What is the US Secretary of State?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
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The US secretary of state is an appointed member of the president’s cabinet. His or her job is to represent the US in foreign affairs and to lead the Bureau of Foreign Affairs. This is a job nearly as old as the presidency, and the bureau was created during the Second Continental Congress in 1789. President George Washington appointed the first US secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson.

While appointing the secretary of state is the privilege of the president, the nomination must be confirmed by the US Senate. Generally, appointments are not hotly contested, since most feel the president has the right to appoint his or her own cabinet. In recent years, however, appointments to undersecretary of state have been hotly contested, as was the 2005 appointment of John Bolton. Appointments are usually confirmed smoothly when the controlling political party of the Senate matches that of the president.

The secretary of state is always a potential successor to the presidency. Only the claims of the vice president, speaker of the House, and president of the Senate come first. The position is also the highest appointed position of the cabinet.

As the secretary of state, the appointee provides several services to or for the government. He or she may correspond with other governments or branches of the government, as directed by the president, participate in consultations or negotiations with heads of other governments, and give the president advice regarding foreign affairs.


Especially during the first 100 years of the US government, many who had held the position of secretary of state made a successful later bid for the presidency. These include Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan. Since the 1850s, several who held the position have made bids for the presidency, but have not won. As of Barack Obama's presidency, only three women have served in this role: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeleine Albright.


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Hillary Clinton is also a female secretary of state.

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