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Even in the earliest years of the United States, diplomacy was recognized as an important element of a strong government. Men such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Francis Dana were chosen for their intelligence, strength of character, and powers of persuasion to enlist the support of foreign countries for American independence. Benjamin Franklin, who was extremely successful in his commission to France, became one of the most recognizable faces in French culture—the French put his picture on watches, jewelry, and even snuffboxes (a container that holds scented, powdered tobacco), and the women of France had their hair done to resemble the fur caps Franklin wore. However, not all diplomats enjoyed such stardom; Francis Dana spent a cold, unproductive two years in Russia, unable to speak the language, and incapable of convincing Catherine II to support American independence.

Established in 1789, the State Department was placed under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, the first U.S. secretary of state and the senior member of President Washington's cabinet. It was his responsibility to initiate foreign policy on behalf of the U.S. government, advise the president on matters related to foreign policy, and administer the foreign affairs of the United States with the help of employees both at home and abroad.

Before the invention of radio, telegraph, telephone, and e-mail, the ambassador was entrusted to make final, binding decisions on behalf of the United States. More immediate means of communication narrowed the distances between embassies and their home countries; though today's ambassadors represent the president and actively contribute to international relations, they are more restricted in their powers.

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