All the President's Men: The 15 Cabinet-Level Departments

The Cabinet was established in Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution to provide a source of key advisors to the President. Today, the Cabinet includes the Vice President and 15 executive departments. Here's a primer on the departments, in order of their succession to the Presidency.

Department of State

Established: The Department of State was originally established by the First Congress of the United States as the Department of Foreign Affairs on July 27, 1789. The name was changed to the Department of State less than 2 months later, when Congress passed an Act to "provide for the safe keeping of the Acts, Records, and Seal of the United States, and for other purposes."

First Secretary: After spending the previous 5 years as Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson served under George Washington from 1790 until 1793. Jefferson resigned over a disagreement about whether the U.S. should support the French in the French Revolution. He wanted to back the French; Alexander Hamilton supported the British; and Washington, whose military career began with the French and Indian War, opted for neutrality.

Mission: Develop foreign policy, advance freedom, and create a secure and beneficial world for the American people and the international community.

Notable: Six men "“ Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan "“ served as Secretary of State before becoming President.

Department of the Treasury

treasuryEstablished: Like the State Department, the Department of the Treasury was formally established by the First Congress of the United States in 1789.

First Secretary: Alexander Hamilton served under Washington from 1789-1795. During that time, he instituted a plan for paying back the country's massive war debt, which helped establish the United States' credibility abroad. Hamilton also helped establish the First Bank of the United States in 1791. Ironically, he resigned his position to join the New York bar because he wasn't making enough money.

Mission: Collect revenue (the IRS is the largest of Treasury's bureaus), produce money, and formulate economic policy.

Notable: The Treasury is responsible for producing all of the currency and coinage in the United States. The Treasury building is depicted on one side of the $10 bill; Hamilton is on the other.

Department of Defense

dodEstablished: The Department of Defense was founded with the signing of the National Security Act of 1947 by Harry S. Truman. The Act merged the Department of War, which had been established in 1789 as one of the original four Cabinet-level positions, and the Department of the Navy, and also created the United States Air Force. The new department was originally named the National Military Establishment, but the unfortunate pronunciation of its acronym prompted it to be renamed 2 years later.

First Secretary: Henry Knox was the first Secretary of War, while James Forrestal, an aviator in World War I, was named the first Secretary of Defense in 1947. Suffering from major depression, Forrestal committed suicide two months after resigning his position in 1949.

Mission: Provide the military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of the United States.

Notable: Donald Rumsfeld is both the youngest and oldest person to serve as Secretary of Defense. He was 43 when Gerald Ford named him Secretary of Defense in 1975, and after being re-appointed by George W. Bush in 2001, served until he was 74.

Department of Justice

DOJEstablished: In 1870, Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill to create a Department of Justice headed by the Attorney General -- a position that dates back to the First Congress.

First Attorney General: George Washington appointed Edmund Jennings Randolph, who had previously served as Governor of Virginia, the first Attorney General of the United States on September 26, 1789.

Mission: Enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law, prevent and control crime, and seek just punishment for criminals.

Notable: The origin of the FBI can be traced to a force of Special Agents established by Attorney General Charles Bonaparte in 1908.

Department of the Interior

interiorEstablished: As its seal indicates, the Department of the Interior was established on March 3, 1849, the last day of the 30th Congress, to handle domestic matters.

First Secretary: Zachary Taylor named Thomas Ewing, who had previously served as Secretary of the Treasury under William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, the first Secretary of the Interior.

Mission: Protect and provide access to our nation's natural and cultural heritage and honor our trust responsibilities to Indian Tribes and our commitments to island communities.

Notable: The U.S. Geological Survey and National Parks Service, bureaus of the DOI, were created in 1879 and 1916, respectively. The department's oldest bureau, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, manages over 66 million acres of land and was created in 1824 under the Department of War.

Department of Agriculture

agEstablished: The Department of Agriculture was established in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln.

First Secretary: The department wasn't elevated to Cabinet status until the final year of Grover Cleveland's first term in 1889. Norman Jay Coleman, who went into farming after receiving his law degree, served as the first Secretary of Agriculture for all of 3 weeks under Cleveland before President-elect Benjamin Harrison appointed his own secretary.

Mission: Formulate policy on farming, food, and natural resources, maintain food safety, and combat hunger worldwide.

Notable: Public outrage at the unsanitary conditions at Chicago meatpacking plants described in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle prompted the 1906 Meat Inspection Act.

Department of Commerce

commerceEstablished: The Department of Commerce and Labor was created in 1903, but the Department of Commerce wasn't established as it is known today until President William H. Taft split the department on his final day in office in 1913.

First Secretary: Woodrow Wilson appointed William C. Redfield, a Congressman from New York, the first Secretary of Commerce. The first Secretary of Commerce and Labor was George B. Cortelyou.

Mission: Foster, serve, and promote the nation's economic development and technological advancement.

Notable: Future President Herbert Hoover was the longest-serving Secretary of Commerce. During his 7+ years in the position, Hoover expanded the government's "Own Your Own Home" campaign, which promoted home ownership among the nation's growing workforce.

Department of Labor

laborEstablished: The Department of Labor was a bureau within the Department of Commerce and Labor until the aforementioned split of that department in 1913.

First Secretary: William B. Wilson was appointed by Woodrow Wilson (no relation) as the first Secretary of Labor and helped the United States mobilize an effective workforce to support the troops abroad during World War I.

Mission: Assure work safety, fair pay, and unemployment insurance benefits.

Notable: Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, was the first female Cabinet-level secretary in U.S. history. The Labor Department's building is named after her.

Department of Health and Human Services

hhsEstablished: The Department of Health and Human Services was created in 1980 following the separation of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, a Cabinet-level department established by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953.

First Secretary: Oveta Culp Hobby, a first commanding officer of the Women's Army Corps, was the first Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Mission: Protect the health of all Americans and provide essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves.

Notable: Patricia R. Harris, who was secretary when the department's name changed in 1980 under Jimmy Carter, was the first African-American woman to serve in a Cabinet position.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

hudEstablished: The Department of Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, which was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson, created HUD as a Cabinet-level agency.

First Secretary: Robert C. Weaver, a Harvard graduate, became the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Cabinet when Johnson appointed him as the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Mission: Increase home ownership, support community development, and increase access to affordable housing.

Notable: President John F. Kennedy tried to establish a similar department in 1962 through legislation and his reorganization powers, but was blocked in both instances by Congress.

Department of Transportation

DOTEstablished: The Department of Transportation was established on October 15, 1966, by President Johnson and consolidated 31 agencies and bureaus.

First Secretary: Under the direction of Alan Stephenson Boyd, who served in the position from 1967-1969, the DOT issued the first national safety and federal motor vehicle standards.

Mission: Ensure a fast, safe, efficient, accessible, and convenient transportation system.

Notable: Among the many responsibilities transferred to the DOT when it was established was oversight of daylight saving time.

Department of Energy

energyEstablished: President Carter established the Department of Energy in 1977 to centralize the government's energy policy in the wake of an oil crisis. The DOE was the first addition to the Cabinet in 11 years.

First Secretary: James Schlesinger, who served as Secretary of Defense under Richard Nixon and was dismissed by Gerald Ford for insubordination, was named the first Secretary of Energy.

Mission: Advance the national, economic, and energy security of the United States and promote scientific and technological innovation.

Notable: One of the DOE's first initiatives was the development of solar research. Carter remarked in 1978: "Nobody can embargo sunlight. No cartel controls the sun. Its energy will not run out. It will not pollute our air or poison our waters. It is free from stench and smog." Today, the DOE sponsors more basic research in the physical sciences than any other federal agency in the U.S.

Department of Education

educationEstablished: Carter delivered on a 1976 campaign promise to the National Education Association when he signed a bill establishing the Department of Education as the 13th Cabinet-level department in 1979. The Office of Education was previously within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

First Secretary: Shirley Hufstedler, who attended Stanford Law School and was one of President Ford's candidates to replace Justice William O. Douglas on the Supreme Court, was named the first Secretary of Education after she served as Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Mission: Foster excellence and equal access by establishing policies on federal financial aid for education, distribute and monitor financial aid, and collect data on the nation's schools.

Notable: President Ronald Reagan vowed to eliminate the Department of Education as a Cabinet-level department and appointed T.H. Bell as Secretary of Education with that goal in mind, but both men struggled to fight for its abolishment without appearing anti-education.

Department of Veterans Affairs

vetsEstablished:In 1988, Reagan signed legislation that would establish the Department of Veterans Affairs as a Cabinet-level department the following year. The Veterans Administration had been operating since 1930 and the elevation to Cabinet-level status did little to change its role.

First Secretary: President-elect George H.W. Bush named Edward J. Derwinski, a World War II veteran, as the first Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Mission: Care for the nation's veterans, issue checks for disability, education and pensions, and supervise national cemeteries.

Notable: The Department of Veterans Affairs is the nation's second-largest federal agency. In fiscal year 2008, the department provided $38.9 billion in disability compensation, death compensation, and pension to 3.7 million people.

Department of Homeland Security

dhsEstablished: The Office of Homeland Security was established to foster intelligence information sharing in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. DHS became a Cabinet-level department under George W. Bush with the passing of the Homeland Security Act in 2002 and merged 22 agencies, including the Customs Service, United States Border Patrol, Coast Guard, and Secret Service.

First Secretary: Tom Ridge, Governor of Pennsylvania, was the first Director of Homeland Security.

Mission: Secure the country and preserve America's freedoms while preparing to respond to all hazards and disasters.

Notable: FEMA, which had operated as an independent agency since 1979, was one of the agencies absorbed by DHS.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, even though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.