Thomas Jefferson: Frist Secretary of State U.S. Department of Seal
Department of State
[photo Thomas Jefferson]

On September 29, 1789, President Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, then Minister to France, to be the first Secretary of State under the new Constitution. Author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was one of the leading statesmen of his day, the most famous American political philosopher, and had 5 years' experience as American Minister in Paris, the epicenter of Europe’s diplomacy. Jefferson returned to the United States and assumed his duties on March 22, 1790. At that time the United States had only two diplomatic posts and 10 consular posts. Jefferson drew the distinction between the politically oriented diplomatic service and commercially directed consular service, and he initiated the practice of requiring periodic reports from American diplomats and consuls abroad. During his 3 years as Secretary of State, both services grew only marginally. The Department of State itself was equally small, consisting in 1790 of a chief clerk, three other clerks, and a messenger. The title "clerk" refers to officer charged with composition of messages to overseas posts and other correspondence. The total domestic and foreign expenditures of Jefferson's Department in 1791 was only $56,600. Although his sympathies belonged to France, Secretary of State Jefferson favored the policy of neutrality in European conflicts. Although he failed to resolve any of the outstanding issues facing American foreign policy--protection of American territorial integrity from Great Britain and Spain, the right to navigate the Mississippi River, or treaties of commerce with Madrid and London--he did lay the groundwork for eventual resolution of these problems.