Appointed by President Chester A. Arthur
Upon accepting his appointment in November 1881, Frederick Frelinghuysen brought little practical experience in foreign affairs to the Department of State. He was born in 1817 in Millstone, New Jersey, of Dutch ancestry. His father died soon after, and Theodore Frelinghuysen, a politically active uncle, adopted the three-year-old boy. Upon maturity Fredrick attended Rutgers College and subsequently practiced law. He served as Attorney General of New Jersey and as U.S. Senator (1866-1869 and 1871-1877), where his committee assignments included naval affairs, judiciary, and claims. While serving in the Senate he supported President Johnson's impeachment and was a member of the commission that certified President Hayes's election.
While secretary of state, Frelinghuysen was intermittently ill. Coupled with his cautious temperament, inexperience, and inheritance from former Secretary of State James G. Blaine, the state of Frelinghuysen's health appears to explain further a not-very-aggressive approach to the nation's foreign affairs.
Frelinghuysen's department received little aid from Congress and the battling political parties of the day. His own Republican Party was split into the familiar Half-Breed and Stalwart factions. The Half-Breeds complained often of missed opportunities or mistaken actions. This occurred noticeably with regard to Latin American affairs, which played such a dominant role in the Frelinghuysen years. Some major newspapers emphasized and exploited the intraparty differences. Democrats, denied executive power for 20 years, instinctively opposed most administration proposals. The Congressional elections of 1882 resulted in a comfortable Democratic margin of control in the House of Representatives. Although the Senate was more evenly divided, personal antagonisms and ambitions, as well as ignorance and indifference, heightened the lack of congressional consensus. Thoughtless or careless congressional meddling occasionally left its negative mark.
As did other nineteenth-century secretaries, Frelinghuysen led a small, under-funded, and patronage-oriented foreign affairs establishment. In Washington,