Ministerial duties of U.S. Secretary of State?

I once saw Richard Nixon on TV telling the story of his last day in office as president – the day after his televised resignation speech. As he was making preparations to leave the White House, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger came up to him and said, “Excuse me, Mr. President, but you forgot to sign this.” It was a letter Kissinger had prepared, from Nixon to Kissinger, stating, “I hereby resign as president of the United States.” Nixon signed it.

Why? That is, why is the Secretary of State the official who should properly receive such a letter of resignation? State-level secretaries of state are generally responsible for official record-keeping as well as running the elections; but I always thought the federal State Department was responsible for foreign relations and nothing else.

Duties of the Secretary of State, specifically the last paragraph:

Emphasis mine

So what does custody of the Great Seal of the United States mean?

To amplify the point, that’s just the way the job evolved. For a very brief period, the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, was called the Secretary of Foreign Affairs (IIRC), but soon other jobs were added.

For example, if you wanted to get a patent during Washington’s first term, you had to send the application and a prototype to Jefferson. And Jefferson would decide if a patent was warranted. But the president signed the patent.

The Secretary of State never even went on a trip outside the country while serving as Secretary until 1866 when William Seward went to the Virgin Islands, then a Danish possession.

Custody of the Great Seal means that Condoleezza Rice has THE seal that is used to put the finishing touches on treaties and matters like that.

From the State Department FAQ:

Incidentally, the Great Seal of the United States.

I should add that nobody was ever “Secretary of Foreign Affairs”. Congress changed the name before Jefferson was appointed to the position by Washington.

So does that mean she has an embosser like the one shown in this picture in the top drawer of her desk?

I suppose the differing duties evolved out of the sense that the Secretary State was supposed to be the person who represented the United States as a single entity. Therefore the SoS represents the United States in dealings with foreign powers but is also the person a President would direct a proclamation to as a representative of the nation.

When the Federal government started under the Constitution in 1789, there were really only three departments in the Executive branch. There was State (with a grand total of 4 employees), War (with 2 employees) and Treasury (with a whopping 39). There was an attorney general, but he started out working on retainer.

Treasury had the most employees (according to the new bio on Hamilton by Chernow) because it was going to have the most to do, namely collect customs duties at the various ports.

The War Department oversaw the rather puny armed forces of the new country.

And then there was State. It’s primary role was foreign affairs. But somebody had to handle all the other stuff, such as taking care of official documents. It’s not like there was a whole lot of work to do at the time compared to now.

Actually, the Great Seal is about the size of a phone booth, made out of wood and metal, and is on display at the Department in the Diplomatic Lobby, often called the “Trophy Room” where a lot of the gifts given to Foreign Service Officers or former Secretaries are displayed. (We’re not allowed to keep gifts if they’re worth over USD 35, and we can only accept ten of those in a calendar year, IIRC. Anything over that gets donated to the Department.)

The Seal gets put on lots of things, including the commission of every Foreign Service Officer. I’ve got one on my wall right now, and will have another soon when I get tenured. The machinery looks pretty antique and they take good care of it.

Thanks. Is there a picture of the Great Seal anywhere on the Internet?

I tried to search for it via Google, but all I could get was illustrations of the eagle and pyramid design (or fringe sites that darkly mentioned the Masonic connections). I imagined the actual Great Seal was just an ordinary embosser, like the ones used by notaries public. So I’m actually happy that it’s something grander.

Here you go
Check out page 14 for a closeup of the actual machinery.

The original duties, like the job title, was influenced by the fact that as recently as 1782 British kings had had two secretaries of state who handled the paperwork on both domestic and foreign policy. Although neither kept the great seal (that was the job of the lord chancellor), the British secretaries of state were responsible for instigating the labyrinthine process by which most documents with the great seal were issued. Giving the US great seal to the American equivalent was just a radical simplification of that process.