Before, when warning about the possibility of an elected politician (especially Hillary Clinton) becoming Secretary of State, I limited my discussion to the period since World War II. However, as it is appears increasingly likely that Hillary will get the nomination, I’ve taken the time to survey all Secretaries of State who were chosen from the ranks of elected politicians to see if I could draw any conclusions. Here is a quick summary of what they did after stepping down as Secretary. I’ve listed them in reverse chronological order (with the dates of their time in office), since the more recent examples are likely to be more relevant to politics today.
Edmund Muskie (1980-1981)—never ran for office again, served on the Tower Commission, which investigated the Iran-Contra scandal
James F. Byrnes (1945-1947)—elected Governor of South Carolina in 1950
Cordell Hull (1933-1944)—never ran for office or served in government again
William Jennings Bryan (1913-1915)—never ran for office or served in government again; opposed liquor and Darwinism
Charles Evans Hughes (1921-1925)—served as an elder statesman (e.g., co-founded the National Conference on Christians and Jews) and then as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
Philander Knox (1909-1923)—re-elected to the Senate in 1916
James G. Blaine (March 1881-December 1881, 1889-1892)—after his first term as Secretary, was his party’s unsuccessful nominee for President in 1884; he resigned during his second term on the eve of the meeting of the Republican National Convention, but when submitted for consideration by the delegates, his name drew little support; he didn’t serve in office after that
Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen (1881-1885)—never ran for office or served in government again
Hamilton Fish (1869-1877)—never ran for office or served in government again
William H. Seward (1861-1869)—never ran for office or served in government again
William L. Macy (1853-1857)—never ran for office or served in government again (died one month after leaving office)
John M. Clayton (1849-1850)—re-elected to the Senate in 1853
James Buchanan (1845-1849)—served as minister to the Court of St. James; elected President in 1856 (widely thought to be one of our worst Presidents)
John C. Calhoun (1844-1845)—returned to his Senate seat (without re-election, as far as I can tell) in 1845
Daniel Webster (1841-1843, 1850-1852)—after his first term was re-elected to the Senate in 1845 and tried unsuccessfully to get his party’s nomination for President in 1848; after his second term, again tried but failed to get his party’s nomination for President in 1852
Martin van Buren (1829-1831)—elected Vice President (1832) and later President (1836)
Henry Clay (1825-1829)—re-elected to the Senate in 1830; unsuccessfully ran for President five times
John Quincy Adams (1817-1825)—elected President in 1824; after failing to be re-elected in 1828 was later elected to the U.S. House
James Monroe (1811-1814, 1815-1817)—after first term, served as Secretary of War; after second, was elected President in 1816
James Madison (1801-1809)—elected President in 1808, and re-elected 1812
Thomas Jefferson (1789-1793)—elected Vice President in 1796, and then President (1800, 1804)
What to make of this? From 1849 onwards, there have been only twelve ex-politician Secretaries (of a total of 49 who held the job). Of that twelve, only four tried to re-enter politics—and only one ran for President (unsuccessfully).
I think it’s fair to say that the general trend during the last 150 years has been for politicians to end their political careers as Secretary of State, not to use it as a stepping board for high office, let alone still higher office (and there’s not much higher to go). While an actual historian with lots of free time could examine how a Secretary of State’s political ambitions affected his in-office performance, the subsequent careers (or lack thereof) of Secretaries at least suggests how they have perceived their role—i.e., whether as an end in itself or as a means to something else.
To anyone who would point to the noble examples of the early Secretaries of State who went on to become excellent Presidents, I would note that politics and government have changed enormously since that time, and, more importantly, “Quod licet Jovi non licet bovi” (What is permitted to Jupiter is not permitted to an ox). If you want favorably to compare Hillary—or any other elected politician currently up for the job—with Jefferson, Madison, or J. Q. Adams, be prepared to get laughed out of the room.
If Hillary does receive Obama’s nomination, she is almost a sure thing to be confirmed, especially since the Senate loves to support one of its own (and of course Republicans see the benefits of a Senate seat being opened up). Thus, we might end up witnessing something that hasn’t been seen since Daniel Webster: a Secretary of State who is at the same time a candidate for President. (Of course, Hillary’s case would be even more unusual; she would also be the first Secretary/presidential candidate married to an ex-President.) To those who know far more history than I do: When was the last time any member of the cabinet ran for President or Vice President? It is not a prospect I would like to see.