Protecting the Young Republic

On January 10, 1781, the Continental Congress established the Department of Foreign Affairs, to be directed by a secretary for foreign affairs. Critics, however, soon claimed that the powers of the department were not clearly defined and that its secretary had limited freedom of action.

British General John Burgoyne addresses Indian chiefs.  Diplomatic attempts to resolve British involvement with Native American tribes and British and French interference with U.S. shipping could not prevent the outbreak of war in 1812.

British General John Burgoyne addresses Indian chiefs. Diplomatic attempts to resolve British involvement with Native American tribes and British and French interference with U.S. shipping could not prevent the outbreak of war in 1812.

The new Constitution in 1789 gave the President the power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors with the advice and consent of the Senate, creating a divided authority over the conduct of foreign affairs between the legislative and executive branches. On September 15, 1789, Congress passed “An Act to provide for the safe keeping of the Acts, Records, and Seal of the United States, and for other purposes.” This legislation changed the name of the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Department of State because of the new domestic duties assigned to the agency.

Foremost among the initial duties of the Department of State was the defense of the new nation.  The State Department was responsible for promoting the existence and independence of the United States, especially against encroachments by European powers.  The Department of State also negotiated the expansion of the United States.

In spite of considerable diplomatic activity, problems with Europe eventually led to the War of 1812. While the United States enjoyed victories­ mainly at sea­ it suffered serious defeats including the burning of Washington. (The major U.S. land victory, the Battle of New Orleans, occurred after the peace was signed.) Nevertheless, diplomats negotiating the peace made notable gains from a weak position.

British forces under Major General Robert Ross take the city of Washington on August 24, 1814.

British forces under Major General Robert Ross take the city of Washington on August 24, 1814.

The signing of the Treaty of Ghent with Great Britain, December 24, 1814, concluded the War of 1812.  U.S. delegates included John Quincy Adams, Albert Gallatin, Christopher Hughes, James A. Bayard, Henry Clay, and Jonathan Russell.

The signing of the Treaty of Ghent with Great Britain, December 24, 1814, concluded the War of 1812. U.S. delegates included John Quincy Adams, Albert Gallatin, Christopher Hughes, James A. Bayard, Henry Clay, and Jonathan Russell.

U.S. diplomacy facilitated the country’s expansion and formulated its stance toward further European ambitions in the hemisphere. Negotiations in Paris over shipping and deposit rights in New Orleans led James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 for $15 million.


In 1823 a principle expounded by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to President James Monroe became part of the foundation of U.S. diplomacy and remains so today.  Known as the Monroe Doctrine, it developed immediately  following the independence of most Latin American republics.  The Monroe Doctrine states that the United States will look unfavorably upon any and all European efforts to subject nations in the western hemisphere to their own political systems.

President James Monroe is seen discussing with his advisors the policy later known as the Monroe Doctrine.  From left to right, they are Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, Attorney General William Wirt, President Monroe (standing), Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard, and Postmaster General John McLean.

President James Monroe is seen discussing with his advisors the policy later known as the Monroe Doctrine. From left to right, they are Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, Attorney General William Wirt, President Monroe (standing), Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, Secretary of the Navy Samuel Southard, and Postmaster General John McLean.

The diplomatic service in this period grew slowly, but consular and commercial services expanded rapidly. In 1790 the United States had only two ministers plenipotentiary­ one in London and one in Paris. By 1830 it had 15. Consuls, commercial agents and consular agents helped expand commerce and protect ships and crews. Consular posts grew from 10 in 1790 to 141 in 1830.

The French flag is lowered and the U.S. flag is raised in ceremonies marking the transfer of the Lousiana Territory to the United States.

The French flag is lowered and the U.S. flag is raised in ceremonies marking the transfer of the Lousiana Territory to the United States.

Diplomatic & Consular Uniforms

Photo courtesy of the Society of the Cincinnati Musuem at Anderson House, Washington, D.C.

Photo courtesy of the Society of the Cincinnati Musuem at Anderson House, Washington, D.C.

The ornate uniform pictured here is worn by Larz Anderson when he was minister to Belgium in 1911. U.S. diplomats designed their own uniforms until 1817, when the State Department formally prescribed an official uniform for ministers based on one worn by U.S. delegates to the Conference of Ghent in 1814, which ended the War of 1812. In 1853 Secretary of State William L. Marcy issued a circular recommending that U.S. diplomats wear “the simple dress of an American citizen.” But many foreign governments preferred that accredited diplomats wear a uniform at formal occasions. So the practice was left to the discretion and needs of the diplomat. In some cases, uniforms became quite elaborate, as pictured. A consular uniform was prescribed in 1815, and a circular in 1 838 reaffirmed that it should be worn for “visits of ceremony and on all proper occasions.” In 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order directing that no person in the diplomatic or consular service should wear a uniform or official costume not previously authorized by Congress, something Congress never did. Uniforms are no longer worn by U.S. diplomats.

James Monroe, 1811-1817

James Monroe
Secretary of State
1811-1817

John Quincy Adams, 1817-1825

John Quincy Adams
Secretary of State
1817-1825

Henry Clay, 1825-1829

Henry Clay
Secretary of State
1825-1829

Martin Van Buren, 1829-1831

Martin Van Buren
Secretary of State
1829-1831

Edward Livingston, 1831-1833

Edward Livingston
Secretary of State
1831-1833

Louis McLane, 1833-1834

Louis McLane
Secretary of State
1833-1834

John Forsyth, 1834-1841

John Forsyth
Secretary of State
1834-1841

Daniel Webster, 1841-1843

Daniel Webster
Secretary of State
1841-1843

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