Answer a teen's question: Did those Secretaries of State quit, or were they fired?

Tonight Peter Jennings is telling us all about Colin Powell being named as the new Secretary of State, and he remarked that there have been 63 Secretaries of State during the last 42 years (or some number like that), and The Cat Who Walks Alone asked me, “63 in 42 years? Shouldn’t there be an even number, one Secretary of State per President? What happens to them?” I said, “Well, they get fired, sometimes.” She expressed her astonishment that a high government official could be fired just like a McDonald’s worker, and by the president who appointed him, too. I added, “Sometimes they quit; they get fed up with the way the country is going and they resign.”

So then I wondered, what DID happen, that we have this particular statistic? I don’t pay that much attention to politics. Who were these people and what happened to them?

The World Almanac has a complete list of Secretaries of State. My counting shows 63 for the whole history of the country since 1789 (64 if you count James Blaine’s non-consecutive tenures). There have been 12 since 1958.

I don’t ever recall a Secretary of State being “fired” (though I won’t claim it never happened).

My memory has Cyrus Vance resigning in protest after Carter ordered the failed raid on Iran to attempt to rescue the embassy hostages.

Al Haig might have been “encouraged” to resign as Reagan’s first Secretary; I don’t quite recall. Haig and Donald Regan spent a fair amount of time squabbling with another guy for who got to be top dog in the administration, the Secretary or the Chief-of-Staff or whoever.

Most of the time it seems that a cabinet member will resign right around the beginning of a new congressional session to “seek other opportunities.” This lets him out without displaying a direct break with the president on policy issues.

No, there have only been 62 Secretaries of State over the entire history of the U.S. (The table that I’m reading from in the almanac I’m looking at is laid out in a way that makes it hard to count, so perhaps I’ve made a mistake and there are actually 63.) You misheard what was said on the news.

(How about 42 presidents instead of 42 years?)

Secretaries of State have left office for a whole bunch of reasons:

  1. Death (none since John Foster Dulles I believe)
  2. Retirement (Warren Christopher)
  3. Disagreement with president (William Jennings Bryan and Cyrus Vance, for example)
  4. Just want to do something else (see Jefferson, Thomas.)
  5. New president (always popular)

I don’t know of Secretary of State who has been fired against his will, but a lot have had their jobs made so untenable that they quit anyway, like William Rogers under Nixon. Carter asked for his entire Cabinet to resign during the middle of his term, but he didn’t get rid of everybody and Vance didn’t quit until the botched Iran hostage rescue.

You sure you want the nitty-gritty?

Okay, here we go, 88 lines about 62 Secretaries of State (well, no, not really, but here’s a list):

Thomas Jefferson (1790-1793): Resigned when he felt that Washington was moving to far towards Hamilton’s views, and got out before he was forced out.

Edmund Randolph (1794-1795): Tried to stay neutral in the Jefferson-Hamilton feud, end up despised by both sides, forced to resign after unfounded charges that he had used his office for personal gain.

Timothy Pickering (1795-1797), (1797-1800): Stayed on into Adams’ presidency, but used his position to conspire with Hamilton against administration policy. When he refused to resign, Adams dismissed him, making him the only secretary of state to be fired directly.

John Marhsall (1800-1801): Resigned a few days before Jefferson’s inaugural in order to become chief justice.

James Madison (1801-1809)

Robert Smith (1809-1811): Dismissed for incompetence.

James Monroe (1811-1817)

John Quincy Adams (1817-1825)

Henry Clay (1825-1829)

Martin Van Buren (1829-1831): Left the cabinet at his own request to “shake up” the cabinet following the Peggy Eaton scandal.

Edward Livingstone (1831-1833): No reason given for his stepping down.

John Forsyth (1833-1841)

Daniel Webster (1841-1843): No reason given for his stepping down.

Abel P. Uphur (1843-1844): Again, no reason given.

John C. Calhoun (1844-1845)

James Buchanan (1845-1849)

John M. Clayton (1849-1850): No diplomatic experience, his incompetence nearly led to a crisis with France. Dismissed by Fillmore after Taylor’s death.

Daniel Webster (1850-1852): Died in office.

Edward Everett (1852-1853)

William L. Marcy (1853-1857)

Lewis Cass (1857-1860): Resigned in protest of how Buchanan handled the Southern secession.

Jeremiah Black (1860-1861)

William H. Seward (1861-1869)

Elihu B. Washburne: (March 5-16, 1869) Resigned to become minister to France.

Hamilton Fish: (1869-1877)

William M. Evarts: (1877-1881)

James G. Blaine (March-December 1881): left to return to Congress.

Frederick T. Frelinghuysen (1881-1885)

Thomas F. Bayard (1885-1889)

James G. Blaine (1889-1892): Resigned due to ill health.

John W. Foster (1892-1893)

Walter Q. Gresham (1893-1895): Died in office.

Richard Olney (1895-1897)

John Sherman (1897-1898): Ill and therefore unable to do his job, he resigned in protest of the Spanish-American War.

William R. Day (April-September 1898): Resigned at the end of the Spanish-American War.

John Hay (1898-1905): Died in office.

Elihu Root (1905-1909): Resigned to enter the Senate.

Robert Bacon (January-March 1909)

Philander C. Knox (1909-1913)

William Jennings Bryan (1913-1915): Resigned in protest over Wilson’s beligerent response to the sinking of the Lusitania.

Robert Lansing (1915-1920): Wilson demanded his resignation after Lansing convened Cabinet meetings and attempted to act as de facto president while Wilson was recovering from a stroke.

Bainbridge Colby (1920-1921)

Charles Evans Hughes (1921-1925): Resigned to return to private law practice.

Frank B. Kellogg (1925-1929)

Henry L. Stimson (1929-1933)

Cordell Hull (1933-1944): No reason given.

Edward R. Stettinius Jr. (1944-1945): Resigned to become U.S. representative to the U.N.

James F. Byrnes (1945-1947): Resigned to return to politics (some say to challenge Truman for the nomination).

George C. Marshall (1947-1949): Resigned due to ill health.

Dean Acheson (1949-1953)

John Foster Dulles (1953-1959): Resigned for health reasons.

Christian A. Herter (1959-1961)

Dean Rusk (1961-1969)

William P. Rogers (1969-1973): Resigned because he felt that NSA Kissinger was overshadowing him.

Henry Kissinger (1973-1977)

Cyrus R. Vance (1977-1980): Resigned in protest of Carter’s ill-fated military raid to rescue the hostages in Iran.

Edmund S. Muskie (1980-1981)

Alexander M. Haig, Jr. (1981-1982): Resigned abrubtly, complaining that administration foreign policy was no longer clear or consistent.

George P. Shultz (1982-1989)

James Baker (1989-1993)

Warren Christopher (1993-1997)

Madeline Albright (1997-

(All info prior to 1989 taken from the book “The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents” by William A. Degregorio, Wings Books.)

Abel Upshur left the Secretary of State office because he died. He was killed when there was an explosion on the ship U.S.S. Princeton in 1844.

The ship tried to fire on its cannons an it exploded killing Upshur as well as Navy Secretary Thomas Gilmer, and a couple more dignitaries. President John Tyler was unharmed, but as a consolation prize (literally) he had to take care of the daughter of David Gardiner, a former NY State Senator who was killed in the blast. Tyler and Gardiner married a few months later. She was 30 years younger than the president and produced seven children from him giving Tyler a total of 15 children. His last child died in 1947.

But I digress.

Dammit, Bob, you’re right, and I should have remembered that (it’s a neat little story- violence, romance, and politics in a nice little package), but for some reason I mis-read the entry as stating the accident happened in 1894. Ah, well.

As far as I know, the last time a president tried to fire a cabinet secretary (as opposed to asking for his resignation) was when Andrew Johnson sacked Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1868. But Stanton refused to go.

The Republicans in Congress were looking for any excuse to get rid of the Democrat Johnson, and this is the issue they finally latched on to. Congress argued that since Stanton had been appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate, he could not be fired without the advice and consent of the Senate. Johnson was impeached by the House and tried in the Senate, but acquitted by one vote. It was only after the President’s acquittal that Stanton finally resigned.

As far as I know it is still an open question whether Stanton ceased to be Secretary of War on the day Johnson fired him, or on the day he resigned. I am inclined to believe the President does have the right to fire a cabinet secretary, with Pickering’s firing as a precedent, but I could be wrong. There may have been a law passed since 1868 that makes the situation more clear.

The law has been changed since Johnson’s impeachment. The law that Johnson was impeached for violating was the Tenure of Office Act. It was finally repealed in 1887.

Thank you, everybody. Yes, I think I must have meant “42 presidents”, not “42 years”. The idea was that the numbers of Presidents and Secretaries of State ought to match up, in theory at least, if each president names his own. But there seem to have been extra Secretaries of State, and The Cat wanted to know what happened to them, that they left in mid-term.

When it came up, all I could think of was Ed Meece, but he was Attorney General.

John Corrado might not have been serious about “88 Lines about 62 Secretaries of State,” but here for your enjoyment is 88 Lines about 42 Presidents.

Some Supreme Court decisions for your consideration

Myers v United States, 272 U.S. 52 (1926). The Supreme Court held that the President has sole power to dismiss any executive officer of the U.S. who was appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. This did not give the president the power to dismiss judges, of course. This decision was greatly modified by …

Humphrey’s Executor v. United States 295 U.S. 602 (1935). The court held that the president may remove only purely executive officers, and not quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial officers appointed by the advice and consent of the Senate. Apparently it’s up to the courts to decide which officers are purely executive and which are quasi-whatever.