Who was the first Secretary of State for the United States?

In the United States these days, the Vice Presidency is often a stepping stone to the presidency, or at least to getting the party's nomination. In fact, in every U.S. Presidential election in the 1980s and 1990s, one candidate was either the incumbent President or the Vice President of the preceding President.

But there was a time during the United States' infancy when Secretary of State — not Vice President — was the position to hold for someone who had presidential ambitions.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was the United States' first Secretary of State. When George Washington stepped down, he ran for the presidency but was defeated by then-Vice President John Adams.

Jefferson ran for president again in 1800 and won, making John Adams the country's first one-termer. After Jefferson served two terms, each of the next three Presidents was the Secretary of State at the time the previous president left office:

  • Thomas Jefferson's last Secretary of State was John Madison, who was elected president in 1808.
  • John Madison's last Secretary of State was John Monroe, who won the presidency in 1816.
  • John Madison's last Secretary of State was John Quincy Adams, who won the electoral votes (though not a majority of the popular vote) in 1824.

In 1828, John Quincy Adams ran for a second term but lost to Andrew Jackson. Four years, later, Adams's Secretary of State, Henry Clay, also ran for president, but he, too, lost to Andrew Jackson.

Two other Secretaries of State — Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan — would go on to become the President of the United States. From the Civil War to the president, a number of Secretaries of State have thrown their hats into the presidential ring, but none have achieved that highest of posts.