To-Do List: Consular Activities

A consul’s primary responsibility was to be the on-site authority for any commercial difficulty or dispute that might arise abroad. Consuls made sure, for example, that provisions in trade treaties were followed. The Continental Congress and France had entered into a formal treaty of military alliance in 1778; at the same time, they also executed treaties of amity and commerce.[1] Provisions in these treaties included benefits like favored trading status for the two countries and setting limits on the fees and duties that could be imposed on trading vessels.[2]

Consuls would also occasionally be called on to execute other tasks. Especially early on, before America’s overseas representation was fully established, consuls might be drafted for diplomatic missions. Barclay, for example, was sent to organize military supplies for the Continental Army as soon as he arrived in France and would later be posted to Morocco to negotiate a diplomatic treaty with the sultan.[3] Consul Joel Barlow, who was posted to Algiers in 1793, helped to draft the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, which aimed to protect American shipping interests from pirates.[4]

These examples underscore the fact that, although diplomats and consuls were intended to (and usually did) specialize in their selected spheres, there was a lot of overlap. America simply did not have many people stationed abroad, so when a situation arose, the closest available person was drafted.

Fortunately, at this point the consular workload was not always a full-time job. Joseph Fenwick, the consul at Bordeaux who had been nominated by George Mason IV, devoted most of his time to his own business interests in his and John Mason’s firm Fenwick and Mason. Sometimes his position as consul served his business interests, such as when he was able to obtain a sworn certificate of ownership for ship cargo that would wind up being useful in court: the captain of the Molly did not follow orders and tried to sell Fenwick’s goods at a different port than directed, going so far as to destroy documentation on board that showed what his original destination was supposed to be. Fenwick’s sworn statement turned out to be one of many irrefutable proofs of fraud that persuaded the court to find in his favor.[5] Outside of extraordinary situations like this one, Fenwick’s letters to friends and colleagues are full of his thoughts on tobacco shipments, cargo timetables, pricing difficulties, and currency fluctuations—all the concerns of a businessman. His consular work is rarely mentioned.[6]

[1] Gaustad, Edwin S. Benjamin Franklin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

[2] Library of Congress. Treaty of Amity and Commerce. Library of Congress. (April 17, 2019)

[3] Roberts, Priscilla H. and Roberts, Robert S. Thomas Barclay: Consul in France, Diplomat in Barbary. Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2008.

[4] Buel Jr., Richard. Joel Barlow: American Citizen in a Revolutionary World. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

[5] "From the Washington Federalist. Case of the Molly." Philadelphia Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) XVIII, no. 3913, May 22, 1801: [2]. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers, accessed April 18, 2019,

[6] MacMaster, Richard K. The Tobacco Trade with France: Letters of Joseph Fenwick, Consul at Bordeaux, 1787-1795. Maryland Historical Magazine, March 1965.