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Second-Rank Americans

In response to:

Those Sentimental Americans from the May 12, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

Gordon Wood in his article on John and Abigail Adams [NYR, May 12] remarks that Congress would not appoint the future president as ambassador to the court of St. James but only as minister, out of a feeling that the style of ambassador reeked too much of Old World aristocracy.

That may well have been one of the arguments used, but Congress was probably more concerned about the financial consequences of such an appointment, as an ambassador was expected to live in much grander style than a minister, thereby at least doubling the cost of the mission. Whatever the reasoning in Philadelphia may have been at the time, it would in any case have been highly unlikely that the British government would have agreed to conduct diplomatic relations with the new republic at the ambassadorial level. The exchange of ambassadors was restricted to the great powers, and only to those with a king or emperor as sovereign. The two republics among the great powers at the time, Venice and the United Provinces, only sent ministers as their envoys.

The distinction between embassies and legations, and therefore of countries of the first and of the second rank, was codified at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and lasted well into the twentieth century. The fact that the United States appointed its first ambassadors, to the UK and France, only in 1893 has therefore more to do with the foreign perception that up till that time the US was a power of the second rank than with domestic considerations.

Joost Dirkzwager
Zoetermeer, Netherlands

Gordon S. Wood replies:

Mr. Dirkzwager makes a useful point about the parsimony of the US Congress in failing to adequately support its ministers abroad, something John Adams endlessly complained about. Adams always felt that the European courts looked down upon the American diplomats. As he told the US secretary of foreign affairs, John Jay, on January 24, 1787:

You know perfectly well Sir that the office even of a public Minister of the Second Order is a Station extremely humiliating, at any Court in Europe, at Versailles, at Madrid, at the Hague and at London, the Difference between Ambassadors and Ministers Plenipotentialy, or Envoys is so immense, the latter are little more regarded than the Maitre D’hotel of a Minister of State. This is a fact known to you, but not known to our Countrymen.
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