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The History John Kerry Doesn't Want to Repeat as Secretary of State

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This story was updated after John Kerry's confirmation. 

Now that the Senate has confirmed nomination, John Kerry will be the first chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to become the secretary of State in more than 100 years. But if he has any ambition at all, he'd better hope his experience is nothing like his predecessor's.

If there was ever the epitome of a political appointee in the latter days of the 19th century it was John Sherman, who took the job in 1897. The three-time presidential candidate and longtime Republican senator was appointed by President McKinley to free up a Senate seat for a friend of the president.

While McKinley got his political manager and close friend, Mark Hanna, a Senate seat representing Ohio, he got a political headache in one of the top spots of his Cabinet.

What would come most certainly surprised onlookers. After taking the Cabinet post, Ohio’s then-Gov. Asa Bushnell addressed concerns of Sherman’s age.

“He possesses wonderful vigor,” he told The New York Times on Jan. 17, 1897, “and bears his weight of 73 years without any sign that it is a burden. The post of secretary of State would be a fitting close to his useful career, but I do not expect him to retire from public life at the end of four years. In these days, 77 is not a remarkably advanced age, and Senator Sherman, I hope, will have many more years of service.”

Often diverting from McKinley’s foreign policy, Sherman would speak out against the administration and the president who appointed him. In an attempt to get around Sherman, top officials in the McKinley administration would coordinate with Sherman’s subordinates on policy matters, according to a State Department biography.

In a slight to Sherman, assistant Secretary of State William Day would often replace him at Cabinet meetings. It wasn’t Sherman who finalized the annexation of Hawaii or negotiated with the Spanish in the run up to the Spanish-American War, it was Day.

And although Sherman was a leading voice for U.S. commerce policy, his objections to the acquisition of Cuba and the Spanish-American War were not held in high regard within the Cabinet. He resigned from his post as secretary of Sstate just four days into the war that would make Theodore Roosevelt a hero and cement the place of the United States as a power in the Western Hemisphere.

His resignation came just over a year after he took the post, and he died two years later in 1900.

While some parallels can be drawn between Sherman and Kerry—their positions in government and failed presidential bids—the terms of Kerry’s nomination seem far from the terms under which Sherman came into office.

Matt Vasiligambros

Matt Vasilogambros is a policy writer for National Journal, covering foreign affairs, the White House and Congress. He previously covered the 2012 presidential election and other federal elections for the National Journal and The Hotline. Before joining the company, Matt covered politics for PoliticsDaily.com, the Iowa Independent and the Huffington Post. Matt is a graduate of Drake University, where he served as editor-in-chief of the award-winning student newspaper. He is a native of Arlington Heights, Ill.

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