Foreign Relations: Now And Then

The current U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom will be leaving shortly. He was appointed by the current president Il Duce, and President Biden will appoint his successor. He has sent us all an Instagram goodbye note:

[Letter from the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. From the U.S. Embassy’s Instagram. Public Domain.]

Presidents have always appointed our ambassadors – called “ministers” through the 1800s. In the last fifty years or so, they have often (sometimes unfortunately) not been professional diplomats. “Big” presidential campaign donors (the current one to the U.K. was a strong supporter of the current insurrectionist president) are rewarded if they want a chance to live abroad in an ambassador’s residence, hobnob with the local great and good in “representing” the U.S., and generally enjoying doing so in what is now largely a ceremonial job.

There are diplomatic problems occasionally too, of course. Generally speaking, though, fortunately non-professional diplomats tend to get the “plum” jobs in the most “stable” places. The most “desirable” posts currently are probably in London, Dublin, Paris, Canberra, and just across the U.S. border in Ottawa (it being pleasant Canada, it is living abroad but not more than an hour or so from home).

That is at that level. Americans living abroad today almost never see an ambassador. Ambassadors are way too far up the food chain for us little people.

My visits – probably half a dozen or so – to the U.S. embassy here have thus far all been to its former Grosvenor Square location in “fashionable” central London, where it had been for two centuries until the U.S. sold the building and moved the embassy to a site south of the Thames in a much larger building that is also easier to “secure.” (Nine Elms Lane.) I have not yet been to the new one because I have not needed to go down there. Most everything that used to have to be done in person may now be done over the internet and sent through the mail… which is good because getting to that new site is a PAIN in public transportation rear end not quite as easy as was the central city location.

[Expired U.S. passport. Photo by me, 2021.]

I recall at the old embassy on arrival you got questioned at the tight narrow entrance (presumably bullet-proof) glass booth by an officiously friendly monotone-speaking embassy Marine guard. (“Please empty your pockets, sir. You are not carrying any weapons today, are you?”) After he checked your passport or ID, you walked through the perfunctory metal detector, and then were allowed in. You could not bring a cell phone inside, which could be a real hassle because the embassy also would not store them; but there was a pharmacist shop around the corner – I kid you not – that probably made a small fortune storing Americans’ and other embassy visitors’ cell phones for a small fee. (That has changed now, I believe, at the new and larger embassy; and that poor pharmacist has lost all that business since the embassy was re-located.)

Once inside that “United States in a foreign country” in London, the public area for U.S. Citizen Services felt a lot like any other federal office building. The seated waiting area – which was not large – was before windows (like at a bank) and desks at which embassy staff eventually met you. I recall on a visit (in I think 2009) chatting briefly with an American woman seeking a “birth abroad” form for her British-born American citizen baby.

In a 1999 embassy visit – my most memorable one – I met a middle-aged consular officer who probably had a gazillion years of education and was trying to sort out various problems. Mine was that the UK Home Office (like Homeland Security in the U.S.) misplaced my passport. (Don’t ask.) “Oh, we hear that happens more than you think,” he chuckled. Fortunately I had possession of an expired one. I think I was given a new passport within minutes (they don’t do that any longer because after 9/11/2001 all passports are issued from the U.S.) after I handed him two new photographs and swore an oath under penalty of death perjury that I was, well, me.

[In an expired U.S. passport. The wording there has changed little in two centuries. French remember was the “language of diplomacy” in the 1700s and early 1800s, and that was the reason a U.S. passport was still worded there in English AND French in the late 1990s. Recently in new passports Spanish has been added below French as the third language. Photo by me, 2021.]

From the 1780s-1850 our embassies were tiny (sometimes they were literally the ambassador’s personal house), and staff besides the ambassador might have been a couple of (male) secretaries. So in the early years of our republic ordinary Americans got to know their diplomatic officials far better than now. Americans living in London and in Paris often were personal friends with the ambassador himself.

So few people traveled in the 1780s, you could also leave the U.S. without what we today call a “passport” and you did not need one yet to be admitted in a foreign country. Similarly in Europe. Gradually they became necessary to LEAVE a country – especially when France after 1792 tightened up dramatically on departures, trying to keep track of fleeing aristocrats – so countries eventually began issuing them more regularly at home before you departed on your journey. It was only in the twentieth century – really with the start of World War I – that possessing a passport when traveling became the international law norm.

A U.S. passport in “1790” was also far simplier than now. Naturally there were no photographs yet. They were usually just a sturdy piece of paper, and written almost entirely in French. (The language of diplomacy.) It was stamped with the official seal of the United States, and the text described your personal characteristics (height, weight, eye color, hair color), and sometimes your occupation. If obtained abroad, it was signed by the ambassador himself.

The first two U.S. ambassadors in Paris and in London were Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. (John and Abigail Adams once lived in a house on Grovsenor Square, which served essentially as the US embassy.) Franklin was famously succeeded in 1785 in Paris by Thomas Jefferson. American travelers to those countries often came ashore and at some point sought them out – for remember in those days there was no internet:

[A 1787 France excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Photo by me, 2021.]

Before instant communications, it could take four to six months for a letter sent from London or Paris to receive a reply from the U.S. Ambassadors were especially important then because they were often called upon to have to make decisions on the spot without advice in a way they are not today. In troubled situations, such as what the U.S. ambassador to France, Gouverneur Morris, faced in France during the French Revolution’s “reign of terror” from 1792-1794, they were often largely on their own:

[A 1794 France excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Paperback. Photo by me, 2021.]

Back then, because Americans living in Paris or in London had often gotten to know the ambassador personally, they might not much like if he – and he was then only “he” of course – was replaced for political reasons. For example President George Washington recalled the ambassador to France, James Monroe, in late 1796, because Washington was unhappy with his performance. In Paris lots of Americans did NOT like that Monroe was being called home… while, naturally, some – one fictionalized below – also did:

[An 1803 Great Britain excerpt from Tomorrow The Grace. Paperback. Photo by me, 2021.]

As you also see, some years later that same man – the future president – was sent to London. The United States, Great Britain, and France, are today close allies. However, as you also see there, unfortunately that has certainly not always been so.

And that situation immediately above would get much worse after 1805. So now, back to writing that new book which will take that story on from 1805 to 1815. Have a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂