First Consul: Thomas Barclay

Unfortunately for the Continental Congress, the man they appointed to serve as their first Consul, William Palfrey, never arrived in France—likely due to a shipwreck. Congress then appointed Thomas Barclay, who would “exercise all the powers, and perform the services required of William Palfrey, during his absence from that Kingdom, or during the pleasure of Congress; and be allowed a salary of one thousand dollars per annum.”[1] Significantly, Congress’s appointment to Barclay neglected to mention any compensation, so his first business was establishing a livelihood. On arrival in France late in 1781, Barclay connected with an old business associate, James Moylan, to launch a new firm: Barclay, Moylan & Company. He then left his family temporarily with the Moylans and spent the next nine months traveling to Paris and then to Amsterdam to look after the urgent problem of getting supplies to the Continental Army.

Barclay did not return to Paris until August 1782 and finally had an opportunity to then present his credentials, with a letter from Benjamin Franklin, to French Foreign Minister Vergennes. Vergennes immediately noticed that Barclay’s appointment was for consul in France, not Consul General as Franklin’s letter had indicated, and commented that consuls generally had authority only in their provide of residence. Was Barclay’s appointment supposed to be for Consul General, the position which would oversee consuls in various locations and not be tied itself to a specific province?

Additionally, while working to complete a draft consular convention to solidify the contours of the consular position in France, the lack of clear compensation became an issue. The draft initially specified that consuls were barred from engaging in commerce themselves. Barclay pointed out that “no provision I know of is made for Maintenance…If the consul and vice consuls are to be prevented from attending any commerce it will be necessary to inform me what their provision is to be, and how it is to be paid, and with respect to myself, if it is wished that I should continue in Office I expect a reasonable time will be given me for the Liquidation of those engagements which I have now on hand.”

Correspondence on the details of the consular convention and various miscommunications lasted until November 1788, when a revised consular convention was signed in Paris by Franklin and Vergennes. As Barclay had suggested six years previously, it did not include language ruling out commercial activities for consuls and vice-consuls. Additionally, two years after his appointment as consul in 1781, during which he had been effectively acting as Consul General, Congress finally formalized his position as Consul General.[2]

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

[2] Smith, Walter Burges. America’s Diplomats and Consuls of 1776-1865: A Geographic and Biographic Dictionary of the Foreign Service from the Declaration of Independence to the End of the Civil War. Center for the Study of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Dept. of State, Washington, D.C., 1986.