Department of State Established 

1873 $2 Green and Black, Department of State, Seward, Hard Paper
US #O68 – Department of State Official Mail stamp

On July 27, 1789, the Department of Foreign Affairs was created, which was later renamed the Department of State.

When the US Constitution was ratified in 1788, it specified that the president would be responsible for the country’s foreign relations. President George Washington soon realized he’d need help and requested the creation of a new executive department to help handle foreign affairs.

1958 Liberty Series - 15¢ John Jay
US #1046 – from the Liberty Series

The House of Representatives and Senate agreed and approved legislation creating such a department on July 21, 1789. President Washington then signed the legislation on July 27, 1789, officially creating the Department of Foreign Affairs. It was the first department established under the US Constitution. As the office’s responsibilities expanded to cover domestic duties as well as foreign, the agency’s name was changed to the Department of State.

Series of 1861-66 5¢ Jefferson
US #75 was often used as currency during the Civil War.

The department was soon responsible for taking the census, managing the US Mint, and keeping the Great Seal, in addition to representing America to other countries. Washington appointed the first secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, on September 29, 1789. Jefferson was serving as the minister to France at the time. John Jay, who had been secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation, continued in the post until Jefferson returned.

Jefferson returned to America and assumed his new duties in 1790. He supported France in its war with England, laid the foundation for the protection of American territory from Great Britain and Spain, established navigational rights on the Mississippi River, and created commerce treaties with Spain and England.

1935 16¢ Great Seal of the United States
US #771 – The Great Seal has been largely unchanged since 1885 and used by the secretary of State to authenticate government documents.

Over time, many of the secretary of State’s domestic responsibilities were turned over to other departments as they were developed, though the secretary of State is still the keeper of the Great Seal. Another duty the secretary has is receiving the written document if a president or vice president decides to resign.

1909 2¢ Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition Set of 2
US #370-71 – Issued for the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Expo, these stamps picture the man who negotiated the purchase of Alaska, Secretary of State William H. Seward.

The primary role of the department is to help the president develop and carry out a foreign policy. It employs over 50,000 people and has diplomats in more than 270 locations around the world. The State Department also serves foreigners trying to visit or immigrate to the US and citizens who are living or traveling abroad. It’s involved in aid programs, fighting international crime, and training foreign militaries as well. The agency also promotes our businesses abroad, opening up new markets. This department issues passports and travel warnings as well.

Many US secretaries of State have been honored on postage, including:

1895 $5 John Marshall, dark green, double-line watermark
John Marshall
1895 $2 Madison, blue, double line watermark
James Madison
1925 10¢ Monroe, orange
James Monroe
1939 6¢ John Quincy Adams, red orange
John Quincy Adams
 1894 15¢ Clay, unwatermarked
Henry Clay
1938 8¢ Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren
1870 15¢ Webster, orange
Daniel Webster
1862 1¢ Confederate States - John C. Calhoun - orange
John C. Calhoun
1938 15¢ Buchanan, light blue
James Buchanan
1986 $2 Great Americans: William Jennings Bryan
William Jennings Bryan
1962 4¢ Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes
1963 5¢ Cordell Hull
Cordell Hull
1967 20¢ Prominent Americans: George Catlett Marshall
George C. Marshall
1960 4¢ John Foster Dulles
John Foster Dulles

Official Mail 

1873 2¢-6¢ US Officials (3)
US #O58-60 – set of three Department of State Officials

Official Mail stamps are genuine postage stamps, although they were never available at any post office. These unique stamps are called Officials because their use was strictly limited to government mail. Before 1873, government agencies had “franking” privileges. This meant that government mail could be sent free of postage as long as it bore an authorized signature on the envelope. As of July 1, 1873, “franking” privileges were discontinued and special official stamps were put into circulation for use on government mail.

Each department was issued its own set of stamps. Many of the designs were taken from the current series of regular postage stamps being printed at that time – the so-called “Bank Note Issues.” The department names were inscribed on the stamps instead of the usual “US Postage” and each set was printed in its own distinct color. Only the Post Office Department had its own unique design – a numeral in an oval frame.

In 1884, the Officials were declared obsolete and were replaced with the “penalty” envelope. These envelopes were imprinted with an official emblem and carried a warning against unauthorized use by private individuals.

Click here for more Official stamps.

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