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A Brief History of the Consular Service

When most people think about consular matters, if they think about them at all, it’s only because they are having difficulties in a foreign country or because they have to apply for a visa to travel, study, or immigrate abroad. However, in focusing only on these functions, as important as they are, we also overlook the rich history and the key role consuls have played in international trade and diplomacy. Consular service attracted such luminaries as writer Brett Harte and future mayor of New York Fiorello LaGuardia as well as its share of the corrupt and power hungry, who liked the money their services brought in and the autonomy that isolation from Washington provided. Herewith a brief history of the consular service from the time of the pharaohs to the courts of France to the growing pains of the American Republic.

These excerpts are taken from the book The American Consul, written by Charles Stuart Kennedy, who spent more than 35 years in the Foreign Service as a consular officer, including in Saigon, Athens, and as consul general in Naples. A revised 2nd edition is forthcoming in the ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Series, retitled The American Consul: A History of the United States Consular Service 1776–1924. For the past quarter century Kennedy has served as the Director of Oral History at ADST.

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From the Pharaohs to the Courts of Europe

The origin of consuls predates that of permanent ambassadors by almost two millennia. The first ambassadors set up residence in foreign countries during the late Middle Ages. An establishment closely approximating a consular service had been created in Egypt in the sixth century B.C. during the reign of the Pharaoh Amasis, who, wishing to encourage trade with the Greeks, set aside Naucratis, a city in the Nile Delta, where they could live under their own governors. Those governors had many of the characteristics of modern consuls in that their principal functions were to encourage trade, act as magistrates for their citizens living in Egypt, serve as intermediaries with the Egyptian authorities, and report back to their city-states on political and economic conditions in Egypt. Naucratis was not a Greek colony but existed at the sufferance of the Egyptian pharaoh, who delegated certain powers to the Greek governors in the manner that countries today will allow foreign consuls to perform certain legal functions for their own citizens.

The Greek city-state system, and later that of the Romans, had their versions of consuls; however, with the collapse of the Roman Empire and the advent of the Dark Ages, it was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the trading states of Europe began to reassemble their systems of laws, codes, and commercial practices. Gradually merchants in northern Europe (especially members of the Hanseatic League) and the Mediterranean were enabled to enjoy a certain security in knowing that their goods and agents were not completely at the mercy of capricious local magistrates. With the codification of mercantile practices, consuls began to reappear to help merchants of their cities or states on foreign shores. By the thirteenth century, Venice had more than thirty consuls placed abroad in Tunis, Alexandria, Cairo, and Damascus, as well as in all of the major European ports.

As commerce grew, countries and city-states began to send their ambassadors to reside at courts of foreign rulers rather than to perform a specific mission and then return. These resident ambassadors took away some work consuls had performed, especially in dealing with major problems affecting large numbers of their subjects, but few ambassadors had the interest, experience, or authority to deal with commercial matters or intercede for merchants or sailors in trouble. Courts and ports were two different worlds, and it took different types of men to deal with each. Even today, although there are attempts to meld professional diplomats with consuls, individual differences in personality and outlook sharply affect preferences for one or the other field of work.

By the time of the American Revolution, the French had a highly organized consular service. Elaborate rules were drawn up by Louis XIV’s officials:  requiring a consul to be over thirty years old, to have served over three years as a vice consul, and to have proved himself worthy of further advancement. The consul received a salary and could not engage in trade. More authority was given to French consuls over their king’s subjects abroad than was given by the British to their English counterparts. British consuls were selected from merchants, naval or military officers, or other men of responsibility and experience. They were given a salary while serving abroad.

The British consuls’ duties were spelled out in a series of instructions. The king’s consul was to learn the local language; acquaint himself with the laws, ordinances, and customs of the area; and maintain the dignity of his office. The consul was to protect British subjects, seeking redress for injuries or insults they might suffer and acting as their advocate should they injure or insult a native. British subjects charged with crimes committed at sea were to be transported to Great Britain for trial. The consul was to relieve distressed British mariners and send penniless subjects home on British ships. The consul was to see that British ships paid their bills before leaving port, claim and recover what he could from the wrecks of British ships, arbitrate trade disputes between British merchants and ship captains, and put disorderly seamen and captains into prison. The consul was to complain against any oppressive regulations, arbitrary actions, or infractions of treaties in relation to the commerce of his country, and he was to transmit periodic reports on trade. With the exceptions of putting seamen and their captains in a consular jail and protecting the Protestant faith in Catholic countries, these instructions given out in the time of George I (1714–27) cover some of the major responsibilities of modern consuls of most countries today, including those of the United States.

The United States Consular Service in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Until the colonial Americans severed their ties to Great Britain in 1776, American merchants and seamen benefited from the British consular system, which looked after the interests of all British subjects. By 1776, any country with major shipping interests and markets abroad recognized the need to have a consular service and the value of having one that recruited and kept men who were knowledgeable in trade and in dealing with foreign governments.

During George Washington’s administration the American army was kept at shadow strength, the navy was nonexistent, and the diplomatic service was limited to a few capitals. The consular service, however, spread itself throughout Europe, the West Indies, and North Africa and maintained its representation in China.

Two factors caused this remarkable growth. The first was the appointment of Thomas Jefferson to the new position of Secretary of State, the ideal person to preside over the inauguration of the consular service. He was a man of great intellect and diverse interests, with a practical experience in consular matters that no other figure in the formative years of the Republic had. Jefferson had served in France for five years and had successfully negotiated the first American consular convention with a foreign power; thus he understood both the domestic and foreign concerns that consular operations raised. As a congressman he had learned what was possible from that deliberative body and – more importantly – what was not possible. As a tobacco planter and former governor of Virginia, Jefferson was attuned to the dynamics of American trade abroad and knew how consuls could help that vital export trade. All this knowledge and experience were put to use as Jefferson shepherded the consular service through its early years.

The other reason for the growth of consular appointments in the first decade of the United States under the Constitution was that the service expanded without cost to the government. There were no attempts by Washington, Jefferson, or Congress to make the consular service into a professional body with salaries, rotation in posts, or promotion upward. It was agreed that the United States could have an adequate distribution of consuls abroad by using those who would serve for whatever compensation they might personally extract from their positions as consuls. It cost money to maintain an army or navy, but the American flag could be flying from consuls’ offices throughout the world with little expense except that of the ink and paper to print their commissions. The only drawback to this favorable fiscal situation was that the men appointed were often not experienced or trained for their new positions.

Despite Jefferson’s impatience, Washington’s pleas, and the fact that a score of consuls were already at their posts waiting for legal status, Congress procrastinated, not enacting the necessary legislation until 14 April 1792. The 1792 act, which was to remain the basic legislation for the consular service for the next century, stipulates that officials were to:

— Receive protests or declarations regarding American shipping matters;

— Take provisional possession of the estates of American citizens dying abroad if there were no legal representative present, and notify the Secretary of State of the death;

— Take charge of stranded American ships and endeavor to save them and their cargoes until the owners could take charge; and

— Collect certain fees for taking statements and holding and inventorying estates.

From the beginning, American consuls were set apart from American diplomats in that they had judicial duties prescribed by law regarding notarial acts and estates and police functions over American ship owners and their masters. American diplomats did not have these responsibilities. If there was a conflict between a minister and a consul over a legal matter involving consular duties, the judgment of the consul was to supersede, a fact that did not always please an aggressive minister.

For the most part, however, American ministers (and later ambassadors) and their secretaries were only too happy to concern themselves with court life and leave estates, shipping, and other such business to their consuls.

The Consular Act of 1792 contains nothing about assisting distressed American civilians abroad, but the care of seamen was spelled out in detail. Even in the laissez-faire time of the early Republic it was recognized that sailors needed special care and treatment, almost as wards of the government.

By extension, it is not surprising that the young United States Navy and the consular service were often involved in mutual activity that fostered a strong alliance. In times of peace the American consul in a port was surely heartened to see a warship enter the harbor flying the Stars and Stripes. The round of official calls between the naval vessel and the local authorities helped the standing of the American consul. For many foreign officials and civil leaders in Europe and elsewhere the United States was as yet a little-known country. A well-turned-out warship represented a country to be reckoned with. The American consul became more important in their eyes. American naval officers benefited from the consul’s services. He helped them resupply their ships, introduced them to the social delights of the port city after perhaps months at sea, and could get their crews out of the hands of the local authorities if they overindulged in celebrating their shore leave.

In time of unrest or war the close proximity of a frigate might relieve a consul’s mind and make his work easier as the protector of American interests. Mobs had far more respect for cannon than for consular credentials. Local authorities understood the threat a hostile ship presented to the city’s commerce. If a situation came to the worst, the American naval ship could pluck the consul and his family out of danger.

Cronyism and Attempts at Reform

Throughout the 19th and early part of the 20th Centuries, consular service attracted a great many talented people, several of whom made their names in other fields. Early on the service was often viewed as a refuge for men engaged in the arts, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fennimore Cooper, William Dean Howells, and later Bret Harte, as well as others of lesser renown who looked to a consular post to ease their financial burdens or give them some social status abroad. Years later, a young Fiorello LaGuardia would work as a consular clerk in Budapest, then as a highly competent commercial agent in Fiume, before embarking on his political career.

While duty and the allure of a life abroad brought in many dedicated men, it also was the siren call for those of lesser qualifications (and principles). The period between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War was the nadir of the U.S. consular system. President Ulysses S. Grant (1869–77) set the tone for the period with his almost complete indifference to competence in his consular appointments. Grant sought to reward friends and take care of the many veterans of the Union armies, now disbanded, with many of the ex-officers requesting jobs overseas. Consular ranks soon became full of former generals, colonels, and even men of lesser rank.

Although diplomatic appointments suffered from lack of discrimination almost as much as the consular ones, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish made an effort to keep scoundrels, incompetents, or grossly unsuitable men out of the more important legations. One of Fish’s friends described the period of appointments as resembling the rutting season among stags, with the amenities and decencies of civilization forgotten. In the early days of the Grant administration, the Department of State’s anterooms were full of office seekers hoping for a legation or consulate.

In 1883, Congress took a major step toward reform in the government by passing the Civil Service Act, known as the Pendleton Act, which established the principle of selection by competitive examination for certain positions within the civil service. Unfortunately for the consular and diplomatic services, this positive development did not inspire Congress to take immediate measures to extend the competitive principle to those organizations. Moreover, because the Pendleton Act removed so many positions in the domestic civil service from the patronage system, Congress was not ready to close off consular and diplomatic jobs too from patronage requests.

Without waiting for an obviously reluctant Congress to pass an anti-patronage act, President Cleveland in September 1895 took action regarding the consular service by issuing an executive order providing that any vacant consular position of which the salary was between $1,000 and $2,500 a year should be filled by a person designated by the President for examination and having successfully passed it. Unfortunately, there were flaws in this seemingly auspicious beginning of consular reform. Cleveland, prior to issuing his executive order, entered his second term as President with a thorough sweep of the consular service — one of the most drastic in its history — by throwing out many serving consuls and putting in deserving Democrats. Having fulfilled his patronage responsibilities, he talked reform. The Republicans responded in kind when McKinley replaced Cleveland in 1897. McKinley left the executive order in place but recalled 259 of the 320 serving consuls to replace them with men sponsored by the Republican Party. The examination process became a farce: 1 candidate was rejected out of the 112 tested in the first round.

A More Professional Consular Service and Yet…

World War I and a subsequent change in American attitude toward immigration added another burden to the consular establishment — visas, immigrant and non-immigrant. Although there had been some screening of visitors and immigrants for medical problems by consuls prior to World War I, immigrants and visitors to the United States had been examined for suitability at American ports, with Ellis Island as the main reception center on the east coast. Because of wartime controls and subsequent legislation to limit immigration, the initial responsibility for examining the qualifications of emigrants abroad was transferred to the consuls and this has remained a major task of the consular service to the present day.

By 1924 both the consular and diplomatic services of the United States, by that point filled with career men with the exception of ambassadors and ministers of legation, were joined together into the Foreign Service. There was some concern on the part of those who had specialized in the diplomatic field that the more numerous consuls might dominate the new Foreign Service. This did not happen.

The diplomatic officers, now called political officers (because they reported on political events in foreign capitals), quickly seized the levers of power in the State Department’s assignment and promotion machinery and, in due time, completely submerged the consuls. Political officers kept promotions to senior rank and important positions in legations, embassies, and the Department of State under their own preview. Not until the late 1960s and 1970s was some redress made in this systematic discrimination through revitalized leadership in the consular bureau and long-overdue Congressional outrage at this state of affairs.

When one looks back on the long history of the U.S. consular service from 1776 to 1924, one finds it hard to understand why it took so long to turn it into a more professional service somewhat resembling the officer corps of the American army and navy. Other countries, notably France, Great Britain, and Russia, had career consuls long before the American Revolution. Although Congress might have been apprehensive about losing patronage, there were never more than 300 jobs at stake, and a good number of those neither paid a salary nor afforded a prospect of giving a living to any appointee. Simply stated, the President, Congress, and the American people were content for more than a century to leave consular appointments to political chance.

In some ways there still has been no improvement in the overseas representation of the United States. While consular posts today are run almost exclusively by career men and women of the Foreign Service, most American embassies in the more important capitals around the world are headed by political appointees, many of whom are amateurs in the field of foreign policy. The saving grace is that today these diplomatic neophytes are backed up by a solid professional service in subordinate ranks.

Although the American public is better served by the new breed of consuls, something has been lost. The old consular service had its incompetents, dishonest men, and time servers, but it also had its share of men with drive and initiative who were able to deal with rapidly changing situations without waiting for instructions or playing safe, resorting to bureaucratic niceties and doing little. Perhaps the old consular service was what the United States needed during its first 120 years. There was little direction from the President or Congress and there was scant understanding at home by the American public about foreign affairs. Communications were necessarily slow and frustrating and often failed disastrously. But the creaky system suited the American style of government. Assign a randomly chosen consul to a post and let him sink or swim. Throughout the history of the consular service, most consuls proved to be good swimmers.



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