A Short History of the Department of State

Staffing and Administration

Jefferson's initial staff consisted of:

  • a chief clerk—who physically wrote all diplomatic correspondence—,
  • three other clerks,
  • one translator, and
  • a messenger

The Department's domestic budget for 1790, not counting the expenses of employees overseas, was $7,961; a figure which included firewood and stationery. Jefferson himself was paid $3,500. Total expenditures in 1791, both domestic and foreign, were $56,600.

In 1807 the Department's staff included only a chief clerk, five other clerks, and some part-time help, along with a few retainers. The Secretary of State's salary had been raised to $5,000 per year. In 1818 a Presidential order authorized a staff that included a chief clerk, seven other clerks, and a few other minor employees. In 1820, expenditures for domestic operations reached $87,300; the cost of overseas operations totaled $253,400.

Despite the increase in expenditures, the Department of State and its foreign missions were chronically overworked—and so was the Secretary of State. Secretary of State John Quincy AdamsSecretary of State John Quincy Adams In 1817, John Quincy Adams complained of excessive responsibilities shortly after assuming his duties.

“Business crowds upon me from day to day requiring instantaneous attention,” he wrote to his wife Louisa. “Unless everything is disposed of just as it occurs, it escapes from the memory and runs into the account of arrears.”

Adams found that the Department’s record keeping—already somewhat disorganized because of persistent staff shortages—became even more confused as a result of the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812 and the Department’s expanded domestic responsibilities. In an attempt to straighten out the mess, Secretary Adams carried out the first reorganization of the Department in 1818. An executive order finally spelled out clearly the responsibilities and salaries of the Department’s officers. In particular, it made the Chief Clerk the highest-ranking Department officer below the Secretary and, in addition to making him responsible for carrying out the Secretary’s instructions and assisting him with diplomatic correspondence, the Executive Order gave him oversight over all functions of the Department.

To streamline the bureaucratic process, as many as ten clerks, each of whom worked in a specific subject area, reported to the Chief Clerk. Their duties included writing consular and non-diplomatic correspondence, forwarding commissions and other documents to American or foreign ministers, preserving books and papers of the Congress, translating documents, and preparing passports, certificates, and exequaturs for foreign consuls. Other clerks copied and filed documents.