From the very beginning, diplomacy has always been a dangerous business. In 1780, Henry Laurens, former President of the Continental Congress, was sent to negotiate a treaty of friendship with the Netherlands. Unfortunately for Laurens, his ship was captured at sea by the British. Despite a quick-thinking attempt to throw the bag containing his papers and "a considerable weight of iron shot" overboard, an even quicker British sailor recovered the diplomatic papers. As a result, the British declared war on the Netherlands and Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
To have served the United States abroad was an important step on the path to the White House during the earliest years of the country. Several of the first presidents—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren—represented their country in the courts of Europe. The most recent President to have a diplomatic career on his resume was George H.W. Bush who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-1973) and chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China (1974-75).
Most American diplomats carry out their business behind the scenes, but sometimes they become known around the world. Brand Whitlock is one of those men. As the United States Ambassador to Belgium during World War I, Whitlock was one of just two diplomats left in the country during the German occupation. He was known as Le Ministre Protecteur because of his work to feed the Belgians and save those sentenced to death. Although he was unable to save a British nurse, Edith Cavell, from execution, his attempt won him worldwide renown. His name still lives in Belgium where the Brussels Public Library and the Boulevard Brand Whitlock still bear his name.
While women were not able to join the diplomatic corps until the 20th century, their service to the Department of State begins during the 18th century. In January 1800, Elizabeth Evans was paid $5 by the Department for "taste," a type of narrow ribbon that may have been used to affix the Great Seal to treaties and documents.
At the beginning of President Lincoln's Administration in April 1861, the new Secretary of State, William H. Seward of New York, proposed to end domestic political strife over the all-consuming question of slavery by pursuing an active foreign policy, one that might lead to declarations of war against France or Spain, thus uniting domestic factions against a foreign threat. Seward even volunteered himself as the principal prosecutor of such a policy. The President tactfully rebuffed this extraordinary proposal. Thereafter, Seward subordinated himself to the President and served him loyally and effectively.
In 1850 the Austrian charge in Washington, the Chevalier Hulsemann, who strenuously objected to supposed American interference in the domestic affairs of Hungary, communicated an insulting message to the Department of State. His Government, he stated, had "deemed it proper to preserve a conciliatory deportment making ample allowance for the ignorance of the Cabinet of Washington on the subject of Hungarian affairs and its disposition to give credence to the mendacious rumors which are propagated by the American press."
To this statement Secretary of State Daniel Webster replied in kind: "Nothing will deter either the Government or the people of the United States from . . . forming and expressing their own opinions freely and at all times upon the great political events which may transpire among the civilized nations of the earth. Their own institutions stand upon the broadest principles of civil liberty; and believing those principles . . . to be . . . in fact the only principles of government which meet the demands of the present enlightened age, the President has perceived with great satisfaction that in the constitution recently introduced into the Austrian Empire many of these great principles are recognized and applied."
In 1803, two U.S. diplomats, American Minister to France Robert Livingston and Special Negotiator James Monroe, concluded the largest real estate transaction ever when they secured the entire territory of Louisiana for the United States. Although Livingston and Monroe exceeded the orders of President Thomas Jefferson—and their spending limit—the deal was too good to pass up. As Livingston reported, the French Treasury Secretary urged him to "Consider...the importance of having no neighbors to dispute you, no war to dread." The Americans did, and two weeks later on April 30, 1803, the French agreed to sell the entire territory for the bargain price of $15 million.
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, diplomatic reports to and from our missions abroad moved at the pace of ships crossing the ocean. But everything changed the following year with the completion of the transatlantic cable linking the United States and Europe. Just a few months later, the Department of State established a telegraphic office to handle the important new messages. Although diplomats learned to write more concisely, the Department warned that it was expensive and not to be used "except when justified by the importance and urgency of the case..." Diplomats took the message to heart and trimmed their prose accordingly. In 1881, the U.S. Minister to Russia, John W. Foster, earned the distinction of sending the shortest diplomatic dispatch. "Emperor Dead," he wrote. No one since has crafted a more concise cable.