Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Philander Chase Knox (1853–1921)


President William Howard Taft appointed Pennsylvania Senator Philander Chase Knox as Secretary of State on March 6, 1909. Following his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination the previous year, Knox resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate and entered into duty that same day.

Philander Chase Knox, 40th Secretary of State

Rise to Prominence

Knox was born in Fayette County, Pennsylvania in 1853. The son of a respected banker, he entered Mount Union College in Ohio and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1872. Knox read law for three years in Pittsburgh before gaining admission to the Pennsylvania bar in 1875. The following year, he served as Assistant United States District Attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania.

Knox opened a lucrative private practice as a corporate attorney, and, in 1897, he served as President of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. As Counsel for the Carnegie Steel Company, he took a prominent part in organizing the United States Steel Corporation in 1901.

That same year, President William McKinley offered the position of Attorney General to Knox—an old friend from college. Knox served in the cabinets of President McKinley and his successor, President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1904, Knox was appointed U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania to fill a vacancy. Following his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1908, his former opponent, President Taft, appointed Knox Secretary of State.

Influence on American Diplomacy

As Secretary of State, Knox tightly controlled U.S. foreign policy. He reorganized the Department of State into regional divisions, maximizing expertise acquired by those in the Foreign Service. Knox extended the merit system of selection and promotion from the Consular Service to the Diplomatic Service.

Knox continued the Open Door Policy of his predecessors and pursued an even more aggressive role in encouraging and protecting U.S. investments abroad.

His emphasis on trade to promote democracy and stability became known as "Dollar Diplomacy." The United States first initiated this policy in Asia, but it became the core of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Interventions in the Caribbean and Central America were based on the theory that democratic governments would lead to free markets and open trade.

Knox also successfully negotiated the Bering Sea controversy during his time as Secretary. The treaty, designed to put an end to the devastating slaughter of seals, was signed by the United States, Great Britain, Japan and Russia in 1911.

After President Taft lost his second presidential bid in 1912, Knox resigned his position and returned to Pittsburgh. He continued to practice law until he returned to the U.S. Senate in 1916, where he led the fight against the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations after World War One.

Knox served in the Senate until his death in 1921.