Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Elihu Root (1845–1937)
Rise to Prominence
Root was born in Clinton, New York in 1845 to a mathematics professor at Hamilton College, where Root also studied. The future Secretary of State received a bachelor of law degree in 1867. Root was admitted to the New York bar that same year and promptly formed his own practice. He excelled in his career as a lawyer and earned a significant fortune along the way. Root eventually became president of the U.S. Bar.
In 1883, he was selected as District Attorney to the United States in New York. Root became increasingly active in the Republican Party, and in 1899, President William McKinley asked him to serve as Secretary of War. He held this position until 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt asked him to serve as Secretary of State after the death of John Hay. Root had worked closely with Hay in both administrations, and although he had no formal diplomatic training, he had a strong grasp of foreign policy issues.
Influence on American Diplomacy
An isolationist, Root differed from President Roosevelt when it came to U.S. involvement in other nations’ crises. Root’s first notable act as Secretary of State was a goodwill tour through Latin America, where he worked to ease tensions in Cuba over the Platt Amendment and in Colombia over the role the United States played in Panamanian independence at the outset of the construction of the Canal.
The most pressing diplomatic issue that faced the United States when Root entered into duty was a dispute between France and Germany over interests in Morocco, which was resolved in 1907. Despite his reluctance to involve the United States in issues in which it had limited interests, Root negotiated arbitration treaties with 24 nations. Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 (several years after he was Secretary of State) for his work on international arbitration.
Root also worked to reorganize the Department of State in unprecedented ways. Root sought to professionalize the Foreign Service and Consular Service and created the first Foreign Service Exam. He instituted new methods of recordkeeping in the Department, devised a system of rotating members of the diplomatic service to give them greater experience, and organized the Department by geographic regions. These reforms would ultimately prove to be more enduring than Root’s contributions to foreign policy.