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The Ten Best Secretaries Of State…

July 2024
3min read

When the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, took office in 1790, his entire staff consisted of just six people, including himself and a part-time translator. The current Secretary presides over almost fifteen thousand employees scattered around the globe. During the intervening years, of course, the challenges facing Jefferson’s successors have changed dramatically as the infant republic has grown into a world power.

Not long ago, David L. Porter, associate professor of history at William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, became curious as to who had been the best and who the worst among them. A poll of diplomatic historians seemed the best way to find out. There were professional precedents for such a survey: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., twice asked historians to rank the nation’s Presidents, and Professors Roy M. Mersky and Albert Blaustein had more recently polled legal scholars as to the performance of Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Porter sent questionnaires to fifty of the nation’s leading diplomatic historians, asking each to nominate his candidates for the ten best—and five worst- Secretaries of State. All fifty-six secretaries from Jefferson to Edmund Muskie were eligible. Each nominee was to be assessed solely on his record in that office. Among the suggested criteria: the Secretary’s success in defining and achieving his diplomatic goals; the political and moral leadership he exerted on foreign affairs; the impact of his actions on the course of American history.

Some historians did not respond, apparently feeling that there were too many imponderables to make such a poll legitimate.

But more than half the historians did respond, and we present their choices in descending order of preference.


1. John Quincy Adams, who served (1817-25) under President James Monroe, was the first choice of over 80 per cent of the respondents. Stern, cerebral, conscientious, and articulate, he negotiated the acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819 and collaborated with the President in formulating the Monroe Doctrine.

2. William H. Seward served (1861-69) Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. He helped keep France and Britain from recognizing the Confederacy during the Civil War, persuaded France to withdraw her troops from Mexico after that war ended, and successfully engineered the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.

3. Hamilton Fish served (1869-77) President Ulysses S. Grant. Calm, judicious, and untainted by the corruption that permeated the Grant administration, he helped settle the thorny Alabama Claims controversy with Britain in 1871, directed negotiations that settled American claims against Spain, and signed a commercial reciprocity treaty with Hawaii in 1875, helping to pave the way for later annexation.

4. Charles Evans Hughes served (1921-25) Presidents Harding and Coolidge. He presided over the Washington Conference for Limitation of Armament (1921-22) that froze for a decade naval armament among the United States, Britain, and France, and he brought about the 1922 Nine Power Treaty, which called upon its signatories to maintain an Open Door policy toward China and respect her independence.

5. George C. Marshall served (1947-49) President Harry Truman. The first professional soldier ever to become Secretary—and the man who held the post for the shortest time among the top ten—he helped establish the postwar policy of containment. He promulgated the Truman Doctrine that provided military aid for Greece and Turkey, developed the Marshall Plan for rebuilding postwar Europe, and helped foster the Organization of American States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

6. Dean Acheson, Marshall’s successor, also served (1949-53) President Truman. He helped create NATO, brought West Germany into the European defense system, and implemented a policy of armed intervention in Korea.

7. Henry Kissinger, our only foreign-born Secretary of State, served (1973-77) under Presidents Nixon and Ford. After four enormously influential years as Nixon’s special adviser on national security affairs, he sought, as Secretary, to relax tensions and promote trade with China and the Soviet Union and pioneered the art of “shuttle diplomacy,” traveling 560,000 miles in search of peace.

8. Daniel Webster, one of only two Secretaries of State to hold non-consecutive terms, served under three Presidents: William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (1841-43) and Millard Fillmore (1850-52). He negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, averting war with Britain over Maine’s boundary, and asserted America’s right to recognize republican Hungary and other popular governments in Europe.

9. Thomas Jefferson served (1790-93) President George Washington. As our first Secretary of State he established a host of diplomatic and administrative precedents and, when war broke out between France and Britain in 1793, subsumed his own sympathy for the French Revolution to successfully administer a policy of strict neutrality.

10. John Hay served (1898-1905) Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. An expansionist, he urged annexation of the Philippines, called for an Open Door policy toward China, helped prevent partition of that country after the Boxer Rebellion, and negotiated the 1903 treaty with Panama granting the Canal Zone to the United States.

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