How the Secretary of State Works

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.