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The U.S. Secretary Of State

Origin And Duties Of The Office

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Updated February 05, 2013

Okay, so you've watched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton step down and former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry take her place. If you're old enough, maybe you remember Henry Kissinger masterminding an end to the Vietnam War, or, if you go way back, maybe you recall George C. Marshall explaining the Marshall Plan for post-World War II Europe and Asia.

We take it as a matter of fact that American secretaries of state handle "foreign issues," but how did the job start, and from where do secretaries get their authority?

Pre-Constitution Years

If you answered those questions with "the Constitution," you'd be partly correct. The secretary of state post comes from the days of the American Revolution when Benjamin Franklin went to France in an attempt to convince Louis XVI to give diplomatic recognition to the United States and help the upstart nation in its war with Great Britain.

Franklin's mission made clear the need of an American official who could conduct direct communication with the key officials of other countries. The United States' first government -- the Articles of Confederation -- provided for such a post with the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Serving under the secretary were several envoys who based their work in foreign capitals.

Robert Livingston was first U.S. secretary of foreign affairs, serving from 1782 to 1784. The job was as ambiguous and limiting as the Articles of Confederation itself, and Livingston resigned. His successor, John Jay -- a skilled diplomat -- also found the foreign affairs position frustrating. Jay said the Articles of Confederation, bereft of any real collective authority and nearly bankrupt, could not effectively back up any of the foreign minister's agreements.

State Under The Constitution

Of course, others saw the faults of the Articles of Confederation, and by 1786, led by George Washington and other American revolutionaries, they set out to fix it. By 1787 they had drafted the Constitution as a replacement, and Americans ratified it in 1788.

The Constitution gave foreign policy duties to the president acting with the "advice and consent" of Congress. While the Senate has to approve treaties, and Congress retains the right to declare war, all other elements of foreign policy fell to the president.

Soon after Washington was inaugurated in March 1789, it became evident that the conduct of foreign policy was too big a job for one man. James Madison, already at work drafting the Bill of Rights, also suggested creating a Department of Foreign Affairs run by a Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Obviously, the official titles changed, but the Department of State was born.

Washington wanted Thomas Jefferson to be the first secretary of state. Jay stayed on as secretary of foreign affairs until Jefferson returned from his post as minister (or ambassador) to France in March 1790.

At the same time, Congress was approving other positions in the president's "cabinet." Washington put one of his wartime adjutants, Alexander Hamilton, in the post of Secretary of the Treasury. Unwittingly, he was creating the first American political party system. Hamilton was a staunch Federalist; Jefferson a devout Democrat-Republican (yes, that was their name -- forefathers of today's Democrats). While Washington tried unsuccessfully to remain above party politics, Hamilton and Jefferson came to hate each other.

Duties Of The Secretary

Jefferson encouraged the creation of a corps of ambassadors to handle the official diplomatic and negotiating duties of the United States, and a consulate corps to supervise commercial matters and help Americans abroad. Congress agreed to pay for ambassadors, initially based only in western European countries, but consuls received no pay. They relied on outside jobs and fees for consular services. Consequently, the consular corps was sub-par.

In addition to those duties, the secretary of state was handed some strange official duties that seemed to fit in the job description of no other post. They included:

  • Supervising the U.S. Mint.
  • Conducting the census every 10 years.
  • Accepting the resignations of the president and vice president, should that become necessary.
  • Keeping the Great Seal of the United States (a duty the secretary retains).
  • Certifying the ratification of any Constitutional amendment by the requisite number of states (another duty the secretary retains).

(Incidentally, because it was the first cabinet position created, the secretary of state is first in line of presidential succession should the president, vice president, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Senate president pro-tempore all become unable to fulfill the duties of president.)

Despite those oddities, the job of the secretary of state remains pretty much as Washington and Jefferson envisioned -- the nation's chief diplomatic and the president's right hand in foreign policy.

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