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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

The Expansionist Years

1830  through  1867

In these years, Americans looked to the West for its future, so that by 1840 almost 7 million settlers had migrated west, and many more would follow. The United States, in the next decade, expanded, becoming for the first time a continental nation. Although its lands stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, the United States was a nation divided — peaceful compromise over slavery and its expansion to new territories erupted into the Civil War.

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Chapter One

In the early nineteenth century the democratic ideals of the American and French Revolutions quickly spread throughout Europe, in part carried by Napoleon through his conquests before 1815. After 1815, national liberation movements throughout the Continent sought to replace monarchies with republican governments. There were multiple upheavals in 1830 and 1848. While the United States expressed its goodwill toward these movements, following the principles set forth by Presidents Washington and Jefferson it continued to maintain its neutrality. Americans were less concerned with matters overseas than with domestic issues.

The Rocky Mountains. Emigrants Crossing the Plains

From a drawing by Francis F. Palmer (American, 1812-1876), published by Currier & Ives (American, active 1834-1907)

hand-colored stone lithograph on paper, paper

Indian Removal Act


In 1829, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, the military hero from the War of 1812, became the nation’s first president elected from a state west of the Appalachian Mountains. Jackson claimed to represent “the common man,” people like him who were born without wealth or influence but who worked hard and relished their independence. Jackson supported the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the president to negotiate treaties of removal for all tribes east of the Mississippi River. In exchange for the lands they were forced to leave, the Indian nations were given land west of the Mississippi. The migrations of southeastern Indians—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole, known as the Five Tribes—is called the Trail of Tears. Their former lands were opened to white settlement.


Portrait of Andrew Jackson

Miner Kilbourne Kellogg (American, 1814-1889)

oil on canvas

Edward Livingston


In the 1820s Livingston represented Louisiana in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, and in 1831 President Jackson appointed him secretary of state.

Louis McLane


Like his predecessors, McLane tried but was unable to resolve the Maine boundary dispute with Great Britain or Mexican claims regarding Texas. But he did settle U.S. claims against Spain for property seized during the Napoleonic Wars.

Secretaries of State portrait

John Forsyth


As secretary, Forsyth worked to secure the payments France had promised for damages inflicted on U.S. commerce during its wars against Great Britain coordinated with President Jackson on U.S. recognition of the Republic of Texas in 1837.

Portrait of John Forsyth, 13th Secretary of State under Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren

July 4, 1836

By an act of July 4, 1836, the Patent Office, which had previously been under the department’s jurisdiction, is recognized as a separate entity. In 1949 it is incorporated into the Department of the Interior (5 Stat. 117).

Amistad Case


A group of enslaved Africans aboard the Amistad, a Spanish ship sailing from Cuba, rebelled against their captors and, taking control of the ship, killed the captain and cook. Once the ship entered U.S. waters, American authorities seized it and took everyone into custody, charging the Africans with murder and piracy. As the case wound its way through the courts, the essential question was whether the prisoners were the property of Spain or free Africans. John Quincy Adams, the son of John and Abigail Adams and the nation’s sixth president, defended the Africans and successfully argued their case before the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a triumph for abolitionists.

Front view of a black and white ceramic anti-slavery medallion


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

Daniel Webster


First appointed by President William Henry Harrison, Webster stayed on in the cabinet after Harrison died a month after his inauguration, but he was not always in agreement with President John Tyler. Webster’s major accomplishment was the landmark Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, which settled the long-standing Maine boundary dispute with Great Britain and renewed peaceful relations between the two nations.

Daniel Webster

Webster-Ashburton Treaty


Outstanding issues between the United States and Great Britain were resolved by Secretary Daniel Webster and the popular British representative, Lord Ashburton. The treaty they concluded, which bears their names, settled a boundary dispute between Maine and Canada and went on to extend the border with Canada along the 49th parallel all the way to the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota. Free navigation of the Great Lakes was assured by both nations, and they agreed to cooperate in suppressing the international slave trade.

Abel Parker Upshur


As secretary, Upshur worked to modernize and expand the navy, believing it played a vital role in securing the nation’s interests. When Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned, Tyler asked Upshur to be secretary of state, confident of his interest in westward expansion.

John Caldwell Calhoun


Following Secretary Upshur’s unexpected death, Calhoun became the next secretary of state, a position he held for just a year. As secretary, Calhoun supported Tyler’s efforts to annex Texas.

Abel Upshur becomes the first secretary of state to die in office.

February 28, 1844

 He is killed in an accidental cannon explosion aboard the USS Princeton on the Potomac River.

James Buchanan


Both Polk and Buchanan promoted westward expansion and believed in Manifest Destiny—the idea that the nation should expand all the way to the Pacific—and this goal was accomplished during Polk’s administration.

January 14, 1845

William Brown Hodgson, the first language student at the Department of State, studies in Algiers off the coast of North Africa and becomes the department’s first translator.

Oregon Territory


The Oregon Treaty between the United States and Great Britain ended the joint occupation of Oregon Territory, on the West Coast, by setting the U.S. border at the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific. This treaty also provided for free navigation of the waterways.

The United States Becomes a Continental Nation

Chapter Two

James K. Polk, the nation’s 11th president, elected in 1844, was an outspoken believer in “manifest destiny,” a popular movement promoting the westward expansion across the continent. Before he took office, the United States had annexed Texas, an independent republic that had broken away from Mexico. Now a dispute over the border between Texas and Mexico led President Polk to send a diplomat, John Slidell, to Mexico City to settle the claim and to purchase all of Upper California and New Mexico. He was unsuccessful, and in the spring of 1846 a border skirmish along the Rio Grande erupted into the Mexican-American War.

Across the Continent. “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.”

From a drawing by Francis F. Palmer (American, 1812-1876), published by Currier & Ives (American, active 1834-1907)

hand-colored stone lithograph on paper, paper


Portrait of Leonidas Wetmore

George Caleb Bingham (American, 1811-1879)

oil on canvas

One to join the fight during the Mexican-American War was Leonidas Wetmore, shown here dressed in embroidered buckskins.

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John Middleton Clayton


Clayton was a supporter of U.S. commercial expansion. His key achievement as secretary was the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which pledged cooperation with Great Britain in the building of a future canal through Central America, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Portrait of John Middleton Clayton, 18th Secretary of State under Presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore

Daniel Webster


After Webster assumed the office of the secretary of state for a second time, he continued to work for the passage of what would become known as the Compromise of 1850. His interest in foreign relations focused on trade.

Portrait of Daniel Webster, 14th and 19th Secretary of State under Presidents William H. Harrison, John Tyler, and Millard Fillmore

Edward Everett


Everett’s time as secretary was brief, just four months, but he facilitated the opening of Japan to American trade. In addition, he recognized Peru’s rights to the Lobos Islands and also shaped U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Portrait of Edward Everett, 20th Secretary of State under President Millard Fillmore

William Learned Marcy


As secretary, Marcy negotiated the 1854 Gadsden Treaty with Mexico, a purchase of land just south of New Mexico that was wanted for a transcontinental rail route.

Portrait of William L. Marcy, 21st Secretary of State under President Franklin Pierce

June 1, 1853

As representatives of the United States overseas, diplomats are encouraged by Secretary of State William Marcy to choose “the simple dress of an American citizen” during ceremonial occasions. The order proves difficult for some American diplomats. In Germany, in 1853, King Frederick William IV, as one diplomat records, found these American clothes disrespectful.

Opening of Japan


In 1853 President Millard Fillmore did divert the nation’s attention to Japan, sending Commodore Matthew C. Perry with a fleet of warships to convince the Japanese to reverse their centuries-long isolation and open trade with the United States. The next year Perry and representatives of the Japanese emperor signed the Treaty of Kanagawa. Relations between Japan and the United States were formally opened in 1860 when a Japanese delegation arrived in Washington, was received at the White House, and exchanged treaties promising peace, friendship, and commerce with Secretary Lewis Cass.

Portrait of Lewis Cass, 22nd Secretary of State under President James Buchanan


Portrait of Lewis Cass, 22nd Secretary of State under President James Buchanan


oil on canvas

Lewis Cass


President Buchanan was himself an experienced diplomat who had also served as secretary of state, and during his administration he largely directed Cass in matters of foreign policy, especially related to Latin America.

Portrait of Lewis Cass, 22nd Secretary of State under President James Buchanan

Second Opium War and the Treaties of Tianjin


Trade with China was flourishing following the Treaty of Wanghia (1844), which formalized ties between the two nations and granted American merchants in China certain rights regarding commercial exchanges. These terms were open for renegotiation in 1856. But by then the Second Opium War had begun between the Qing dynasty and a British-French coalition. The Treaties of Tianjin were among a series of unequal treaties that weakened China and strengthened European imperialism. Although the United States remained neutral in the war, it did aid the Western powers during the conflict.

Eight Chinese Export Porcelain Yellow Fitzhugh Dinner Plates


Eight Chinese Export Porcelain Yellow Fitzhugh Dinner Plates


ceramic, porcelain with overglaze polychrome enamels

This delicate yellow glaze was reserved for the Chinese imperial court until the 1870s when American merchant-traders returned from China with porcelains painted in this special color.

Jeremiah Sullivan Black


President James Buchanan appointed Black attorney general, and in the final months of his term, secretary of state. Black served for three monthsServing for only three months, he instructed U.S. diplomatic representatives abroad to caution their respective governments against recognizing the Confederacy.

Portrait of Jeremiah Sullivan Black, 23rd Secretary of State under President James Buchanan

William Henry Seward


As secretary, Seward was able to prevent recognition of the Confederacy by other nations, especially Britain. He is perhaps best known for his negotiations with Russia that led to the purchase of Alaska in 1867 under President Andrew Johnson.

Portrait of William H. Seward, 24th Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson

President Abraham Lincoln Appoints William H. Seward Secretary of State


Sectional conflict over slavery divided the nation, and in December 1860, following the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, southern states began to secede from the Union. After his inauguration in March, Lincoln named his rival for the Republican nomination, William Seward, as secretary of state. Working through Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. minister in England, Seward was able to prevent British recognition of the Confederate States, a setback for the southern bid for independence.

Portrait of William H. Seward, 24th Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson


Portrait of William H. Seward, 24th Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson

Unknown, after Matthew B. Brady (American, 1823-1896), Brady's National Photographic Art Gallery (Washington, D.C., established 1858)

oil on canvas

May 6, 1861

During the American Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward forbids the issuance of passports to persons whose loyalty to the Union is questionable.

Assassination of President Lincoln and Attack on Seward


Lincoln and Seward developed a remarkably effective collaboration, so that on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, April 14, conspirators attacked Seward as well. Recovering at home from a carriage accident, Seward managed to fend off the full force of his attacker until his son Frederick, who was assistant secretary of state, rushed to his defense. Secretary Seward was stabbed in the face and throat, and his son was wounded more seriously. Both recovered, however, and continued to serve another four years under Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.

April 14, 1865

On the night that John Wilkes Booth assassinates President Abraham Lincoln, fellow conspirator Lewis Payne (also known as Lewis Powell) attacks Secretary of State William Seward in his home on Lafayette Square. Seward, who was recovering from a carriage accident, is saved by his son, Frederick, who also works for the Department, and he and his son Frederick, an assistant secretary of state, are wounded. Both survive their injuries and resume their duties.

Secretary William Seward becomes the first secretary of state to travel outside the United States.

January 1-28, 1866

He visits the Danish Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba while in office.

The Department of State sends its first diplomatic dispatch by telegraph.

November 23, 1866

The message between Secretary William Seward and Napoleon III of France costs $19,540.50.

Alaska Purchase


Secretary Seward oversaw the purchase of Alaska from Russia. His interest in buying this territory, ridiculed at the time as “Seward’s folly” or “Seward’s icebox,” grew from his hopes of expanding trade with Asia. The purchase was approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Johnson.

Mount McKinley North 63 Latitude - Altitude 20.390 Feet

Mount McKinley North 63 Latitude – Altitude 20.390 Feet

Sydney Laurence (American, 1865-1940)

oil on canvas

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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