How the Secretary of State Works

By: Stephanie Crawford

Texas Secretary of State Esperanza "Hope" Andrade, right, is sworn in on Sept. 18, 2008, in Austin.
Texas Secretary of State Esperanza "Hope" Andrade, right, is sworn in on Sept. 18, 2008, in Austin.
AP Photo/Harry Cabluck

When a new U.S. president is elected, news reporters buzz about whom he'll appoint to his cabinet. The highest of these appointments is the U.S. secretary of state. This person's job is to advise the president on foreign affairs and to lead the U.S. Department of State in its diplomatic missions. The secretary of state is responsible for putting the president's foreign policy into action, a role that can prove especially challenging when nations are in conflict.

Before we delve further into the role of a secretary of state, let's first consider what the "state" actually is. According to Merriam-Webster, a state is a group of people within a defined territory that has its own independent government. The role of an executive in charge of the state would be to preserve the state itself, to be its "keeper" of sorts.


Though the titles and duties vary, each U.S. state or territory has its own office of the secretary of state. Most of these officials are in charge of state elections. Some manage state archives and regulate business. Because business regulation involves interstate commerce, these officials may also have a diplomatic role, cooperating with other state governments when creating public policy.

In this article, we'll learn about the history of the secretary of state office and about the duties secretaries of state handle at the federal and state levels.

History of the Secretary of State

When you set out to do something new, you often borrow ideas that you're familiar with, and then just add your own twist. The founders of the United States government did this in the late 18th century. Their experience as colonies of Great Britain was a big influence in how they decided their new independent nation should be governed.

The British gave federal and state governments the concept of a secretariat. A secretariat is a clerical staff or a corps of secretaries in an organization. In the 17th and 18th century, the crown in Great Britain appointed secretaries to head a department, primarily to serve as diplomats to its colonies and neighboring countries [source: Sainty].


Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to appoint advisors to help carry out his executive duties. George Washington was the first to use this power in 1791. He appointed a small group similar to the British secretariat called the cabinet. Washington's appointees were Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton [source: Information Please Almanac]. Today, the president's cabinet consists of 17 members: the president, vice president, and 15 secretaries, each heading a large executive department [source: White House].

In a role similar to the British secretariat, the secretary of state was the President's advisor on foreign affairs. Jefferson handled this mostly on his own in the 1790s. Today, the secretary of state still advises the president on foreign affairs, but now also heads a much larger diplomatic organization: the U.S. Department of State.

As state governments formed, governors used similar powers in their state constitutions to appoint advisors. Today, 47 U.S. states have an office of secretary of state or secretary of the commonwealth as part of the executive branch of government. In Utah, Hawaii and Alaska, the Lieutenant Governor serves in that role [source: NASS]. The duties of this role vary by state, as you'll read next section.

What does the secretary of state do?

The U.S. Secretary of State advises the president on foreign affairs, and spends a lot of time traveling around the world to meet with world leaders. Besides being a diplomat him- or herself, the secretary of state also heads the U.S. Department of State. The department includes deputy secretaries and bureaus that help enforce the foreign policy set forth by the current president and secretary of state.

While the duties of the U.S. Secretary of State might seem far away, state secretaries of state handle duties that much are closer to home. Even at the state level, the title means helping to preserve the state. However, the title of the office, the means of appointment or election and the specific duties all vary from state to state.


The following are some of the duties assigned to different secretaries of state, secretaries of the commonwealth, lieutenant governors and others across the country serving in a secretary-of-state role:

  • Administering elections
  • Appointing boards and commissions
  • Regulating businesses in the state
  • Leading selected social programs
  • Enforcing the financial disclosures of political committees
  • Taking a state census

The officials serving in the role of secretary of state often deal with interstate communication, especially in their roles regulating businesses. The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) helps to foster this interstate diplomacy, giving officials opportunities to exchange information and encouraging cooperation between state governments. Founded in 1904, the NASS is the "nation's oldest, non-partisan professional organization for state officials" [source: NASS]. NASS members include those serving in the secretary of state role from 50 states and five U.S. territories.

According to its roster updated in March 2010, NASS reports the following statistics about its members:

  • 11 were appointed, 41 were elected (including the three Lieutenant Governors) and three were selected by state legislature
  • 24 are Republicans, 30 are Democrats, and one is from Puerto Rico's New Progressive Party
  • 37 are male and 18 are female

For more on local government and related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Information Please Almanac. "Cabinet Members Under Washington." (March 30, 2010)
  • Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. "Secretariat." (March 25, 2010)
  • Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. "State." (March 25, 2010)
  • Mihalkanin, Edward S., Editor. "American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell." Greenwood Press. 2004.
  • National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). "2009 Membership Roster." March 16, 2010. (March 25, 2010)
  • Sainty, J.C. "Office-holders in Modern Britain II, Official of the Secretaries of State: 1660-1782." The Athlone Press, University of London. 1973.
  • "The Cabinet." (March 25, 2010)
  • "Presidents: George Washington." (March 25, 2010)