Presidents Who Were Secretary of State

A Tradition of Secretaries of State Becoming President Ended 160 Years Ago

Engraved portrait of President James Buchanan
James Buchanan. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A political tradition which died out in the mid-19th century was the elevation of the secretary of state to the office of president. Six 19th century presidents had previously served as the nation's top diplomat.

The secretary of state position was considered such a launching pad to the presidency that men who sought the highest office were widely believed to have angled to be named secretary of state.

 

The perceived importance of the job is brought into sharper focus when you consider that several prominent, yet unsuccessful, presidential candidates of the 19th century had also held the position.

Yet the last president to have been secretary of state was James Buchanan, the ineffective president who served four years in the late 1850s as the country was coming apart over the issue of slavery. 

The candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the presidential election of 2016 was noteworthy in this historical context as she would have been the first secretary of state to become president since Buchanan's election 160 years earlier. 

The office of secretary of state is still a very important cabinet post, of course. So it's interesting that in the modern era we have not seen any secretaries of state go on to become president. In fact, cabinet positions in general have ceased to be pathways to the White House.

The last president who had served in the cabinet was Herbert Hoover. He was serving as Calvin Coolidge's secretary of commerce when he became the Republican nominee and was elected in 1928.

Here are the presidents who served as secretary of state, as well as some prominent candidates for president who also held the position:

The Presidents:

Thomas Jefferson

The nation's first secretary of state, Jefferson held the position in the cabinet of George Washington from 1790 to 1793. Jefferson was already a revered figure for having written the Declaration of Independence and for having served as a diplomat in Paris. So it's conceivable that Jefferson serving as secretary of state in the nation's early years helped establish the position as the foremost post in the cabinet.

James Madison

Madison served as secretary of state during Jefferson's two terms in office, from 1801 to 1809. During Jefferson's administration the young nation had its fair share of international problems, including battles with the Barbary Pirates and increasing problems with the British interfering with American shipping on the high seas.

Madison declared war on Britain while serving as president, a decision that was highly controversial. The resulting conflict, the War of 1812, had been rooted in Madison's time as secretary of state.

James Monroe

Monroe was secretary of state in Madison's administration, from 1811 to 1817. Having served during the War of 1812, Monroe was perhaps wary of further conflict. And his administration was known for making deals, such as the Adams-Onis Treaty.

John Quincy Adams

Adams was Monroe's secretary of state from 1817 to 1825. It was actually John Adams who deserves credit for one of America's greatest foreign policy pronouncements, the Monroe Doctrine. Though the message about involvement in the hemisphere was delivered in Monroe's annual message (the predecessor of the State of the Union Address), it was Adams who had advocated for it and drafted it.

Martin Van Buren

Van Buren served two years as Andrew Jackson's secretary of state, from 1829 to 1831. After being secretary of state for part of Jackson's first term, he was nominated by Jackson to be the country's ambassador to Great Britain. His appointment was voted down by the U.S. Senate, after Van Buren had already arrived in England. The senators who thwarted Van Buren as an ambassador may have done him a favor, as it made him sympathetic to the public and probably helped when he ran as president to succeed Jackson in 1836.

James Buchanan

Buchanan was secretary of state in the administration of James K. Polk, from 1845 to 1849. Buchanan served during an administration which was fixated on expanding the nation. Sadly, the experience did him no good a decade later, when the major problem faced by the country was the splitting of the nation over the issue of slavery.

The Unsuccessful Candidates:

Henry Clay

Clay served as secretary of state for President Martin Van Buren from 1825 to 1829. He ran for president several times.

Daniel Webster

Webster served as secretary of state for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, from 1841 to 1843. He later served as secretary of state for Millard Fillmore, from 1850 to 1852.

John C. Calhoun

Calhoun served as John Tyler's secretary of state for one year, from 1844 to 1845.