A strong cabinet, composed for the most part of activists, carried out policies that were nearly as important as the legislative achievements for which the Wilson administration is more famous. (Since Wilson tended to make and control foreign policy in all important areas himself, his secretaries of state will be discussed in the sections on foreign policies.)
McAdoo was the most dynamic and vigorous member of the administration; he also had an undisguised lust for power and a habit of invading the jurisdictions of other cabinet officers. His bold and original mind was wedded to a strong determination to make the United States treasury the dominant force in controlling credit, interest rates, and the money supply. He tried, but failed, to make the new Federal Reserve system an adjunct of the treasury. Once the United States entered World War I, McAdoo made the treasury into an all-powerful engine of credit. With the creation in 1918 of the War Finance Corporation, McAdoo enjoyed control of an agency capable of lending money on a large scale. Along parallel lines, the Justice Department, under both McReynolds and Gregory, relentlessly and successfully pursued one single policy: to restore competition through the dissolution of monopolies. Lane, in the Interior Department, took the lead in building the federally owned Alaskan Railroad and in the adoption of a coal-leasing bill for Alaska. Lane was caught between the cross fire of extreme conservationists and private interests in a long struggle for legislation to permit development of hydroelectric power on navigable rivers and public lands and the exploitation of oil and mineral deposits in the public domain. The adoption of the Water Power and General Leasing acts of 1920 vindicated Lane's long struggle just at the time that he left the cabinet.
Because they were relatively new, the departments of agriculture, labor, and commerce took the lead in the expansion of governmental activities. Secretary of Labor William Wilson in 1913 established an informal conciliation service that frequently settled labor disputes, whenever possible upon the basis of the recognition of the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively. In this matter, the Labor Department was only nominally evenhanded. The secretary also played an active role in attempts to prevent or control child labor. Throughout his tenure, William Wilson maintained a close alliance with Samuel Gompers, president of the AF of L.
Little has been written about Redfield and his work in the Commerce Department. A vigorous free trader, he was also a zealous champion of American business enterprise who sought ardently to stimulate American enterprise abroad. Indeed, Redfield took many of the initiatives in support of American business for which Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce from 1921 to 1928, is usually given credit.
Finally, the quiet academic David F. Houston led the Agriculture Department in the most important expansion of the activities of any single department during the Wilson administration. Houston supervised the establishment of the Federal Farm Loan system, created by the Rural Credits Act of 1916. Houston also helped to draft the measures that vastly enlarged the rural service of the federal government: the Cotton Futures Act, the Grain Standards Act, and the Warehouse Act, all of 1916. Even more important were the Agricultural Educational Act of that same year, which provided funds to place agents of land-grant colleges in every agricultural county in the United States; the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which provided for federal assistance to vocational and agricultural education in public schools; and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1916, which was designed at first to benefit rural areas and later became the legislative authority for the construction of a nationwide system of modern highways.