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History of U.S. Foreign Affairs

1775 – 1961

The Department of Foreign Affairs was the first of the executive departments established under the Constitution, and two months later it was renamed the Department of State. Since the founding of the Department, its diplomats have played important roles in the nation’s history. They secured support from France, Spain, and the Netherlands that won America its independence, and in the next two centuries U.S. diplomats have continued to protect the nation’s citizens, promote its values, and foster its commerce.

The American Commissioners

Foundations of U.S. Foreign Affairs

1775  through  1830

In the half century between 1775 and 1830, thirteen of Britain’s North American colonies united as a new nation and expanded. Declaring themselves the United States of America, they fought and won a war of independence and worked out a new Constitution that established a representative republican government. In a world ruled by kings and emperors, the United States was led by a president elected by the people. The nations of Europe did not think the new republic would last, but it did. The Constitution is now the world’s oldest codified governing document, and the United States is the world’s oldest constitutional democracy.

U.S. independence was not achieved in a vacuum, however. Instead, the world into which the new United States would make its presence known was rife with international competitions, intrigues, jealousies, and continuing conflict. Navigating this web of entanglements called for diplomacy. It was a task that the colonists might not have been fully prepared for but one that they executed with considerable success.

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The Early Years

Chapter One

In 1607 the English established their first permanent colony, at Jamestown, in the land they called Virginia. The settlers hoped to find gold or other precious metals, but soon other English colonists arrived in New England, seeking religious freedom. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, English, and Swedish colonists had settlements in the Americas. All were caught up, in various ways, in an international competition over land, natural resources, trade, and African slaves, whose forced labor in mines and on sugar and tobacco plantations made the Atlantic World profitable. With competition came conflict. Wars were constant, not only against native peoples, who defended their lands and ways of life, but between European nations whose wars were also fought in the Americas.


Map of America nova Tabula [...]

Four Maps from Theatrum Orbis Terranum, Atlas Novus

Drafted by Willem Janszoon Blaeu (Dutch, 1571-1638), published Joan Bleau (Dutch, 1596-1673) and Cornelius Bleau (Dutch, ca. 1610-ca. 1645)

engraving on laid paper, paper

Mercantile Nations


Mercantile nations regarded their colonies as resources to be exploited. British North America sent lumber, tobacco, rice, iron, and furs to England, and the colonists were expected to purchase finished goods — most of which they were forbidden to manufacture — only from England. British regulations prevented the colonies from trading with other nations directly. The laws were difficult to enforce, however, and the colonists often traded illegally in a practice known as smuggling. 

Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for means of habitation being of our constitutions, were it fully manured and inhabited by industrious people.

Captain John Smith

French and Indian War


The first worldwide war began in North America as a skirmish between British and French troops and their native American allies. Fighting soon spread across Europe and to India, the Caribbean, and Canada. Americans called it the French and Indian War; to Europeans it was the Seven Years War. When it was over, France lost almost all its possessions in the Americas. The nation was nearly bankrupt, but so, too, was Great Britain. When Britain sought to replenish its treasury by taxing its colonies, the movement for American independence gained strength.

I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, altho’ death was levelling my companions on every side.

George Washington


Silhouette of George Washington

Samuel Folwell (American, 1765-1813)

India ink on paper, paper

Declaration of Independence


In July, delegates to the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which declared that the colonies were free of British rule and an independent nation. Thomas Jefferson’s statement astonished many readers, “That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Political philosophers had argued these points, but never before had they been so boldly asserted. Almost immediately, the Declaration’s words began to circulate in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, and amaze the world. Translations were printed in most of Europe, all within two months of its signing.

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence

Unknown, after John Trumbull (American, 1756-1843)

oil on canvas

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Preamble to the Declaration of Independence 1776

Diplomacy and the American Revolution

Chapter Two

As the Revolution entered its second year, Congress recognized that American volunteers might well be outmatched by Britain’s professional armies and so sought support overseas, starting with Britain’s longtime enemy France. Benjamin Franklin was chosen by Congress for his diplomatic experience and appointed the first U.S. foreign minister. His journey beginning in fall 1776 marked his seventh crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and his most dangerous, for the British Royal Navy patrolled the high seas. In December Franklin arrived in Paris safely and began a remarkable time in his life. He became an instant celebrity, as Parisians found in him a symbol of America’s homespun resistance to British domination, and he embodied the hope for a new society. Franklin’s diplomacy was rewarded and his aims achieved in treaties signed in 1778. Shortly thereafter the French joined the Revolutionary War against the British.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin


Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Wilson (British, 1721-1788)

oil on canvas

The pictures, busts, and prints, (of which copies upon copies are spread every where) have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.

Benjamin Franklin To his daughter, Sarah Bache, June 3, 1779


Portrait of Sarah Franklin Bache

Thomas Sully (British, American, 1783-1872), after John Hoppner (British, 1758-1810)

oil on linen

American Victory in the Battle of Saratoga


Americans had yet to prove themselves on the battlefield, and while sympathetic to their cause, France was unwilling to fight Great Britain on their behalf. Instead, the French secretly aided the American revolutionaries and channeled all sorts of supplies — weapons, ammunition, and money — through agents in Paris. The decisive American victory at Saratoga convinced the French that the Americans might stand a real chance against the mighty British empire.


Chinese Export Porcelain Punch Bowl Depicting The Surrender of Burgoyne


ceramic, porcelain with overglaze polychrome enamels

The Battle of Saratoga, an event so important to American national story, was depicted in hand-painted Chinese porcelains made for America.

Treaty of Amity and Commerce and Treaty of Alliance


Benjamin Franklin concluded two treaties with France, signed on the same day, February 6, in the presence of King Louis XVI of France. The first treaty promised friendship and trade between their two countries, and the second pledged military support, which the French soon delivered, sending an army and navy across the Atlantic Ocean. In October 1781, at Yorktown, the British surrendered, surrounded by French and American armies, while the French fleet blocked any escape by sea. The fight was over.

White Bisque Figural Group of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin

Bisque Figure Group of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin

Attributed to Charles-Gabriel Sauvage (Lemire) (French, 1741-1827), Niderviller Factory (French, active 1754-1827)

bisque porcelain, ceramic


Marble Portrait Bust of Marquis de Lafayette

Attributed to Jean Antoine Houdon (French, 1741-1828)

marble, stone

Lafayette was among those French officers who fought alongside Americans at Yorktown, the last battle of the Revolutionary War.

Robert Livingston Appointed the First Secretary of Foreign Affairs


Congress at this time was operating under a plan of government known as the Articles of Confederation. When all the states ratified it in 1781, it became the first constitution of the United States. Under this government, Robert R. Livingston was named the first secretary of foreign affairs. His 19 months in office were filled with frustration, however, as the Articles were a weak governing framework.


Portrait of Robert R. Livingston, First Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Continental Congress

Unknown, after Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828)

oil on canvas

Treaty of Paris ends the Revolutionary War


Peace talks opened in Paris in 1782. The British appointed Richard Oswald and David Hartley to represent their nation, while the Americans were represented by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens, with William Temple Franklin (Franklin’s grandson) as secretary. The commissioners signed a draft treaty with the British on November 30, 1782. The final treaty was signed in 1783.

The American Commissioners

The American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain

American School, after Benjamin West (American, British, 1738-1820)

oil on canvas, in a period frame

The Constitution and the Department of State

Chapter Three

The Articles of Confederation had united thirteen colonies during the revolutionary years and established the national government of the United States. Victory in the revolution had secured peace, but peacetime made the Articles’ shortcomings more apparent. John Jay summarized these challenges: Under the Articles, he said of Congress, “They may make war, but are not empowered to raise men or money to carry it on. They may make peace, but are without power to see the terms of it imposed.”

Meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention established the framework for the U.S. government that still operates today. There would be three equal branches — an executive (president), a bicameral legislative (Congress), and a judiciary (Supreme Court). Many of these ideas were proposed by a delegate from Virginia, James Madison, who later became the nation’s fourth president. The Constitution was ratified by the states in 1788, and the new government began operating in 1789.

They may make war, but are not empowered to raise men or money to carry it on. They may make peace, but are without power to see the terms of it imposed.

John Jay of the Articles of Confederation


High-Relief Profile Bust of James Madison

Giuseppe Ceracchi (Italian, 1751-1802)

alabaster mounted on marble, stone

The President is the only channel of communication between this country and foreign nations, and it is from him alone that foreign nations or their agents are to learn what is or has been the will of the nation.

President Thomas Jefferson

Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, produces his first Anti-Slavery Medallions


In England, Josiah Wedgwood operated a successful pottery factory. Bright, colorful, and classically inspired pottery was fashionable and stylish, and Wedgwood excelled in marketing and selling his wares. In 1787 he began producing something different. “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER” resembled his other cameos that decorated pins, bracelets, shoe buckles, and even snuff boxes, but its message was a universal symbol for the abolition of slavery. The next year, Wedgwood presented several of them to Benjamin Franklin, the president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, writing “It gives me great pleasure to be embarked on this occasion in the same great and good cause with you, and I ardently hope for the final completion of our wishes.” In replying, Franklin wrote “I am persuaded [your medallions] may have an Effect equal to that of the best written Pamphlet in procuring favour to those oppressed people.”


Anti-Slavery Medallion, Am I Not A Man and A Brother

Designed by Henry Webber (British, 1754-1826) and modeled by William Hackwood (British, ca. 1753-1836) for Wedgwood

ceramic, jasperware porcelain

Foundations of U.S. Foreign Affairs

Examples of Wedgwood’s classical medallions

Constitutional Convention


Meeting in Philadelphia between May and September 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention established the framework for the U.S. government that still operates today, including activities around foreign affairs. There would be three equal branches an executive (president), a bicameral legislative (Congress), and a judiciary (Supreme Court). Many of these ideas were proposed by a delegate from Virginia, James Madison, who later became the nation’s fourth president. The Constitution was ratified by the states in 1788, and the new government began operating in 1789.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Preamble to the United States Constitution


Portrait of James Madison

Charles Bird King (1785-1862), after miniature by Joseph Wood (American, 1778-1830)

oil on panel

James Madison is called “the Father of the U.S. Constitution” for his important role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As he envisioned it, the United States would be governed by a strong centralized government composed of three branches and a bicameral legislature. Skillful negotiation and compromise helped Madison convince the delegates assembled in Philadelphia to support it.

Department of State Established


The first executive department created under the new Constitution was the Department of Foreign Affairs, renamed the Department of State two months later. It was charged with planning and implementing foreign policy. The secretary of state was to be the chief adviser to the president on foreign affairs, and the chief clerk was put in charge of departmental records. The Great Seal of the United States, adopted in 1792, was placed in the custody of the secretary.

Detail from the Franklin State Dining Room


Detail from the Franklin State Dining Room

The Great Seal of the United States, since its creation in 1792 has served as a visual emblem of the nation at home and abroad.

Congress establishes the Department of Foreign Affairs (1 Stat. 28)

July 27, 1789

But two months later changes this name to the Department of State (1 Stat. 68).

Thomas Jefferson is appointed the first secretary of state.

September 26, 1789

Thomas Jefferson


In 1789 the newly inaugurated President George Washington called Jefferson home to make him the nation’s first secretary of state under the new Constitution, which had been ratified the previous year.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1st Secretary of State under President George Washington

Thomas Jefferson Appointed the First Secretary of State


President George Washington immediately appointed Thomas Jefferson the first secretary of state. Jefferson, in Paris at the time, as minister to France, returned to the United States and began work on March 22. As an experienced diplomat, Jefferson realized that for the United States to be taken seriously, it had to adopt some standard diplomatic practices, starting with setting up missions overseas. By 1791, the first U.S. overseas missions opened in England, Spain, France, Holland, and Portugal.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1st Secretary of State under President George Washington

Caroline L. Ormes Ransom (American, 1838-1910), after Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827)

oil on canvas

A New Nation

Chapter Four

As the nation’s first president, George Washington, and his wife, Martha, established the precedents that guided later presidents when they took office. Washington’s policy of neutrality was one of them. Responding to the French Revolution of 1789 and its great upheaval in Europe, he sought to avoid American involvement in foreign conflicts. France was almost continuously at war from 1792 to 1815, primarily against Britain and its coalitions. Although Washington retired to his home, Mount Vernon, in 1797, other presidents found that, with so much fighting everywhere, U.S. neutrality was hard to maintain.

As the new century began, the United States faced war-related threats on the high seas and in the West, and in 1812 it was drawn into another war against Britain. The nation emerged from this “Second War of Independence” with a new sense of nationalism and emboldened by its growing influence in Latin America.


James Monroe’s Silver Coffee Urn Presented to Captain Edward Howe


metal, silver

In these years voyages proved dangerous. This coffee urn was possibly presented by James Monroe to a ship captain, in recognition of his speed, determination, and bravery.

Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.

President Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address 1801
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Thomas Jefferson


In 1789 the newly inaugurated President George Washington called Jefferson home to make him the nation’s first secretary of state under the new Constitution, which had been ratified the previous year.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1st Secretary of State under President George Washington

October 24, 1791

The results of the first U.S. Census, taken in 1790, are published the next year by Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state, in a government document, which drew information “from the original returns deposited in the office of the Secretary of State.” Nearly 4 million people are counted in the 1790 census according to the final report in 1793.

Sixteenth Census of the Untied States, 1943

American Silver Indian Trade Peace Medal


Beginning in its early years, the United States presented peace medals to Native American chiefs and warriors as diplomatic symbols of respect, friendship, and alliance. These medals, when worn by the leader, symbolized not only his allegiance to the United States but also the respect afforded to him by that nation. So important were these medals that, after the American Revolution, Native Americans were encouraged to exchange British peace medals for those of the United States. In 1792 and 1793 President George Washington sent a series of peace missions to the Creeks, Choctaws, and Senecas in the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, and this peace medal likely dates to this period.

American Silver Indian Trade Peace Medal

American Silver Indian Trade Peace Medal

Joseph Richardson, Jr. (1752-1831; working alone 1790-ca. 1801), James Smither, Jr. (Engraver, ca.1795-1802) (possible)

metal, silver

Edmund Jennings Randolph


President George Washington appointed Randolph the nation’s first attorney general in 1789 and then, in 1794, secretary of state.

Portrait of Edmund Randolph, 2nd Secretary of State under President George Washington

Timothy Pickering


Early in his administration, President Washington sent Pickering on special diplomatic missions to negotiate a peace agreement with the northeastern Indian tribes and then appointed him, in succession, postmaster general, secretary of war, and secretary of state. 

Washington’s Farewell Address


Just before his retirement, Washington offered this advice in a Farewell Address: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible.” The interests of Europe, he continued, were very different from those of the United States. “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition?” Therefore, concluded Washington, “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” His principles — the promotion of commerce and the avoidance of entangling alliances — guided U.S. foreign policy for more than a century.

Portrait of George Washington

Portrait of George Washington

Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755-1828)

oil on canvas

Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition?

George Washington in his Farewell Address September 17, 1796

John Marshall


As secretary of state for only a year, John Marshall was able to help negotiate a settlement with the French—the Convention of 1800 that ended the undeclared war and established terms for trade.

James Madison


As secretary, Madison cooperated closely with President Jefferson, helping to organize negotiations with France that led to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, supporting Jefferson’s decision to launch a naval war against the Barbary States of North Africa, and continuing the war between Great Britain and France.

Barbary Wars


In the Mediterranean, the Barbary States of North Africa had long engaged in piracy, capturing American merchant ships, seizing their valuable cargoes, and holding crews and passengers hostage until ransoms were paid. Some hostages spent years in filthy prisons. Although the U.S. diplomat Joel Barlow negotiated the release of U.S. prisoners, twice the United States went to war (1801–05 and 1815) to end the practice of piracy and tributes.


Portrait Bust of Joel Barlow

Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827)

oil on canvas, in the original gilt frame

Joel Barlow, a poet, celebrated the American and French Revolutions in poetic verse: “Love shall rule, and Innocent adore, / Discord shall cease, and Tyrants be no more.” Indeed he had accomplished great things by the time he arrived in Algiers in 1795.

Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase


The United States paid France $15 million for 828,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River. At less than 3 cents an acre, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country in one of history’s greatest land deals. Eager to learn about the vast territory, which was defined as the area drained by the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, President Jefferson authorized an expedition up the Missouri River in search of river routes to the Pacific Ocean that could be used for transcontinental commerce. The Lewis and Clark expedition did not discover a commercial water route, as Jefferson had hoped, but accomplished something far greater — scientific discovery in plants, minerals, and animals, as well as the establishment of diplomatic relations with several Indian nations.

William Clark

Portrait of William Clark, Lewis and Clark Expedition


oil on canvas


Engraving of Clark building huts during his expedition

The adventure Lewis had planned was dangerous. Lewis wrote to his old friend, Clark, and invited him to join the expedition: “there is no man on earth with whom I should feel equal pleasure in sharing them as with yourself.” Clark answered Lewis’ letter, “My friend, I join you with hand and heart.”

Robert Smith


Recognizing Smith’s knowledge of maritime law, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him secretary of the navy in 1801, a position he held until he became secretary of state in 1809.

James Monroe


Monroe served on several diplomatic missions that addressed the most critical threats facing his generation.

War of 1812


Americans grew angry over the British practice of impressment — the seizing sailors off U.S. merchant ships and forcing them to serve in the British navy. British alliances with Indian confederations in the West had stirred violence, and in June President James Madison asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain. Fighting erupted along the border with Canada, at sea, and in the Chesapeake Bay, where the British landed the troops that burned Washington. But in Europe peace talks were already underway, and the Treaty of Ghent, signed at the end of 1814, restored the status quo between Britain and the United States. The victory set off a wave of national pride. But the experience of war seemed to confirm the wisdom of staying out of European affairs. News of the treaty did not reach the United States until February 1815, one month after General Andrew Jackson had routed a British invasion of New Orleans. Of the five peace commissioners, two — John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay — would later serve as secretary of state, and the grandson of a third, James A. Bayard, was secretary in the late 19th century.

This war is but a completion of the Revolution. And it is God we must thank for its fortunate outcome, . . . I anticipate this second independencethis real independencewill open a vast field for expansion.

John Quincy Adams February 1, 1815 Diary Entry

Portrait of Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the Patroon

John Quincy Adams


As secretary, Adams’s brilliant diplomacy led to the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, by which the United States acquired Florida from Spain, and the influential Monroe Doctrine. 

Sultan Moulay Suleiman of Morocco gifts the first foreign property for a consulate to U.S. Consul John Mullowney.

December 4, 1821

The United States goes on to acquire other building sites overseas (36 Stat. 917) and today has consulates and embassies around the world.

Monroe Doctrine

December 3 1823

James Monroe, the nation’s fifth president, in his annual message to Congress, warned the nations of Europe not to interfere with the United States or any of the new Latin American republics that had recently overthrown Spanish rule. In turn, said Monroe, the United States would refrain from involvement in Europe. Although the United States was too weak to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, there would be no further colonization of Latin America by European nations. Clearly the United States saw itself as the protector of the republics in the Americas, but it would influence the world through its democratic ideals rather than by exercising force. This perspective would govern American foreign policy for nearly a century.

Portrait of James Monroe, 7th Secretary of State under James Madison

Portrait of James Monroe, 7th Secretary of State under James Madison

Casimir Gregory Stapko (American, 1913-2006), after John Vanderlyn (American, 1775-1852)

oil on canvas

Wherever the standard of freedom has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Secretary John Quincy Adams 1821
Portrait Miniature of John Quincy Adams


Portrait Miniature of John Quincy Adams

John Parker (British, b. 1745)

watercolor on ivory, in its gilded case

Henry Clay


As secretary, Clay oversaw the settlement of twelve commercial treaties and developed economic ties with the newly independent Latin American republics.

Martin Van Buren


As secretary, Van Buren opened U.S. trade in the British West Indies and in regions around the Black Sea, and he secured promises from the French that they would pay for U.S. property seized during their wars against Great Britain earlier in the century.

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Foundations of U.S. Foreign Affairs

1775 – 1830

The Expansionist Years

1830 – 1867

Rise to World Power

1867 – 1914

The Challenge of Global Conflict

1914 – 1945

Containment and Cold War

1945 – 1961