America’s Top Five Secretaries of State

(Do you like history? Then you’ll love my book! Maybe. I can’t make any promises. Anyway, the book ranks the 30 most influential figures in the history of Western civilization. Interesting, right? Buy it today!)

Fair thee well, Rex Tillerson. We barely knew ye. Well, we knew that ye probably called President Trump either a “moron” or an “effing moron,” but that’s about it. Unfortunately, Mr. Secretary, your abbreviated tenure barred you from one day joining the ranks of the all time great secretaries of state.

If anyone is wondering about those ranks, you’ve certainly come to the right place. Mike Pompeo, the soon to be former Secretary of State, will likely be the 70th to hold the office. Below are his five most accomplished predecessors.

5.Thomas Jefferson (State Secretary from 1790-1793)

Jefferson is ranked fifth overall but first in chronology and in the hearts of his countrymen — well, half of them anyway.

His career is without parallel in American history: a member of Virginia’s historic House of Burgesses, a delegate to the Continental Congress that severed American ties with the British Empire, the primary author of the document that did so, governor of Virginia, Congressman from Virginia, ambassador to France, founder of the Democratic Party, Vice-President of the United States, President of the United States, and the holder of more IQ points than any White House dinner gathering for at least 150 years. In the middle of all that was his selection by President Washington to start the U.S. State Department.

As the first to hold the job, he set a host of diplomatic, procedural, and political precedents, including the basic structure of the State Department, the role of the office as one of the president’s primary advisers on geopolitics, and the accidental wiping of his personal email server. On the other hand, while in Washington’s cabinet and behind Washington’s back, he and his political rival, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, started our two-party system. As a result, they each became a political enemy of half the country and deepened the sectionalism of the fledgling nation. Not cool.

Also worth noting: though our fifth best Secretary of State, he’s better known as the 24th most influential figure in Western history.

4.Hillary Clinton (2009-2013)

Just kidding, Republicans. You should have seen your faces!

4.Henry Kissinger (1973-1977)

Clinton would have been a divisive choice. Perhaps I found the only Secretary of State that is more so.

Yes, some see him as a war criminal. And yes, he authorized some controversial intervention in faraway places. But that’s kind of the point — a deadly foreign policy and aggressive overseas meddling is what America is all about!

Meanwhile, his more public record reads quite impressively: he spear-headed the détente with Russia, the renewal of trade relations with China, a cease-fire in Vietnam before negotiating the Paris Peace Accords, and the sustaining of peace after the Yom Kippur War. His considerable connections and tireless efforts gave birth to the term “shuttle diplomacy,” as he was the first State Secretary to jet around the world in pursuit of peace; he totaled 560,000 miles — the equivalent of a trip to the moon and back and then some, though many wished he would just go to the moon and stay there.

He also won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, which people perceive as a great joke at parties until they realize you’re serious.

3.William Seward (1861-1869)

As a Senator, he was supposed to be the 1860 Republican nominee for President, which would have been almost an assured victory since the north rallied around the party but the southern-based Democrats split into three. It didn’t pan out for Seward; a brokered convention ultimately led to the third ballot nomination of an articulate no-name, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln proceeded to win the general election, asked his vanquished foe to serve as his Secretary of State, and Seward answered the call.

For the rest of Lincoln’s life, Seward was among his closest advisers and helped shoulder the burden of the country’s darkest days. Among his more impressive accomplishments as the chief diplomat of the half-nation was convincing France and Britain to not help the Confederate rebels. Seward almost shared Lincoln’s fate as part of the assassination plot; he was stabbed in the face and neck, giving him serious injuries and permanent scars. This was the worst treatment faced by a Secretary of State until Secretary Tillerson had to sit next to President Trump on Air Force One for eight hours straight.

Even after Lincoln’s death, Seward worked alongside President Johnson for the remainder of Lincoln’s second term. Most notably, in 1867 Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million, or 2 cents per acre. (By comparison, the more famous Louisiana Purchase secured land at 3 cents per acre.) Adding 586,000 of wilderness to the country’s size was called, by some, “Seward’s Folly,” though the addition of Alaska ultimately proved to be a swindle, at least until it yielded the Palin family.

2.George C. Marshall (1947-1949)

His legacy secure after serving as the U.S. Armed Forces’ Chief of Staff during World War II (Churchill called him the “organizer of victory”), Marshall nevertheless accepted President Truman’s offer to be the 50th Secretary of State. In addition to organizing Truman’s containment policy, he became the spokesman for his eponymous Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild war-torn Europe, fight off the encroaching specter of communism, and earn him Time‘s Man of the Year (to which he later added the Nobel Peace Prize). He was also the tenth President of the Red Cross and third Secretary of Defense. (If you were feeling like a success before, I hope you didn’t mind that bucket of ice cold water.)

Though only officially deployed for four years, the Marshall Plan, coupled with the broader containment strategy, set the precedent and epitomized U.S. foreign policy since World War II. (For more on that, read this series. It’s only six parts.)

1.John Quincy Adams (1817-1825)

I should start with revealing my considerable bias: My most loyal readers know that I have a soft spot for the Adams boys. Still, before the son of our second president became the sixth president, he served as our fifth president’s Secretary of State. As James Monroe’s top diplomat and adviser, he could not have been more constructive and valuable to our nation. That included:

  • Positioning the country as neutral during the many Latin American rebellions.
  • Overseeing the western expansion of America’s border.
  • Firming up relations with Britain after the War of 1812, which led to the demilitarization of the Great Lakes and solidification of the American-Canadian border along the 49th parallel by swapping lands. These treaties marked the turning point of Anglo-American relations from two-wars-in-40-years to a friendlier status — and eventual ironclad alliance.
  • Drawing the framework of the hallmark Monroe Doctrine, which announced to Europe that the United States was ready to stand up and the Western Hemisphere would be protected, guiding principles of American foreign policy for the rest of the century.
  • And acquiring Florida from the Spanish, giving millions of future American septuagenarians a place to live and complain that you never call anymore.

Not a bad run. He then ran for and won the presidency before becoming the first and only former U.S. president to serve in the House of Representatives after his presidency (for nine terms, no less). This spectacular career was rewarded with an 1843(!) photograph — making him the earliest Secretary of State to be photographed, to say nothing of the earliest photographed American president.

adams_mini
Through his father, this guy knew George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. And we have a picture of him. Amazing.

Staying on the ranking theme, I hope to see you next week when I reveal the 18th most influential figure in Western history!

Secretaries of state also receiving consideration: Daniel WebsterCordell Hull, Hamilton Fish, Arnold Vinick


(Do you like history? Then you’ll love my book! Maybe. I can’t make any promises. Anyway, the book ranks the 30 most influential figures in the history of Western civilization. Interesting, right? Buy it today!)

11 thoughts on “America’s Top Five Secretaries of State

  1. If only Seward nabbed British Columbia…though maybe its for the best that he failed in that one

    Like

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