Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

John W. Foster (1892–1893): Secretary of State

John Watson Foster was born in 1836 in Pike County, Indiana. He graduated from the University of Indiana in 1855, attended Harvard Law School, and, though never formally admitted to the state bar, joined a law practice in Evansville, Indiana.

Foster fought in the Civil War, first as a major and then as a colonel, but left the military following the end of the conflict. He then returned to his home state, where he worked as editor of the Evansville Daily Journal, ultimately transforming the paper into a forum for Republican politics. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant named Foster the U.S. minister to Mexico, a post Foster held for eleven years before being transferred by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 to a similar position in Russia.

By 1881, Foster had left Russia, returned to the United States, and had established a law practice in Washington, D.C. Two years later, President Chester Arthur had tapped him to become U.S. minister to Spain, a post Foster held until 1885. Foster then returned to the United States and resumed his legal career before becoming President Benjamin Harrison’s special plenipotentiary in 1890, responsible for negotiating treaties with Spain, Russia, and Britain. Two years later, Foster became Harrison’s secretary of state following the resignation of James G. Blaine. Foster served from June 1892 until February 1893, during which time he addressed such matters as the Bering fur seal issue with Russia and Britain, the possible annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, and a Chilean attack on U.S. sailors.

After resigning in 1893 to pursue the Bering fur seal issue, Foster served in 1895 as China’s representative in negotiating an end to the Sino-Japanese War, as President William McKinley’s special representative to Great Britain and Russia in 1897, as President Theodore Roosevelt’s head commissioner in negotiations with Canada in 1903, and as China’s representative to the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907.

During his career, John Foster published several books on diplomacy, helping to found the American Society of International Law in 1906 and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1910. Though he had become a pacifist in his later years, Foster supported Allied and American intervention in World War I. An influential secretary of state in his own right, Foster directly influenced two future secretaries of state as well: son-in-law Robert Lansing (secretary of state for Woodrow Wilson, 1915-1919) and grandson John Foster Dulles (secretary of state for Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-1959). John Watson Foster died in 1917.