Future Focused

Honoring 230 years of diplomatic history

By Amanda J. Richard

230 Years of American Diplomacy

The Department of State became one of the first federal agencies when the First Federal Congress of the United States established the Department of Foreign Affairs, July 27, 1789. Additional legislation established by Congress and President George Washington in September 1789 assigned the Department a variety of domestic duties which included managing the U.S. Mint, taking the census and maintaining the Great Seal of the United States.  

While foreign affairs was the original focus, the nation’s first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, envisioned a more domestic approach for the Department. Jefferson’s prior experience as minister to France made him an ideal candidate to be the nation’s top diplomat, but his pro-France stance contrasted with Washington’s preference for neutrality during the war between Britain and France. Additionally, the administration’s most pressing issues at the time included tackling national debt and establishing a permanent location for the nation’s capital. Jefferson’s views on both issues differed from those of Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, which caused a strong political rivalry and led to conflict within Washington’s cabinet. However, Jefferson was able to establish a basis for foreign affairs by defining the duties of U.S. consular officers, which was approved and written into law by Congress in 1792. Jefferson also oversaw the creation of the first pay scale for U.S. diplomats and published the first U.S. census before resigning in 1793. 

In its early years, the location of the Department changed frequently with the first physical building being situated in Philadelphia. Other locations included Trenton, N.J.; Baltimore, Md., Lancaster, Pa.; York, Pa.; Princeton, N.J.; Annapolis, Md.; and New York, N.Y. Finally, in 1800 the Department made its home in Washington, D.C., first at the Treasury Department building, then moving to seven other buildings before settling at its current location in the Harry S. Truman Building in Foggy Bottom in 1947.

Until 1976, the Department was the sole agency developing foreign policy and handling foreign affairs. Other agencies were later established to handle special functions and circumstances that stemmed from World War I and World War II. During the 19th century, most domestic duties were turned over to other federal departments and agencies, which allowed the Department to refocus on establishing foreign policy and managing foreign affairs. However, the Department still retains a few of its original domestic responsibilities such as being the keeper of the Great Seal. The Department’s full history has been documented and published by the Office of the Historian.

While the Department’s duties and location have evolved over the past 230 years, its diverse history has laid the groundwork for American diplomacy today. In recognition of its momentous anniversary, the Department hosted a daylong celebration in Washington, July 29. 

The event honored the thousands of men and women who have played pivotal roles throughout the Department’s history and emphasized the Department’s forward-looking Ethos that calls for “One Team, One Mission, One Future.” An exhibit in the U.S. Diplomacy Center further highlighted historic milestones and showcased the 70 men and women who have served as secretary of state.


Global Publishing Solutions (GPS) designed panels for a U.S. Diplomacy Center exhibit that highlighted Department milestones, including images (above) of the 70 individuals who have served as secretary of state throughout the Department’s history. Photos courtesy of GPS

Deputy Secretary John Sullivan welcomes the audience to the Department's 230th Anniversary celebration. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez
Deputy Secretary John Sullivan welcomes the audience to the Department’s 230th Anniversary celebration. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez

Deputy Secretary John Sullivan delivered opening remarks at the Dean Acheson Auditorium, highlighting the Department’s history and reflecting on the significance of 230 years of American diplomacy. 

“Our State Department team members shape the world, and your contributions will make history,” said Sullivan. “The work that you do every day to advance our mission builds upon that strong foundation laid by our forebears. As we reflect on 230 years of American diplomacy, we must continue to draw on and learn from our past, as we look forward to advance our values and priorities as one team, with one mission, and one future.”

Sullivan introduced a historians’ panel led by former Director of Policy and Planning Dr. Kiron Skinner. Two other sessions followed, both of which featured senior leadership from around the Department.

Following the morning sessions, Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources Carol Z. Perez unveiled the new “One Team” award that will be presented annually to an individual who exemplifies the Department’s Professional Ethos. The inaugural winner will be announced in November. Ambassador Dan Smith, director of the Foreign Service Institute, also announced the new pilot “One Team” training course.

Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources Carol Z. Perez announces the One Team award, July 29. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez
Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources Carol Z. Perez announces the One Team award, July 29. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez

Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl presented the new Ethos video, which described the Department’s principles tailored to its unique mission and distinctive role in American government.

Prior to the keynote remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, attendees watched a second video, “The Department’s Irreplaceable Role in U.S. History and Foreign Policy.” The video featured comments by former Secretaries of State George Shultz, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, and provided insights into the former secretaries’ tenures at the Department. Every former secretary featured in the video commended the people that make the Department’s mission successful.

“We get some of the best people to come work in the State Department,” said Rice. “It’s because people want to make the world better.”

Shultz offered advice and praise for current and future diplomats: “The whole State Department effort is to help America be strong, be secure and have an impact on the world that makes it a better place, because the better it is in the world, the better off we are. So there’s a huge amount of diplomacy that goes into achieving those objectives. Be proud. You’re representing a magnificent country, and over the decades, you’ve done a fantastic job.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provides keynote remarks at the Department's 230th celebration program, July 29. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provides keynote remarks at the Department’s 230th celebration program, July 29. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez

After the screening, Pompeo delivered remarks that referenced the work of former secretaries of state and reiterated the importance of learning from the footsteps of those who come before us.

“Every morning when I get to work, I walk through a hallway lined with paintings of my predecessors … It is a vivid reminder that the State Department’s story began long before we got here. And it will extend long after we are gone.” 

Pompeo later introduced former Secretary of State and Dean of America’s Secretaries of State Dr. Henry Kissinger, who was interviewed by his official biographer and historian, Dr. Niall Ferguson. During the discussion, Kissinger reflected on his time at the Department and the issues he faced as secretary. Kissinger then joined Pompeo in cutting the 230th-anniversary cake in front of the assembled crowd.

A conversation with the Dean of America's Secretaries of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and his official biographer, Dr. Niall Ferguson. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez
A conversation with the Dean of America’s Secretaries of State Dr. Henry Kissinger and his official biographer Dr. Niall Ferguson. Photo by Luis A. Jimenez

Pompeo concluded his remarks with a call to action for the men and women who are making history in today’s Department.

“Our future diplomats will look back on us like we look back on our forefathers. They’ll consider our deeds and tell our stories. … Let’s set a shining example for them. Let’s protect the American principles that have made our nation the greatest in the history of the world.”

Amanda J. Richard is the multimedia editor at State Magazine.


Diplomacy through the decades

As the Department celebrates 230 years of American diplomacy, State Magazine, which was founded in 1947, takes a look back through its archive to see how the Department has evolved throughout the past eight decades.

In 1949...

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An article details the experience of "coming home" from the Foreign Service and highlights current events in the U.S., including social norms, innovation, sports and of course, technology. "...those of you who have spent more than two years abroad should be prepared for what some consider the eighth wonder of the world—television."

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