The first government body in America to deal with foreign affairs was the Committee of Secret Correspondence—a committee of five instituted (1775) by the Continental Congress and headed by Benjamin Franklin. In 1777 it was redesignated the Committee of Foreign Affairs, but this body after a time became so ineffective that it ceased to have jurisdiction. This committee was superseded in 1781 by the Dept. of Foreign Affairs, which, operating under the Articles of Confederation, also became ineffective.
After the new government was organized under the Constitution of the United States, an act was passed (July, 1789) creating a new Dept. of Foreign Affairs. It was reorganized in Sept., 1789, as the Dept. of State gaining added functions. Besides being charged with foreign negotiations and correspondence, the department was given duties such as keeping the Great Seal of the United States and receiving the bills and resolutions of Congress. The Dept. of State is the oldest of the federal departments, and thus the secretary of state, at the head of the department, is the first ranking cabinet officer. Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state (1790–93), quickly brought prestige to the department, which was soon given added responsibilities: supervision of the U.S. Mint, the issuing of patents and copyrights, and the printing of the U.S. census. The responsibilities of the mint were transferred (1795) to the U.S. Treasury Dept. After 1849 many of the domestic responsibilities of the Dept. of State were transferred to the U.S. Dept. of the Interior. The affairs of the territories were supervised by the department until 1873, when they also were given to the Dept. of the Interior.
In the field of foreign affairs, the department did not expand much in the 18th cent. but thereafter grew in ever-widening circles. Under Secretary John Quincy Adams (1817–25) the department's organization was clarified and improved, but the first major reorganization was effected by Secretary Louis McLane (1833–34) and Secretary John Forsyth (1834–41). Later, salaries were generally increased, more personnel added to meet the growing needs, and the position of first assistant secretary of state was created (1853). Three additional assistant secretaryships were later created in the department, and in 1919 the office of undersecretary of state was established. In 1855, Congress passed a law formulating grades, posts, and salaries in both the diplomatic and the consular service attached to the department, and 50 years later diplomatic and consular positions, except for the posts of ambassador and minister, were put on a civil-service basis.
Largely through the efforts of Hamilton Fish (1808–93), who headed the department from 1869 to 1877, a sweeping reorganization of the Dept. of State was effected in 1870. To meet the demands of an economy-minded Congress, Fish made 31 officials the nucleus of the department and divided its activities among nine bureaus and two agencies. The First Diplomatic Bureau was set up to supervise correspondence with European and East Asian countries, and the Second Diplomatic Bureau was given jurisdiction over American diplomacy in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. The consular activities were similarly organized in 1870.
Very few changes occurred in the department's organization in the later years of the 19th cent., but when the United States became a world power after the end of the Spanish-American War, there was a need for adjustments. Several important steps were taken during the secretaryships of John Hay (1898–1905) and Elihu Root (1905–9), but it was not until 1909, in the administration of Philander C. Knox, that the department was reorganized with the essentials of its present-day structure. Several new posts, notably those of counselor and resident diplomatic officer, were set up, the duties assigned to the assistant secretaries of state were altered, and foreign policy and relations were reorganized along geographical divisions—Western European, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, and Latin American.
Before and during World War I, several new responsibilities were assumed during the tenures of William Jennings Bryan (1913–15) and Robert Lansing (1915–20). The Rogers Act of 1924 abolished the separate diplomatic and consular bureaus in favor of the Division of Foreign Service Information, and under the administrations of Frank B. Kellogg (1925–29) and Henry L. Stimson (1929–33) other new agencies were created. In 1931 the office of the solicitor—given charge through the years of such matters as extradition, naturalization, expatriation, passport problems, neutrality, and extraterritoriality—was superseded by the office of legal adviser.
During the long administration (1933–44) of Cordell Hull a variety of changes was effected, at first to meet the needs of recovery from economic depression, but later to face the rising tide of World War II. In 1938 the Division of Cultural Relations—soon to undergo several changes—was begun to stimulate cooperation with other nations through the various media of mass communication; the same year the Division of International Communication was started to meet problems concerned with worldwide telecommunications. Two reorganizations within the Dept. of State occurred in 1943 and 1944, and with the close of the war the department's machinery was geared to dispense information to foreign nations (e.g., the radio program "The Voice of America"), to establish strict secrecy concerning its operations, to integrate foreign policy with the economic-aid programs, and to bring about effective liaison between the United States and the United Nations.
In 1949 the Hoover Commission (Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government) criticized the fact that the Dept. of State and the Foreign Service were manned by a distinct and noninterchangeable corps of employees and urged amalgamation of the personnel of the two bodies. Opposition to this, especially from the Foreign Service, which considered itself an elite corps, was partly resolved in 1954, when a committee headed by Henry M. Wriston, president of Brown Univ., recommended integration rather than amalgamation of the personnel. The Foreign Service was greatly enlarged, and as a result it lost its semiautonomous position and was brought securely under the authority of the secretary of state. In 1961 the Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps were created as agencies within the Dept. of State. The Peace Corps was later removed from the department when it was merged (1971) with other volunteer service agencies.
In terms of policy formulation the department suffered a decline in the 20th cent., especially after the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was often said to be "his own secretary of state." John Foster Dulles (1953–59), Henry M. Kissinger (1969–76), and James A. Baker 3d (1989–92) were, however, particularly strong secretaries. Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton's second secretary of state, was the first woman to hold the post, and Colin Powell, President George W. Bush's first secretary of state, was the first African American.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.