the British constitution the sovereign is not held personally responsible for the acts of the government. no matter how disastrous they may be to the interests of the country. That responsibility rests with the ministry, which originates nearly all the great measures that become law, and is therefore sponsor for their beneficial application and result. The government of England being in part representative, the will of the people is indicated by parliamentary majorities. The executive government is presumed to represent the popular will, therefore the ministry and the popular house of parliament must accord in opinion; and if they do not accord, or if a ministry does not possess the confidence of the house of commons, a want sometimes expressed by a vote of censure, either the prime minister dissolves parliament and appeals to the country or the ministry ceases to exist. In the latter case each member resigns immediately. and a new government is formed by the appointment of a new prime minister, who proceeds to form a new ministry by direction of the sovereign. It is true that the sovereign possesses the power to dismiss his ministers whenever they cease to command his confidence, but he seldom exercise this power, as such a change would be useless without the support of the house of commons, who, by refusing their support could in a measure destroy the functions of government. Parliament is sometimes dissolved and the ministry dismissed by the sovereign, and an appeal made to the country, to which a response is given in the political complexion of the succeeding house of commons. By this means the crown may temporarily overcome the parliamentary will. This course, however, is seldom pursued by the sovereign, as at best the victory would be ephemeral. As the result of such an arbitrary act, an unfriendly parliament would doubtless be elected, and the ministry and government stand as in the beginning. Sometimes it may become necessary for the public interests that parliament should be dissolved, and an appeal be made to the people by sending the members of the house of commons back to their constituency to be judged for their work. Were this power not vested in the sovereign there might be a danger of destroying the proper balance of the constitution, so necessary in a mixed form of government, by parliament becoming permanent, repealing the act of 1 Geo. I., c. 38, which limits the session to seven years, and assuming all the functions of government; an example of which is to be found in the long parliament, which Charles I. consented should not be dissolved until it dissolved itself.


—When a ministry resigns on account of differences between itself and parliament, all the adherents of the ministry holding political office resign with it, and also the great officers of the court, and those of the royal household who have seats in parliament, in either house; also, the three junior lords of the treasury, the two secretaries of the treasury, the four parliamentary under secretaries of state, the paymaster general, the master general of the ordnance, the surveyor general of the ordnance, the five junior lords of the admiralty, the first secretary of the admiralty, the chief commissioner of Greenwich hospital, the president and parliamentary secretary of the poor-law board, the vice-chamberlain, the captain of the gentlemen at arms, the captain of the yeomen of the guards, the lords in waiting, the mistress of the robes, the treasurer of the household, the chief equerry or clerk marshal, the judge advocate general, and the lord chancellor for Ireland.


—In 1839 Sir Robert Peel being commissioned by the queen (Victoria) to form a new cabinet, the Melbourne ministry having resigned, he demanded that the change of administration should include the resignation of the chief appointments held by the ladies of her majesty's household. This demand the queen refused, and Sir Robert Peel declined to undertake the formation of a government, and Lord Melbourne was restored to his position of first lord of the treasury. The duke of Wellington accorded with Sir Robert Peel in the opinion that the change suggested was necessary to establish perfect proof of her majesty's confidence in the new ministry. The ministry of Lord Melbourne, immediately after their recall, assembled in council and adopted certain resolutions of a very stringent and positive character in opposition to the proposition of resignation of the ladies of the queen's household on any change of ministry.


—The resignation of the ministry occurs almost invariably upon a disagreement with the house of commons on some public measure, or upon a vote of "want of confidence." There have been many ministerial resignations of a notable character, but space forbids an extended review. The resignation of the duke of Wellington, Nov. 16, 1830, was memorable for the advent of the celebrated reform ministry of Earl Grey. This leader introduced at different sessions three reform bills, each of which was rejected by the house of lords, or nullified by amendments. On the rejection of the third measure by the house of lords, the bill having passed the house of commons by a large majority, the ministry of Earl Grey resigned. This act was followed by a week of intense excitement, when the government resumed office, on the king granting them full powers to create a sufficient number of peers to overcome the adverse majority in the lords. The Melbourne ministry followed, and resigned in 1834. Sir Robert Peel succeeded, and resigned in 1835. The Melbourne ministry again came into power, and resigned in 1841, upon a vote of "want of confidence." Sir Robert Peel came again into office, and again retired in 1846, having been defeated on the "Irish protection of life bill," giving place to a whig administration under Lord John Russell, who resigned in 1852. Lord Derby then became prime minister, but almost immediately gave way to Lord Palmerston, who remained in office six years and went out in 1858, on the defeat of the "conspiracy bill." In 1859 he was again recalled, and remained first lord of the treasury until he died, in October, 1865. Russell again came into power, as Earl Russell, but resigned the year following on account of parliament rejecting his reform bill of that year. Lord Derby then became the head of the new ministry, and remained for two years only, resigning in 1868. He was succeeded by Disraeli, who assumed office in February, 1868, and retired in December of the same year, a general election, necessitated by the passage of a reform bill extending the suffrage, having resulted in a large liberal majority. The ministry of Mr. Gladstone then came in and continued till 1875, when it resigned, and Mr. Disraeli became, for the second time, first lord of the treasury, and remained at the head of the government, the latter part of the time as Lord Beaconsfield, until the adverse elections of 1880. Mr. Gladstone then, for the second time, assumed the reins of government by appointment of the queen, and with a liberal ministry is now in power.


—In the United States the council of executive advisers is called the cabinet. It is composed of the heads of the various departments of the federal government, and consists of the secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, secretary of war, secretary of the navy, secretary of the interior, the attorney general and postmaster general. They are appointed by the president at the incoming of each new administration, and seldom a single member of a previous administration is retained in the cabinet of a new president, although he may be of the same political party which elected his predecessor.


—The office of minister is unknown to the constitution of the United States. By long-established custom, originating from the habit of the presidents of obtaining advice on public matters of grave interest from the heads of the departments, and for that purpose assembling them at the presidential mansion as the most convenient place, the American cabinet has sprung into existence. Under the constitution and laws of the United States they have no seat assigned them in either house of congress. Under our form of government the president is held responsible for the character of his administration, and therefore no necessity exists for an individual member of the cabinet to possess a seat in congress. Still many argue that the law should be changed and members of the cabinet be assigned to seats in congress for the purpose of explaining matters pertaining to the proper administration of their individual departments, as being conducive to a better administration of public affairs. A bill to this effect was introduced in the senate of the United States during the session of the 46th congress, but without favorable action being taken thereon.


—As the president is held responsible for the "good conduct" of each member of his cabinet in the performance of his official duties, the power necessarily exists with the president to remove at his pleasure any or all of the members of his cabinet. It is true that the constitution and laws provide that this shall be done "by and with the advice and consent of the senate." Still so inseparably is the right connected with the means of enforcing a proper administration of public affairs, that it is regarded as an inherent right of the office, and the senate invariably consents to the personal wish of the president with regard to his official family. The action of the senate in confirming new appointees to cabinet honors is therefore merely pro formâ. This prerogative of the president is seldom used save in individual cases. In the case of the administration of President Andrew Jackson, however, the whole of the cabinet was removed, by requesting their resignations. A wide difference in law or custom prevails in the United States from that in England, with regard to the matter of resignation on account of parliamentary differences, or parliamentary votes of want of confidence, etc. While in England the custom is absolute that a ministry must resign when censured by a vote in parliament, in the United States congress might pass many votes of censure, or refuse to pass many favorite measures of the administration strongly recommended by themselves and the president, without in the least affecting the integrity of the cabinet. Its members would pay but little attention to any demand that congress might make for their resignation or removal, but a single indication on the part of the president of his desire to terminate their official relations, would instantly compel the resignation of that member of the cabinet. Should he prove contumacious and decline to resign at the verbal wish of the president, in that case, as in the case of a member of President Grant's cabinet (Jewell, postmaster general) during his second presidential incumbency, he would by letter request the same, which act is equivalent to removal, inasmuch as the president states his purpose in direct terms of appointing a successor to his office.


—The duties of the cabinet, other than as advisers to the president, are of an important and widely varied character. As heads of their various departments, they are held by the executive responsible for the proper administration of their separate divisions of executive labor. It is a part of their province as chiefs of departments to construe and enforce the laws of congress pertaining to their individual branches, and often to disburse large sums of money Frequently they originate important measures which are recommended to congress by the president in either his annual message, or by transmitting their reports to him to the congress of the United States. It is generally understood that the secretary of state originates our foreign policy, and the secretary of the treasury that of finance. The secretary of the interior controlling to a very considerable degree our home interests and policies, is always an important officer, as is the postmaster general and the attorney general, as all must concede; and in time of war the most important of all are the secretaries of war and navy, who virtually control the armies and navies of the Union, and are therefore responsible to the president, and through him to the country, for the success and honor of our arms. In addition to this, each member of the cabinet, as the head of his department, is obliged to submit to congress an estimate of expenses necessary for its efficient operations for each fiscal year.


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