What is the reasoning behind the somewhat odd and awkward naming of the U.S. Foreign Ministry as "State Department"? I get the department being the American equivalent of ministry but in what way does the word "state" relate to foreign affairs. This question is perhaps about more then just the etymology of the term and seeking to delve into the history that may have lead to such unusual naming?


4 Answers 4


The State Department was originally created as the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1787, shortly after the Constitution was adopted. Later that year, it was renamed to Department of State, and given various State-relationship duties as well. The first of these (defined in that same statute) was the responsibility to pass the decisions of Congress on to the individual States after they became law. The statute continues on, giving other paperwork-type jobs to this Secretary (and their staff), which all relate to the fact that they were to be the keeper of the Seal of the United States (and thus had to handle all official correspondence).

Later, a lot of the State Department's responsibilities were split off into their own departments (such as the Treasury), but Foreign Affairs is still there.

  • Who is "he" in the fourth sentence? It appears to have no antecedent. Perhaps it should be "the Secretary of State" instead.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 5:42
  • @phoog Good point. I’ve made the answer gender-neutral, which should also clarify that pronoun.
    – Bobson
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 6:08
  • @phoog But since it was written in 1787, I'm sure the statute actually said "he". Probably still does. We could talk about the point at which "he" was considered to mean "he or she", but that's a linguistic history lesson, not a political one. Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 22:46

The Department of State was originally called the Department of Foreign Affairs, but its name was changed in 1789 when Congress assigned the department some domestic duties. These domestic duties, from the Department of State's website, are:

  • Receipt, publication, distribution, and preservation of the laws of the United States;
  • Preparation, sealing, and recording of the commissions of Presidential appointees; Preparation and authentication of copies of records and authentication of copies under the Department's seal;
  • Custody of the Great Seal of the United States;
  • Custody of the records of the former Secretary of the Continental Congress, except for those of the Treasury and War Departments.

A "state" can refer to an entire country (or rather its political organization). So the Department of State handles affairs with other states (i.e. other countries).

This might seem to collide with our American interpretation of "state", but consider that each of our states have their own government, and that the federal government is an encompassing "superset".

  • 5
    In the late 18th century the word "state" was commonly understood to refer to the government of a country, and indeed the Declaration of Independence declared the existence of, and the Treaty of Paris acknowledged, thirteen new countries. These of course were relatively quickly subsumed into the United States, to which foreign policy was delegated in the Constitution. This differs from the EU model, in which member states do not delegate foreign policy to the EU wholesale, but only small parts of it (such as the Schengen area). Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 4:19
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    While "state" has that meaning, and the State Department's name derives from that meaning, it's not because it deals with other states. It refers to the US, and particularly to matters of state the dept did, like the Great Seal. "State" is still used to refer to official business of government (a "state visit" is a formal visit from one head of state to another head of state, each representing their country; "state secrets" are government secrets, and not, say, party secrets; etc.) In the UK, ministers are generally Secretaries of State, meaning they're in charge of govt business.
    – cpast
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 9:46
  • Just to comment on @MichaelHampton's derivation... these days we think of the phrase "United States" as a single noun phrase, but originally, it was an adjective modifying a plural noun. In the sense of "Here are a bunch of individual States that are United". Hence the phrase "These united States".
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 0:00
  • 1
    @MichaelHampton still, the members of the EU are called "member states," because "state" continues to be, in one of its senses, a synonym for "country" (in one of its senses).
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 6, 2019 at 5:47

US departments are called departments rather than ministries, because a minister is an assistant (the word is etymologically connected to minor) to the king. Without a king, the name makes little sense.

  • 1
    This wasn't the question. From the question: "I get the department being the American equivalent of ministry"
    – Publius
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 19:43
  • 3
    Where did you get the impression that a ministry could be assistant to a king and a king alone? I live a country that doesn't have a king but still has ministries. In fact, many countries operate like that. The distinction between "minister" and "secretary" is more dependent on the country having a presidential executive or a parliamentary executive.
    – user5097
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 19:58
  • The word minister means "assistant". Ministers in a parliamentary system are called that because they are conceptualized as assistants to the monarch. France, which no longer has a king, and some countries that never have a monarch use the word, but the US broke away from Britain exactly because we found its form of government to be unjust and its monarchy, arbitrary. France has on several occasions dismissed its monarch, often rather abruptly, but never repudiated the idea. Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 20:29
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    You seem to be mixing up everything... It's also not clear to me which "idea" you are referring to: the idea of a king? The last French king died 165 years ago. The fact that, as you say, some countries who never had a monarch still use the word "minister" clearly show that your explanation makes no sense.
    – user5097
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 21:33
  • 3
    The origin of "secretary" for government officials also derives from a king. The secretary of state was the assistant who handled the king's state business; traditionally, the UK Home and Foreign ministries were run by Secretaries of State, and now just about all UK Cabinet members are Secretaries of State.
    – cpast
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 9:24

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