Department of State - The caliber of leadership




It is tempting to start at the very beginning with Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and the Virginia dynasty. Indeed, it must be noted that these Founders and "systems builders" used the State Department's highest official, not the vice president, as counselor and successor. Yet it remained for one of the second generation of American revolutionaries, John Quincy Adams, to achieve the golden age of American diplomacy and thereby establish the model, perhaps yet unequaled, of a great secretary of state. Adams dominated events in which the United States signed the Treaty of Ghent (1814), which concluded the War of 1812; issued the Monroe Doctrine; and strengthened American maritime power by agreeing with England to clear the Great Lakes of warships and by obtaining rights to fish off Labrador and Newfoundland. Under Adams's leadership at State, the United States extended its landed empire by annexing Florida, removing Russia from the west coast of North America, settling the Canadian boundary from the Great Lakes to the Rockies, and claiming, for the first time, the Pacific coast. Even amidst Adams's successes, however, the State Department and its secretary retained the highly personal and political character developed under the Virginia dynasty.

Adams himself dangled the post of secretary of state in front of Henry Clay in 1824 in what their political rivals, the Jacksonians, called a "corrupt bargain." While personally worlds apart, Adams and Clay were closer together in support of an "American system" of economic regulation and internal improvements than has been generally noted. Nonetheless, a pattern of granting political favors or rewarding factions with high office in the State Department was well established and would continue into the twentieth century with the appointments of William Jennings Bryan (by Woodrow Wilson in 1913) and Cordell Hull (by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933). Perhaps no period was more replete with political partisanship in the State Department than the years between Adams and the Civil War. First used by the followers of Andrew Jackson as patronage rewards, or the spoils of victory, the department's leadership positions were given— especially in the administrations of James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan—to proponents of southern slave expansion who styled themselves "Young Americans."

By 1860, and certainly after the Civil War, the rapid advance of the industrial economy of the United States and the transfer of power from planters to industrialists and financiers was closely mirrored in the composition of State Department leadership. In fact, resisting the divisive trends of the Young Americans, some department leaders such as Daniel Webster and William Learned Marcy had begun in the 1840s to develop interest in a new wave of expansionism directed toward California, Hawaii, and Asia. Foremost among postwar figures was William Henry Seward, next to Adams the greatest secretary of state of the nineteenth century.

Seward, like John Quincy Adams, was also an intellectual. He had read widely and well in the classics and contemporary works. His ties to Adams were as strong a link as was the more mundane relationship between Hunter and Adee, whose careers overlapped those of their more famous superiors. After Adams's death in 1848, Seward mourned, "I have lost a patron, a guide, a counsellor, and a friend—one whom I loved scarcely less than the dearest relations, and venerated above all that was mortal among men."

Seward's State Department years saw the out-line developed for a vast, coordinated American worldwide empire with its great continental base producing goods for the consumers of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. While Seward's master plan was not fulfilled during his tenure in office, it was followed carefully by such capable, if less visible, successors as William M. Evarts and Hamilton Fish.

With Evarts, in particular, the State Department began to take on its modern cast as an organization intent, in its own way, on "the fostering, the developing, and the directing of … commerce by the government." In October 1880, under Evarts's supervision, the State Department received congressional approval and appropriations for the publication of monthly consular reports, a step urged by local chambers of commerce throughout the country. Also characteristic of the years ahead, Evarts was a lawyer. Indeed, like many future secretaries of state, he was a dominant figure in the American bar at the time—a profession gaining increased significance in modern American business and government.

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