It was on this day in 1789 that the United States Department of Foreign Affairs was created. A couple of months later, President Washington decided that he needed someone to help with “home affairs,” but didn’t think there was enough work to create a new position. So he combined them into one, and the Department of Foreign Affairs was renamed the Department of State in September of 1789. Foreign affairs remained the focus of the State Department, and is still the focus today.
American diplomacy had begun long before the official position of secretary of state. The key players in the Revolution knew that in order to succeed, they needed the help of Britain’s enemies: France and Spain. In 1775, the Continental Congress established the “Committee of Secret Correspondence,” led by Benjamin Franklin, to negotiate with potential European allies and sympathetic British supporters.
After American independence and the adoption of the Constitution, President Washington appointed Thomas Jefferson as the first secretary of state. Jefferson disliked the formality and elaborate social codes of European courts, which symbolized everything that America had rejected when it broke from England. Jefferson encouraged his diplomats to follow the example set by Benjamin Franklin: wearing simple clothing and using simple manners.
Unfortunately, the Department of State was underfunded, and diplomats earned such small salaries that only wealthy people could afford the job. In 1790, the entire budget for the Department was $56,000; that included the salaries of Jefferson, all the diplomats, administrative staff, firewood, and stationery.
Jefferson wrote: “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.”