Skip

I don't know anything about their race, history, or culture, but I'm sure they stand for everything we stand against.
April 10, 2012 6:09 PM   Subscribe

Oddball American history question: Who was the worst Secretary of State?

My Google searches lead me to partisan screeds denouncing Madeline Albright, Condoleeza Rice, and Hilary Clinton, but that's not what I'm looking for.

I'm talking epically bad, throughout all of American history. Not controversial like Kissinger, but just plain awful. Who is the James Buchanan, who is the Warren G. Harding of American Secretaries of State?
posted by Ndwright to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
William Jennings Bryan was basically the SecState Emeritus for his entire tenure -- Wilson gave him the job as a payoff for his endorsement, then ignored him until Bryan resigned. In the meantime, Bryan agitated for U.S. involvement in the Mexican Revolution and against U.S. involvement in World War I (and against even U.S. support for the Entente). He might not have been awful, but he was certainly among the least in-step with his President, which is kind of the biggest part of the job.
posted by Etrigan at 6:23 PM on April 10, 2012


So Henry Clay (then Speaker of the House) threw the election of 1824 to John Quincy Adams in a quid pro quo for being named Secretary of State. That's pretty freaking corrupt. Clay didn't do much, one way or another, as Secretary of State, though; the terrible things he did, like the Missouri Compromise, were done in his role as legislator.

William Jennings Bryan has been vilified (justly, in my opinion) by history, but again for things he did in his other public positions, not as Secretary of State. He resigned after the sinking of the Lusitania because he felt that Wilson should have entered World War I after that, a position which seems sound in retrospect, though it was immensely controversial at the time.

Martin van Buren was considered at the time to have been a very strong Secretary of State, but a lot of the stuff he received praise for in his lifetime was basically screwing Native nations out of their land.

Honestly, James Buchanan was probably the James Buchanan of US Secretaries of State. The man had a reverse Midas touch.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:31 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chester Alan Arthur ("the Gentleman Boss") had an equally unmemorable Secretary of State, Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, who seemed pretty darn ineffective.

And let us not forget John Sherman, selected as Secretary of State primarily because his brother was a Civil War badass, and who was constantly frozen out by President McKinley. Theodore Roosevelt has some not very nice things to say about Sherman in one of his autobiographies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:36 PM on April 10, 2012


{Bryan} resigned after the sinking of the Lusitania because he felt that Wilson should have entered World War I after that

Wait, I got this totally backwards. I confused Bryan with another member of the Wilson cabinet. My record on agreement with Bryan remains absolutely perfect at zero--Bryan thought that Wilson should have responded to the sinking of the Lusitania by imposing sanctions on Great Britain, not by doing anything at all rational.

Okay, I'm voting for Bryan. Or Buchanan. Or Sherman.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:39 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, I am still processing that for at least thirty years, I had assumed that Bryan had resigned after the sinking of the Lusitania for the obvious, sensical reason and yet it was exactly the opposite, and that if I'd remembered how to spell "Frelinghuysen" and not had to go to the Department of State site, I would have persisted in my error. Because who* would have resigned because Wilson didn't retaliate against the Brits after the sinking of the Lusitania?

* In the words of Vachel Lindsay, "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan/Candidate for president who sketched a silver Zion..." that's who.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:44 PM on April 10, 2012


selected as Secretary of State primarily because his brother was a Civil War badass,

Cite? He had a pretty impressive CV exclusive of his brother.

Bryan's a strange man, but not totally out to lunch. As the British were (cynically/sensibly) exploiting American citizens as shields for the Lusitania's arms running in hopes of cowing the Germans or creating a casus belli for America, he saw British mischief counter to US interests at work. He was a pacifist who saw no good for America in getting involved in that foreign entanglement. Various of our Lords and Masters in DC knew better, and worked to sideline Bryan's waning influence.

And if you think that a Europe exhausted by WWI might have made a more rational peace than the one at Versailles, then a case can be made that Bryan was in the right of it.

(As an aside, he was also against America sticking its nose into Latin American affairs, thinking them none of our damn business. Anti Imperialist. A good thing.)

As to the original question - it hinges as well on "bad for whom?"
posted by IndigoJones at 7:48 AM on April 11, 2012


(As an aside, he was also against America sticking its nose into Latin American affairs, thinking them none of our damn business. Anti Imperialist. A good thing.)

Aside from his pushing for greater American involvement in the ten-year civil war in Mexico.
posted by Etrigan at 8:45 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Bad for whom?"

I meant generally incompetent, in other words, if someone was extremely effective at something reprehensible I wouldn't count them for the purpose of this question.

Great answers guys!
posted by Ndwright at 8:59 AM on April 11, 2012



Cite? He had a pretty impressive CV exclusive of his brother.


Sherman was pretty much forced on McKinley because of his popular appeal based on his family connection, according to all the bios of McKinley I read. Agree that McKinley could have used Sherman a lot better, but the thing was that he didn't.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:37 AM on April 11, 2012


There was a poll of historians in 1981 about this. The five worst were:

1) John Sherman (McKinley)
2) Robert Smith (Madison)
3) Elihu Washburn (Grant). He served only five days!
4) John Foster Dulles (Eisenhower)
5) William Jennings Bryan (Wilson)
posted by Chrysostom at 10:44 AM on April 11, 2012


Aside from his pushing for greater American involvement in the ten-year civil war in Mexico.

Or eighteen years. We get into a tricky area here. His general preference was to mediate between the un-mediatable, and what to do with an outright usurper? Compared to his boss and others at the time, he was for a more tempered approach. (Worth noting too that he was first to arrange for Red Cross relief for the people affected by the war.)

Tricky also his Big Vision, which you can sort of boil it down to his not trusting US venal corporate interests (remember, we are talking the great populist here) to get pushy overseas but to instead imagine America's Essence as the shining the light of truth to a corrupt and benighted world. White man's burden sort of thing. Negotiate and instruct and uplift. Guns to protect the downtrodden as a last resort. Of course, DC and business did not see it that way....
posted by IndigoJones at 8:47 AM on April 12, 2012


« Older How old was your child when th...   |  I just moved. Everyone in the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.


Post