September 26, 1789: Thomas Jefferson Becomes First Secretary of State by Invitation
The end of the September 1789 was rich in history for the United States. As we wrote about yesterday, September 25, the First United States Congress adopted the Bill of Rights and thereby launched the mechanisms that would allow implementation and amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The next day, September 26, 1789, Thomas Jefferson was invited to serve as America’s first Secretary of State.
Jefferson, 47 at that time, was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, a wartime governor of Virginia and, for the four previous years, he was a United States Minister in France.
The most pressing issues for America at that point of time were the national debt and the permanent location of the capital. Jefferson opposed a national debt, preferring that each state operate its own finances. This was in contrast to Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who desired to federalize debt under the national government.
A perennial rival of Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton had bold plans to establish national credit and bank systems, but Jefferson’s dire opposition and attempts at undermining Hamilton’s execution nearly led to his dismissal by George Washington his cabinet. Jefferson later left the cabinet voluntarily, but this resulted in the breaking of relations between he and the first U.S. president: Washington never forgave Jefferson, and never spoke to him again. Thus, from the first day of the position’s existence, the office of the U.S. Secretary of State has implied controversy and shadow play which not all presidents could cope with.
The second major issue the young country faced at that time was the capital's permanent location. Hamilton favored a capital close to the major commercial centers of the Northeast, while Washington, Jefferson, and other deputies supported by the agrarians wanted it to be located in the south. After lengthy deadlock, the Compromise of 1790 was struck, permanently locating the capital, Washington D.C., on the Potomac River, and the federal government assumed the war debts of all thirteen states.
As the Secretary of State Jefferson supported the country he used to be an ambassador to, France, against Britain when the two nations started the war in 1793, though his arguments in the Cabinet were undercut by French Revolutionary envoy Edmond-Charles Genet's open scorn for President Washington. The first diplomatic steps of the Secretary of State weren’t very successful: he tried to persuade British Minister George Hammond that the Great Britain violated the Treaty of Paris, but it never happened. Seeking a return to private life, Jefferson resigned the cabinet position in December 1793, perhaps to bolster his political influence from outside the administration.
In total, Thomas Jefferson’s work as the Secretary of State was far from ideal. It therefore took him a great effort to reascend the heights of American politics, the field where he had always belonged. At this time he was not too popular among the electors, and he lost his presidential campaign of 1796 to another Founding Father – John Adams (with a result of 68 electoral votes to Adam’s 71). But Jefferson managed to return in 1800 to become the Third President of the United States, when he avenged his 1796 loss.
As of 2018 there have been 70 Secretaries of State of the United States, with Mike Pompeo as the incumbent. So despite all his failures and retreats, Thomas Jefferson certainly wasn’t the worst one.