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The United States Secretary of State is the head of the United States Department of Statemarker, concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary is a member of the President's Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in line of succession and order of precedence. The current Secretary of State selected by President Barack Obama is Hillary Rodham Clinton. The office of the Secretary of State is one of the most high-profile positions in U.S. government. Three of the last four Secretaries of State have been women.


On January 10, 1781, the Second Continental Congress created the Department of Foreign Affairs. On July 27, 1789, George Washington signed a congressional bill into law reauthorizing an executive Department of Foreign Affairs headed by a Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Congress then passed another law giving certain additional domestic responsibilities to the new Department and changing its name to the Department of State and the name of head of the department to the Secretary of State, and Washington approved this act on September 15, 1789. The new domestic duties assigned to the newly renamed department were receipt, publication, distribution, and preservation of laws of the United States, custody of the Great Seal of the United States, authentication of copies and preparation of commissions of executive branch appointments, and finally custody of the books, papers, and records of the Continental Congress including the Constitution itself and the Declaration of Independence.

In the early years of the republic, the Vice President would be whoever had the second highest electoral votes, and could be from a different political party from the President. The Secretary of State as a member of the same political party as the President, was therefore often viewed as the natural stepping-stone to the Presidency. Secretaries of State who later occupied the White Housemarker included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan. The secretaries who unsuccessfully ran for President (either before or after their service at the State Department) are as follows:

Note that Seward, Bryan, Hughes, Hull, Muskie and Clinton ran for president before service as Secretary of State.


Most of the non-original domestic functions of the Department of State have been transferred to other agencies. Those that remain include storage and use of the Great Seal of the United States, performance of protocol functions for the White Housemarker, drafting of proclamations, and replies to inquiries. In accordance with the United States Constitution, the Secretary performs such duties as the President requires. These include negotiating with foreign representatives and instructing U.S. embassies or consulates abroad. The Secretary also serves as a principal adviser to the President in the determination of U.S. foreign policy and, in recent decades, has become responsible for overall direction, coordination, and supervision of interdepartmental activities of the U.S. Government overseas, excepting certain military activities.

As the highest-ranking member of the cabinet, the Secretary of State is fourth in line to succeed the Presidency, coming after the Vice President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President pro tempore of the Senate. (See United States presidential line of succession.)

Federal law ( ) provides that a presidential resignation must be accomplished by written communication from the President to the office of the Secretary of State. This has occurred once, when President Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974 via a letter to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

When there is a vacancy in the office of Secretary of State, it is exercised by another member of the cabinet, as was common in earlier history, or, in more recent times, by a subaltern official of the State Department until the President appoints and the United States Senate confirms a new Secretary.

List of Secretaries of State

See also


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