Introduction: Why Study the History of American Consulships?

James Forrestal, who served as Secretary of the Navy and of Defense under President Franklin Roosevelt, once commented that "For the only way in which a durable peace can be created is by world-wide restoration of economic activity and international trade." Forrestal understood that financial incentives are as important in international diplomacy as they are in an individual's everyday life. Mutually beneficial trade is a powerful motivator to secure peace and binds its participants together. This was just as true in the late 18th century as it is today. In 1778, France had just formally agreed to assist the Continental Congress with its War for Independence against England and both countries sought to solidify their new relationship diplomatically and economically. What roles would be necessary for this, and who were the people who filled them?

America's first diplomat to France, Benjamin Franklin, quickly realized that the fledging nation had needs more numerous and varied than he could execute on his own. When the Continental Army's need for supplies became dire, the Congress appointed a consul to handle economic and trade matters, so that Franklin could focus on diplomatic ones. In such a time of domestic turmoil for the United States, American consuls had a significant role to play in facilitating the trade relationships that undergird any larger diplomatic relationship.

This project will investigate the specific role of American consuls in France during this early period of American diplomacy. The new United States began its international corps with a single diplomat located in the other nation’s capital. Over time, the American consular network abroad came to consist of a Consul General, located in the overseas capital, and assisted in various port cities by a consul located on site. In France, for example, consuls came to be posted in such places as Bordeaux, Nantes, and Havre, all located on or near the French coast.

Up to this point, scholarly attention has generally been focused, on the one hand, on individuals who served as diplomats (such as Benjamin Franklin) or, more rarely, on individuals who served as consuls (such as Thomas Barclay). Alternatively, authors have taken the opposite approach of investigating, for example, the entirety of the American Foreign Service or the relationship between the French domestic economy and its trade relationships with other countries. The American consular network was and is so important that it still exists today; over two hundred years after George Mason IV wrote to George Washington to request that his son's business partner be appointed consul in Bordeaux, an American consulship still exists in Bordeaux. However, to date no dedicated research has been done which focuses on the role of consuls during their formative period within the wider Franco-American diplomatic framework. This project seeks to fill that void.

Introduction: Why Study the History of American Consulships?