The Constitution of the United States, drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and ratified by the states the following year, gave the President responsibility for the conduct of the nation’s foreign relations. It soon became clear, however, that additional resources and formal structures were necessary to support President Washington in the conduct of the affairs of the new Federal Government.

The House and Senate approved legislation to establish a Department of Foreign Affairs on July 21, 1789, and President Washington signed it into law on July 27, making the Department of Foreign Affairs the first Federal agency to be created under the new Constitution. In September 1789, additional legislation changed the name of the agency to the Department of State and assigned to it a variety of domestic duties.

There was a Department of Foreign Affairs and its diplomatic and consular representatives abroad under the Articles of Confederations and this department continued to function for several months after the establishment of the federal government under the newly ratified U.S. Constitution. John Jay, originally appointed as secretary of foreign affairs under the Articles of Confederation, continued in this post until February 1790.[i]  George Washington nominated Thomas Jefferson, then minister to France, to be the first U.S. secretary of state. When Jefferson returned from France, he assumed leadership of the newly renamed Department of State, beginning work on March 22, 1790. 

By 1791, diplomatic missions had been established in five European countries: England, Spain, France, Holland and Portugal. Ministers reported on significant activities in their countries of residence while executing diplomatic instructions that Jefferson transmitted to them.  By 1792, 16 consulates had been created, most of them in Europe. Jefferson saw the consulates as a valuable source of intelligence. He sent a circular letter to consuls asking them to report to him regularly “such political and commercial intelligence as you may think interesting to the United States.” He particularly cited news of American ships and “information of all military preparations and other indications of war, which may take place in your ports.”


[i] No, I am not going into the XYZ Affair today but you are on the right track for why Jefferson replaces Jay.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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