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The Secretary of State: Roles & Responsibilities

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  • 0:01 Secretary of State
  • 1:44 History of Department
  • 4:09 Responsibilities Today
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

This lesson discusses the importance of the Department of State, part of the U.S. executive Cabinet, which is headed by the Secretary of State. In it, we learn about the history of the organization, current policies, and responsibilities.

Secretary of State

In Article II, Section 2, the Constitution provides for a Cabinet of officials to advise the President on issues related to his or her respective department. Here, the President is authorized to seek advice from the 'principal Officer in each of the executive Departments.' Each new President has the authority to appoint individuals to serve as Secretaries of the Cabinet Departments.

The State Department is one of the original three Cabinet departments established with the founding of the United States, along with the Departments of Treasury and War, which is now Defense. When founded, it was known as the Department of Foreign Affairs. This organization is headed by the Secretary of State, who serves as a member of the President's executive Cabinet. This position is third in line of succession to the presidency, after the President and Vice President.

The State Department is primarily responsible for our nation's foreign policy. The Secretary of State carries out the President's policies internationally, with the help of the many employees of this department, including the Foreign Service, Civil Service, and U.S. Agency for International Development. The Secretary acts as the head of the organization, negotiating with world leaders on behalf of the President, and reporting back to the President about confidential negotiations. According to the State Department, some of the responsibilities include treaty negotiation, protection of U.S. citizens abroad and administration of U.S. passports. The Secretary of State also represents the U.S. at meetings of worldwide organizations, committees, and conventions and recommends appointments to the Foreign Service as well as accepting representatives from foreign governments.

History of Department

The State Department was founded in 1789 to serve various functions for the newly formed U.S. government. Among its original responsibilities were issuing patents and copyrights, maintaining a population census, and overseeing immigration. Many of these have later become the responsibility of other agencies. The first Secretary of State was Thomas Jefferson, who was appointed by President Washington.

Since the founding of the United States, the State Department has included diplomats around the world who represent us in almost every country worldwide. These individuals help negotiate international agreements, like peace treaties and tariffs. During the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin served as our first diplomat, working in France to build relationships that aided the country in our bid for independence. All ambassadors, diplomats, and consulates work with official authority granted by the President.

From those first few ambassadors building relationships with allies around the world, the State Department has grown to be an enormous organization, overseeing thousands of employees worldwide. These individuals act on behalf of the Secretary of State, under the authority of the President, to represent the United States, in negotiations and relations with foreign governments. They provide individuals on the ground worldwide who help the Secretary to observe potential problems, negotiate trade agreements, and assist U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad. For example, an embassy can help a traveler with problems like a lost or stolen passport, or if he or she is arrested for breaking the law in that country.

Let's go over some of the notable actions of past Secretaries of State:

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