America Finds Its Diplomatic Footing: Establishing a Consular Network

The American colonies provided a wealth of raw goods for their mother country, Britain. And these goods were provided almost exclusively to Britain, who provided her colonies with finished goods in return. However, they also barred the colonies from trading with other European powers, effectively isolating them. The colonies knew they would need assistance from someone abroad if they were to be successful in their war for independence, and one of the first countries they looked to for assistance was Britain's longtime rival France. France had, after all, been at war with England four times in the last century. She seemed the most likely source of aid.[1]

The Continental Congress selected Benjamin Franklin, who had already served the colonies overseas in England, to be their representative to the French government. They needed Franklin to establish a diplomatic connection with France and arrange for supplies for the Continental Army. Franklin was a one-man shop, handling both diplomatic and trade/supply issues. Before long, this became too big a job for one person. Franklin wrote Congress asking that they appoint a Consul General to handle trade and supply issues, so that he could focus entirely on diplomatic ones. Both he and John Adams had to make the request repeatedly.

Franklin, Lee, Adams, July 1778: “Congress may wish…to use the authority given it by the commercial treaty to appoint consuls.”

Franklin, May 1779: “I wish…the Congress would appoint the Consuls they have a Right to appoint by the Treaty…”

Adams, August 1779: “Don’t you intend to appoint Consuls, or a Consul to manage, maritime and commercial affairs. If you don’t there will be, more trouble for you, e’er long.”

Franklin, March 1780: “I must repeat my earnest request that some Person of Skill in such affairs, may be appointed in the Character of Consul…”

Adams, June 1780: “I would…beg leave to propose to Congress to appoint a Consul without loss of time…”

Franklin, August 1780: “I have often mentioned the Appointment of a Consul or Consuls. The Congress have perhaps not yet had time to consider that matter.”

Franklin, September 1780: “I wish…that a Consul General may soon be appointed, for this Kingdom: it would ease me of abundance of troublesome business to which I am not equal, and which interferes with my more important functions.”[2]

The difficulty lay in the fact that the wartime government back home did not yet have an appointed person designated to be responsible for foreign affairs, so representatives abroad did not have an advocate in Congress. There was also a lack of practical knowledge; few persons in government had any idea how to organize their representation abroad. Franklin said as much in a private letter to the French Foreign Minister, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, in 1780: "I received the Letter your Excellency did me the Honour of Writing to me...on the Appointment of Consuls.—I have not yet received any Orders or Instructions from the Congress relating to that Object...as the Office of Consul has not been heretofore in use in America,,,they may therefore not be so well acquainted with the usual functions and powers of such an officer in Europe."[3]

Eventually the Continental Army’s need for supplies drove Congress to pay attention to Franklin’s repeated requests. A committee proposed the appointment of a Consul in October 1780 and Congress acted that same day.

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

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

[3] Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Vergennes, 7 September 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-33-02-0210.

America Finds Its Diplomatic Footing: Establishing a Consular Network