The Great Secretaries of State


Some of the greatest figures of American history have held the top Cabinet position of Secretary of State. For some it was a stepping stone; for others a frustration.

The Pioneers

George Washington’s first choice for Secretary of State was the already celebrated author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. With several years of experience as Minister to France, Jefferson competently organized the fledgling diplomatic corps, but had no major diplomatic accomplishments of his own. As opposing political factions coalesced around him and Alexander Hamilton, the Virginian found President Washington predominantly favoring Hamilton’s Federalists.

Jefferson resigned early in Washington’s second term and headed the efforts of his Democratic Republicans to contest the 1796 elections. As runnerup to John Adams, he became Vice President and was subsequently elected to two distinguished terms of his own as President.

Jefferson’s model was emulated by his Secretary of State, James Madison, and then by James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Madison and Monroe were both deeply involved in the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the size of the United States, and Adams was the primary formulator of the Monroe Doctrine.

The other 19th century Secretaries of State who eventually became President were Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan. Van Buren’s term was brief and unspectacular, while Buchanan negotiated the Oregon Treaty, which set our northern border, for President James K. Polk. Neither was a highly regarded President.

Perhaps more fascinating are the names of those Secretaries who aspired to the Presidency but never made it. They include John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William H. Seward, and James G. Blaine. In fact, Abraham Lincoln’s appointment of Seward, who had been favored for the Republican nomination in 1860, has been cited as a precedent for Barack Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton for the post. Webster, an unsuccessful Presidential candidate in 1836, negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treay with England for President John Tyler, and Seward is most famous today for the purchase of Alaska, which was ironically known as “Seward’s Folly” at first.

The 20th Century and Beyond

President Woodrow Wilson revived the time-honored tradition of Presidential aspirants as Secretaries of State with his appointment of three-time loser William Jennings Bryan in 1913. Bryan, true to his pacifist principles, negotiated 30 treaties for the setlement of international disputes by arbitration. However, having opposed Wilson’s decision to allow Americans to travel on ships of World War I belligerents, he resigned when Wilson strenuously protested the torpedoing of Britiain’s Lusitania, on which many American lives were lost.

Wilson’s 1916 opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, was President Warren Harding’s Secretary of State. A former Governor and past and future Supreme Court Justice, Hughes also negotiated important treaties on disarmament after the U.S. had rejected membership in the League of Nations.

James F. Byrnes, a former Senator, Supreme Court Justice, and War Mobilization Director, almost got the 1944 Democratic Vice Presidential nomination, which would have put him in the White House when Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Instead, the actual successor, Harry S. Truman, made him Secretary of State later that year. However, after growing strains over Cold War policy, Byrnes resigned less than two years later.

In 1996, there was support in both parties for a presidential run by General Colin Powell, the victorious Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman of the Persian Gulf War. Powell disavowed interest then and again in 2000, but did publicly support the Republican ticket in the latter year. President George W. Bush named him Secretary of State, but it appears that he was less heeded on national security issues than Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. He resigned at the end of Bush’s first term.

Clearly, the appointment of Senator Clinton , the runnerup in the Democratic nomination struggle, is consistent with a long tradition. And sometimes it works.