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WikiLeaks Reveals a Professionalism of Recent Vintage in the History of American Diplomacy

by Stephen Chambers on Nov 30, 2010

The leak of a quarter million State Department dispatches has, curiously, revealed the high level of professionalism in the United States diplomatic corps. Though embarrassing to American diplomats, the cables are valuable precisely because are filled with astute, well-informed assessments of world leaders and geopolitics. Yet, a qualified diplomatic corps did not always exist in the United States.
For the first century of U.S. history, the consular service was a haven for corruption, in which diplomats were typically elite, self-interested merchants. This mattered because illegal trade and warfare could generate hefty profits for American diplomats and their allies, even as they threatened U.S. national security. Ultimately, it would take the assassination of an American president to change this system into the more professional one we have today.
In the early United States, even the most well-regarded diplomats routinely placed personal interest above the public good. Today, few American public servants are as respected as John Quincy Adams, whose diplomatic career included foreign appointments, the secretary of state's office, and the presidency. Yet, throughout his career, Adams was, in his own words, "the champion of the merchants."
When Adams served as U.S. minister to Russia in 1809–1814, he spent the majority of his time working as a de facto commercial agent for the wealthy New England merchant William Gray, whose ships had been seized by the Russians in the Baltic. In 1809 Adams arrived in St. Petersburg aboard one of William Gray's trading ships, with Gray's son in tow. The following year, Gray sent Adams a $30,000 bond to cover expenses. In these turbulent years, the Napoleonic Wars were a bonanza for American merchants with diplomatic connections, and in 1810–1811 Adams secured the release of all of Gray's ships. Never mind that he didn't speak Russian.
Few foreign diplomats spoke the language of their host nations; most relied on translators. Because they were selected for their personal contacts rather than their diplomatic skills, U.S. foreign agents' lack of language fluency could complicate matters. On the other side of the Atlantic, the American agent in Cuba, William Shaler, was accused of French sympathies and forced to leave by the Spanish in 1811–1812, in part because he spoke fluent French, not Spanish.
The common language for most U.S. diplomats, however, was money. At a time when the nation was still much more agricultural than commercial, 20 percent or more of the federal budget was spent on foreign affairs, which mainly served commercial interests. During his tenure in Cuba, William Shaler received approximately $2,000 per year, and in Russia John Quincy Adams complained incessantly that he was paid a salary of only $9,000. By comparison, the U.S. vice president and cabinet officers each received salaries of around $5,000. Diplomats used their posts as money-makers, even when this conflicted with U.S. national security, as in the case of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
A decade after Shaler's departure, the U.S. agent in Havana, Michael Hogan wrote to then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1820, explaining that when he had tried to monitor American merchants' participation in the illegal slave trade, he had been threatened with "the powers of the assassins in the dark, which only costs a doubloon here to finish life." Hogan was one of the few American diplomats in Cuba to work against the merchants, and he was replaced the following year.
Hogan wasn't alone; most consuls didn't last long. Patronage appointments meant that diplomats usually held their posts only as long as their political allies remained in power. Following Andrew Jackson's presidential victory over John Quincy Adams in 1828, approximately 25 percent of the diplomatic corps was replaced by party loyalists interested in the lucrative appointments. Diplomacy was big business.
This basic framework of patronage and corruption persisted until the late nineteenth century, when a mentally unstable attorney, Charles J. Guiteau, assassinated President James A. Garfield in 1881. Before his execution, Guiteau claimed that he had been snubbed for diplomatic appointments. In the aftermath, the 1883 Pendleton Act ended some forms of consular patronage. Examinations for the U.S. foreign service were finally introduced in 1895. Prior to these reforms, elite American merchants routinely used the State Department to protect their investments through corrupt, unqualified American diplomats.
Had State Department missives been leaked during the first century of the American republic, they would have revealed more about their authors' ambitions than about statecraft. Today's dispatches are unsettling, not because they reveal personal corruption, but because they demonstrate accurate, insightful, professional judgment. In other words, their authors are guilty of that unforgivable sin of politics: honesty.

Stephen Chambers received a Ph.D. in History from Brown University. He is currently a Senior Writer/Editor for Analysis Group in Boston.