James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Birthday Wishes to the U.S. Department of State!

by James M. Lindsay
July 27, 2011

View of the Department of State in Washington, DC.

View of the Department of State in Washington, DC. (Kevin Lamarque/courtesy Reuters)

If you happen to be passing by 2201 C Street, NW, in Washington, DC, today or stopping in at any of the more than two hundred and fifty U.S. embassies, consulates, and missions around the world, sing “Happy Birthday.” Two hundred and twenty-two years ago today, President George Washington signed the law creating the Department of Foreign Affairs. It was the first federal department created under the new Constitution. Less than two months later, Washington signed another bill renaming it the Department of State.

The first secretary of state was Thomas Jefferson, who also founded the University of Virginia. (I am obligated to report that fact because Jefferson directed that it be inscribed on his tombstone, the UVa alums I work with take great pride in having attended “Mr. Jefferson’s university,” and the oldest TWE child enrolls there next month.) He presided over a staff that consisted of a chief clerk, three junior clerks, a translator, and a messenger. State’s budget was correspondingly modest. It totaled just $56,600, which covered not only Jefferson’s salary ($3,500) but also the cost of firewood and stationery.

The State Department that Hillary Clinton runs today is much bigger. It has more than 30,000 employees and a budget of roughly $35 billion. Of course, that budget number could be a lot smaller when the dust settles on the showdown over the debt ceiling.

The job of secretary of state was once a launching pad for the White House. Five of the first eight presidents first served as secretary of state: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren. James Buchanan was the sixth and last secretary of state to become president. Perhaps the fact that Buchanan is widely regarded as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history explains why Americans no longer look to secretaries of state as potential presidents.

William H. Seward, who served under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, was the first secretary of state to travel outside the country. He visited Denmark, Spain, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Nowadays, secretaries of state spend a great deal of time overseas. Hillary Clinton has spent more than seven months of her first two-and-a-half years in office abroad. That puts her slightly ahead of the pace that Condoleezza Rice set in her first two years as secretary of state. Clinton has spent nearly seven weeks just flying to and from the eighty-five countries she has visited, some more than once. That translates into 582,002 miles, which would make even George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air wince. No wonder Clinton says she is looking to step down as secretary of state come 2013.

The State Department has come a long way since the days when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams had to write out copies of treaties longhand by himself. State now has an official blog called DipNote.  It also has Twitter accounts in English, Hindi, Farsi, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese. Its Facebook page has been “liked” by more than eighty-six thousand Facebook users.  And the videos on its Youtube channel have been viewed roughly 2.5 million times.

So  Happy Birthday to everyone over at Foggy Bottom and at U.S. diplomatic posts around the world!

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  • Posted by Louisa Peat O'Neil

    Thomas Jefferson certainly traveled outside the United States. As did Monroe, John Q. Adams and other Secretaries of State during the early years of the Republic.

    Perhaps you meant that Wm Seward was first to travel outside the country during tenure as Secretary of State, but I question whether that is correct.

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