Oct. 7, 2020

Bonus Episode 1: What is a consul, anyway?

In this bonus episode, we delve into questions like "What is a consul?" "How do you get a job as a consul?" and other things. Listen to this if you feel adrift when listening to our regular episodes!


Producer: Abby Mullen
Music: Andrew Cody

Special thanks go out to Nicole Phelps, our guest. You can find out more about her and her work in our show notes at consolationprize.rchm.org. You can find us in your ears wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening.


NICOLE PHELPS: Consolation Prize is an awesome title. I am terrible at titles, and when I saw that I was like, “Oh my god, that is the best.”

ABBY MULLEN:  Well, you know, the one thing we know about consuls is that, pretty much, no one ever gets the post that they actually want. So, consuls always want to be the Secretary of State, or they want to be the minister to Paris. Or they want a posting in Paris, and then they get sent to Ecuador or something. So it feels, a little bit, like the posting they get is almost always like, we appreciate your service now go to somewhere very far away that has malaria.

PHELPS: Or they really want something where they think they’re going to make money. And that never really happens either. And of course, they also deal with prize cases all the time in the 19th century. So it’s a beautiful title.

MULLEN: Well, thank you.

Hi, I’m Abby Mullen. And I’m delighted to welcome you to this very special bonus episode of Consolation Prize. It seems like most historians who work on anything with foreign relations of the United States, or any kind of Imperial history, have at least one consul story, one consul they’ve encountered, at least briefly in their research. But what we don’t necessarily know as well, is what consuls actually do, or how the consular service worked in the 19th century. At least I didn’t know it very well, even when I first started developing this podcast. But luckily, some historians work on this very question. And today, we’re talking to one of the best. She’s currently working on a book about the history of the US consular service. And she’s going to tell us all about what the consular service is, and, more importantly, why we should pay attention when we come across consuls in the archives or on this show. So let’s dive in.

First off, would you just introduce yourself?

PHELPS: Sure. I’m Professor Nicole Phelps. I’m an associate professor of history at the University of Vermont. I have a PhD in American and European history from the University of Minnesota. And I did my undergraduate work in International Relations at the George Washington University.

MULLEN: So as you know, Consolation Prize is all about the history of US consuls. But one of the things that kind of seems like some people don’t necessarily know is, what is a consul? What does a consul do?

PHELPS: So that’s a really great question. And there’s lots of different answers to that. One of the things I think that makes consuls so fascinating is how much they’re called on to do. And, I do think before I start to get kind of specific about some of those tasks, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that not all consuls are called on to do all the same tasks. So the specific portfolio for their job really depends on where they’re located. And so consuls who are operating in major port cities have a different portfolio of activities than consuls who are working in China or the Ottoman Empire, where there are unequal treaties in place. And that it’s again also different from consuls who are working in places where there are a lot of American tourists, or where the United States has some very particular kind of industrial interests. So there’s a lot of different things going on. But certainly, if we think about broad categories of things that consuls do, one of the main things that they do is to aid Americans abroad, and especially aiding those Americans in maintaining property rights. So if an American dies abroad, the consul takes possession of their goods, and also their body. If sailors are taken ill, and can no longer be on the ships that they’re on, they’re under the jurisdiction of consuls to find medical care. You know, Americans who are shipwrecked, the consuls deal with that, so all kinds of issues related to those Americans abroad. 

The consul are also definitely there to facilitate trade. And I want to kind of separate facilitating trade from promoting trade. Facilitating trade is like the real nuts and bolts you know, consuls provide the paperwork that people in particular, ship captains, need to get through US customs. So it’s, you know, inventory of who’s on the ship, what goods are on the ship, how much they’re worth, where they’ve been quarantined, all of these kinds of things. And so they’re, consuls, are really important in terms of generating revenue for the US federal government, because of their role in the operation of the collection of customs. And certainly before 1913 when there was a federal income tax, customs duties are the main source of federal revenue for the entirety of the 19th century. So it’s really important. You know, consuls also gather information so that other parts of the US government can do their jobs. Some of that is kind of, State Department information, like what’s happening politically of interest. But they also gather health information about quarantines. They gather currency information for the Treasury, so that the Treasury can properly value US currency. They collect plant samples for the USDA later in the century. Sometimes they collect meteorological data. They answer random questions from other parts of the government, from members of Congress, from members of the public. So really, they’re kind of a catch all in terms of providing the government with information that can only be collected abroad. So those are, I think, the three really big things. 

And then if they’re in China, or the Ottoman Empire, they’re also part of operating the extraterritorial legal system. So they actually operate a US Court and jail for American citizens. In a few places, actually, also mostly in parts of the Ottoman Empire, they can play a quasi diplomatic role. And you know, that’s kind of when there’s lots and lots of separate territories, some of which have autonomy. Like Egypt, for example, there’s a consul there doing more things that we’d expect to see a diplomat do. But there’s only the one diplomat, and he’s in Constantinople. So there’s that quasi diplomatic role. Also, as the 19th century goes on, consuls are there to facilitate, or sorry, to promote trade. Consuls promote trade, which is actively looking for, you know, investment opportunities, market opportunities, trying to connect American businessmen with local businesses. And then finally, as the 19th century comes to an end of the 20th century, consuls are starting to take a role in managing migration. So they’re involved in health inspections, they start to be involved in issuing passports and things like that. That is kind of what we think of is the core of consular activity today, that comes very, very late to the actual consular portfolio in the 19th century.

MULLEN: I’m so interested in the quarantine thing, because that’s actually something I’m really interested in personally. So I’m really interested in how these consuls sort of act like scientists in some ways. They, you know, make these health observations or we’ve found bunches of examples of sort of amateur archaeologist or amateur naturalist like sending weird stuff back to the United States. I’m so interested in that part of their role.

PHELPS:  Reporting on quarantines is something that they’re legally obligated to do. Some of the things that they choose to report on are, you know, their own interests and you can see kind of individual personalities and interests coming out in those things. You know, the State Department does publish consular reports for the general public. And there’s certain topics that the State Department encourages people to report on. But then it’s also like, we expect to report, go figure out something to write on. So I’ve done a lot of stuff with consuls who are posted in Austria Hungary. And you know, there’s all sorts of reports on beer and paper making and you know, is this a good market for us cotton exports, and stuff like that. So it can definitely vary by what consuls are interested in.

MULLEN: Yeah, in our first episode, we actually talk about Marmaduke Burrough, who is so interested in naturalist pursuits that he ends up finding this vulture that has not previously been described by scientists. And so it’s actually named after him now. And it’s so cool. Like, look, there’s like a little piece of a consul in a vulture. But he’s actually an interesting segue into the next question, which is, how do you get a job as a consul?

PHELPS: The consular service exists as its own separate entity from 1789 until 1924. And the process for getting a job varies a couple times over that period, and especially in the early 20th century. But basically, if somebody wants to be a consul, they need to be nominated for that position by the President. And so there’s lots of lobbying that goes on throughout the 19th century. People are lobbying the Secretary of State, they’re lobbying the president, they’re lobbying their member of Congress. So the consular appointments are very much tied up with the political patronage system and the party system. And once you’re nominated, then, of course, the President submits that appointment to the Senate, and the Senate would confirm that appointment. And there’s no rules, like you don’t have to speak a foreign language, you don’t have to have any business experience, it’s nothing like that. If you have those things, then the person who’s trying to lobby to get you the job can bring them up and suggest that you’re a good fit. But, you know, this is not really something that people train for as a career. And so then once you are approved by the Senate, you go to your post at your own expense. And they’ve kind of two other important elements before you can actually start doing your job. One is that you have to have a bond, that you give to the US government. So basically, you need a banking firm that will agree to back you up somewhere between $2,000 and $10,000, depending on the post that you’re at, which will basically cover expenses if you do something unexpected with government funds. This covers you. And so that’s essential. And then once you arrive at your post, then you need another document from the host government. They’re the exequatur. And that is kind of the consular equivalent of a diplomat’s credentials. That’s the host government acknowledging that the consul has the right to be in this place and to exercise consular functions.

MULLEN: Okay, so, I need to ask, can you give me an example of someone who had to have the bond be collected because they did something strange?

PHELPS: Not as clearly as you would like. The way I’ve been doing my research has very much kind of focused at this point on the central consular bureau in Washington, DC. And so it’s been less like down in the weeds of specific consular posts. I will say that, you know, the consular service definitely had a reputation for being corrupt, which I actually am not entirely sure that’s a particularly justified reputation. But the one place where it does seem to be, like there were multiple investigations, and I believe some of the bond came into play in China, in the 1860s and the 1870s. That seems to be a particularly problematic area. And I think, you know, relations with China are really, really fragile because there’s so few Americans who know the language. So the consular system is very reliant on Chinese nationals to translate and be part of the staff. And for those Americans who do have the languages, I think there’s wide latitude for them to get away with things, because there’s very few people in the State Department or back in the United States that can really check them on, on what’s going on.

MULLEN: One of the things that’s always complicated when you’re doing research, and you run across diplomatic officials, is that you’ve got all these different kinds of people. So you’ve got the consul, and you’ve got the vice consul, and you’ve got the consul General, and then you’ve also got an ambassador or a minister plenipotentiary, or Chargé d’affaires and you’re like, What are all these people? So can you just kind of lay out for us, Who are all those people And how do they relate to each other?

PHELPS: Yeah, so in the long 19th century, 1789 to 1924, the State Department is when it comes to overseas interactions. The State Department is kind of divided into three pieces. There is the staff in Washington, DC, that’s kind of coordinating efforts, there is the diplomatic corps, and then there’s the consular service. And after 1924, that’s reformed into the US foreign service, which is what we have today. And those three functions are kind of mixed together, and everybody’s a foreign service officer. But prior to 1924, it’s these distinct branches. And the diplomats are responsible for kind of high politics and representation. There’s one diplomatic post per country, or Empire. And whereas consuls are, you know, dealing with these protection issues with trade issues, and there can be as many consuls in a country as the government sees fit. So basically, they’re kind of where they’re needed, as opposed to that kind of singular representation. 

So also in the 19th century, when it comes to Europe, that’s kind of where they’re making the rules about diplomats and consuls, and how they function. So there’s a very hierarchical system for diplomats in Europe, and an ambassador is the highest ranked. An Ambassador is the chief of mission at an embassy. And in the 19th century, it’s only the great powers who exchanged ambassadors. So it’s a very exclusive title, very different from the way it operates in the 20th century. So then there’s lower ranks, which is usually what the United States used. The next lowest rank would be the minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinary, who is a chief of mission at legation. And the next rank lower, also chief of mission at legation, would be called a minister. And then there’s also this kind of unusual position that comes up later in the century called the diplomatic agent. And that’s somebody who’s also a chief of mission, but in a place that’s semi sovereign. So like in the Balkans and in Egypt, where the place they are is not quite independent, but it’s not quite subordinate to a capital either.

So okay, so those are diplomatic roles. And then the last one is the charges d’affaires, which is the person who is in charge of the legation or the embassy on that given day, but is not the ambassador, or the minister, or the minister plenipotentiary. So he’s kind of like the substitute teacher, you know, everybody’s on vacation, or the new one hasn’t arrived yet. So the guy who’s in charge that day is the charges d’affaires. And usually that person’s official title on any other day would be Secretary of Legation, or clerk of legation or something like that. So that title is very generic. 

On the consular side, there are fewer titles. There’s a Consul General, that’s kind of the highest ranking consular official, and that’s going to be somebody who’s serving at a very big and important post. So like London, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, something that’s really big, very busy. Then most places have a consul, which is doing whatever is needed at that particular post, that’s kind of the generic title. A vice consul can be subordinate to a consul, that can also be its own post. Early in the 19th century, the distinction that they made was that a consul would be a US citizen, and vice consul might not be a US citizen. But that’s not something they really hold to very consistently over time. So it gets a little muddled and more often as the century goes on, the vice consul is like second in command at a consulate. And is often the person who’s left in charge if the consul goes on vacation. And then there are consular agents. And these are people who are appointed by consul generals, or the consul, to be kind of in the district at other locations. You know, for example, there’s a Consul General in Paris, and if there’s other places, in and around Paris, where they want a US consular presence, they might have an agent there. And agents work for fees rather than salaries, and they’re often not US citizens. And they’re not allowed to communicate directly with the State Department, they can only write to their consul. And then finally, there’s this other weird category that the US has, it’s called a commercial agent. And there’s vice commercial agents as well. And these are, like consuls, they don’t have quite the same range of duties that they can be held responsible for. And typically, the United States was using them in places where they didn’t have diplomatic relations. So like, for example, in Haiti, in Liberia in the first 60 years of the century. So they’re a way to sort of get the US government in the door and get those trade relationships, but without the full, you know, kind of consular treaty or diplomatic recognition that would allow for an exchange of more fully credentialed representatives.

MULLEN: Okay, that was actually super helpful. That really helps me to clear up some things in my own mind. So actually that was great. A couple things occurred to me while you were talking, though, one is I know that there are some consuls at the beginning who get a salary, but most don’t, is that correct? And then, when does that shift?

PHELPS: Yes. So the consular service exists from 1789. It doesn’t actually, like Congress doesn’t formally organize it and tell them what to do until 1792. So there’s a bit of Thomas Jefferson making things up when he was Secretary of State. But in that 1792 law, that’s where they set up that consuls are going to work for fees, not salaries, unless they are appointed to the Barbary states, in which case, they can get a salary of up to $2,000. And that’s because, really, those are kind of quasi diplomatic posts in that period. Plus there’s a lot of action, as you know, as those posts, yes.

MULLEN: And they moan all the time about how that is not enough salary, they should really be getting a lot more.

PHELPS: Yes, well, and this is the thing both for consuls and diplomats. When there is a salary, that salary is supposed to be doing a lot of things, okay. It’s not just like a paycheck to the person who’s drawing the salary. That’s usually supposed to pay the office rent, it’s supposed to be the housing rent, it’s supposed to pay clerks, it’s supposed to buy their wife’s clothes. It’s supposed to be their social budget, their transportation costs, I mean, there’s a huge amount of financial responsibility that falls on US diplomats and consuls, that really is not covered by the salary. And then in 1856 is when there’s the next major reform of the consular service, they take about half the posts and make those salaried positions. And it’s a fixed salary. So, the consular posts are assigned to different classes and whichever post, you know, all the posts in class B, have, I’m making this up, I’m not remembering it exactly, they have a $2,000 salary. And all the ones in C have a $1,000 salary, kind of thing. So there’s those salaries, and those salaried consuls are not supposed to collect fees. They collect them but they don’t get to keep them, they have to forward the fees on to the Treasury. And they’re also not supposed to engage in private business. The other half of the consuls in 1856 are unsalaried. And they keep on collecting fees, and they can engage in private business. And over the years, which specific posts are in different categories kind of shifts, Congress does change those in their appropriation bills, but the general system is in place from 1856 until they start to make more dramatic changes around 1906, when they’re trying to shift more positions to salaried positions, and move away from fees altogether.

MULLEN: And that’s once again, those are based on the busyness of the port, like which ones get salaried, or is it more of like prestige oriented?

PHELPS: It’s a weird calculus of prestige, and cost of living, and the amount of work that gets done. After the Civil War, they do allow a salary consuls to collect some fees, but it’s up to like $250 per quarter. And they also put that limit on agents as well. And so there is a bit of supplemental income that can happen beyond the salaries. But it is very uneven from post to post on and, and sometimes even at the same post from year to year, somebody might be getting $300, one year and $3 the next year. I’m starting to do a little bit of that kind of data. And it’s fascinating how unreliable a consular appointment is, in terms of financial stability.

MULLEN: And one thing we didn’t really talk about, but I think is probably important to think about is, how do the ports, or I guess they’re not all ports actually, how do the cities that get a consulate get determined? How do you get a consul in your city?

PHELPS: In most cases, it’s because there’s already an American presence there. Usually, initially, that presence would be because it’s where American ships are stopping. And, but then gradually, it becomes more like, oh well, this is a place where for some reason a bunch of Americans have moved to, or where they’re tourists, or there’s a trade connection between, you know, this industrial center in Germany and an industrial center in the American Midwest. And so we want a consul to help facilitate that relationship. It’s also there are times when Americans request that a consul be appointed to a particular place. And sometimes there’s certainly businesses that request that a consul be appointed to a particular place, and usually they have a name of a person that they’d like to suggest for that job. Because, you know, especially before the Civil War, there’s a lot of, kind of overlap between American merchants and American consuls. Where often you know, it’s the father who runs the merchant house, and one of his sons is the consul. And, you know, when people say, Well, why would anybody want to be a consul because you can’t make a lot of money out it, you know, the traditional thing is to say, well, there’s honor in being the consul and having this title. And I think that’s true to an extent. But I actually think that I’m coming around to the idea that the real benefit is that you don’t have to track down a consul to get your paperwork done. So it’s gonna save you time and money and transportation costs, if you can do it yourself.

MULLEN: That actually makes a lot of sense. So a question actually, from one of our listeners, who’s interested in knowing, do consuls ever get involved in the affairs of non Americans? The example he gave is actually a non US consul, Nicholas Nissen, who gets involved on behalf of Americans during the first Barbary war. So are there examples of American consuls, that you know of, who get involved in affairs of either individual people who are not American or sort of on a state level?

PHELPS: Yeah, certainly, one of the things that consuls do, and Julia Irwin at the University of South Florida is working on a project that there’s a lot of consuls, because of this, they help a lot with disaster relief of various kinds. Which kind of naturally emerges from the, help with shipwreck function. That is foundational in those early consular treaties. But then, you know, she’s finding evidence of them assisting with hurricanes and volcanoes and all sorts of things like that. So they do provide kind of that sort of general public relief for those kinds of disasters. I have also seen evidence of American consuls trying to help foreign citizens who need something from the US government, like, usually, that foreign citizen had some American relative, you know, and the relative has died. And how do they get the property from that estate to this person? How do they, you know, apply for damages for property if an American abroad damaged the property of this foreigner? How do they get restitution for that? That happens in Mexico quite a bit. So there are those kind of things and, one of the other patterns that I see is, in a lot of the bigger places, there are consuls from many countries that are posted to that place, and the consuls tend to form their own kind of community, and they help each other. But there’s also a lot of places where the American consul is the only consul. And in those places, there can be more opportunity for that person to be kind of part of the town and, in ways that are quite unique. And I would argue in the bigger picture help to kind of reorient some of those places, into an informal American Empire, and away from the Empires in which those places are actually, you know, part.

MULLEN: Can you give me an example of a situation like that, where have you seen that happen?

PHELPS: Well, certainly. So one of the things that happens during and then in the decade after the Civil War, is that the US consular service pushes into the British Empire in a big way. And this is happening all over the world, but where it’s most noticeable is in Canada. There are dozens of US consular posts in Canada, and they are kind of helping to integrate the US and Canadian economies in ways that are that well, not that the Canadians aren’t always thrilled about, but the British aren’t always thrilled about that as well. And in fact, the US relationship with Canada when it comes to consuls is totally unusual. Like whenever I try and make graphs of things and plot, I have some comparisons with other governments, the US relationship with Canada always skews the picture because it’s like an order of magnitude bigger than any other consular relationship than that I’ve ever seen.

MULLEN: That is really interesting. So we kind of talked about this a little bit, but at some point, it seems like it goes from the consular service being like, whoever can lobby hardest gets the job, to actually requiring maybe a little bit of skill, or a little bit of experience in diplomacy to get a job as a consul. First of all, is that true? And second of all, if it is true, when does that transformation happen?

PHELPS: There are some experiments in the 1870s and 1880s, with having an exam to join the consular service. And that doesn’t really go anywhere. Although the exams are in the archives, they’re fascinating. Then in 1895, Grover Cleveland issues an executive order that says, you have to take the exam in order to be a consul. That’s re-issued under Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. And it becomes a law in 1906. However, there are still a lot of things that can intervene. So you can do really well on the consular exam and still not get a position because you don’t quite know the right people, or you don’t have quite the right social background. Or there’s also an effort to try and balance where consuls are coming from, so like for different parts of the country. And so some people who don’t do as well on the exams still get positions, because they want to try and balance out where the consuls are coming from. 

I will say that one of the things that I’m looking at with some of my research is it’s starting to appear to me that there is a de facto professional consular service after the Civil War. Because the Republicans hold the White House for almost the entire time between Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson. There are opportunities for consuls to be reappointed, or, to be shifted from one consular post to another. And so people are ending up with careers as consuls, even though they’re still political appointees. And we see that even more with consular agents where they are not really related to the elections. So, you know, there are people who are US consular agents for 20, 30, 50 years. And I would argue that they’re the ones who actually kind of keep the whole thing running, because they actually know how to do their jobs, in ways that the other political appointed consuls, there’s a really steep learning curve to being a consul. And, they give you an instruction manual in the 19th century, and, up until about 1860, that’s about four pages long. And then, by the 1890s, it’s about 700 pages long, although much of what’s in there is copies of treaties. So I mean, it tells you it’s not very helpful at all. 

Where we start to get a real shift is in 1906, where one of the things that Congress does besides having these merit based consular exams, is they also create a position of Consul General at large. And so there are five of them initially, and they have a salary. And what they’re supposed to do is travel around to different consular posts in their part of the world. So like there’s one for Latin America, there’s one for Africa, and Asia, there’s one for Europe. And they’re supposed to inspect the posts and make recommendations about how things operate. And that is really a turning point for the professionalization of the service because all of a sudden, the State Department back in Washington has many more details about what’s actually happening out in the field and Then they can start to try and make it more uniform, they start trying to push out people who are not US citizens. Of course, we also have better communications technology and transportation, so they start pushing out those agents that had been working for fees, and moving towards having fewer consular officials, but more professionalized and more responsive to what’s happening in DC. So 1906 is the start of that World War I helps purge, a lot of US citizens out of the service, which kind of gives a little bit more of a blank slate for reform. And then they’re kind of riding that reform wave through to the Rogers Act in 1924 that creates that unified US foreign service.

MULLEN: There’s nothing like getting inspected to finally give you a sense of what’s really going on. I have to imagine that it must have been hard for the State Department to really even understand what’s happening in these posts, because all they’re getting is these self-reported Reports, right. You know, they’re only hearing very one sided version of what’s happening unless they’re getting people complaining about the consul. In which case, I know, there are a few who do actually get stripped of their post because of complaints, but I imagine it’s not as frequent as it maybe could have been.

PHELPS:  Yeah, well, I’ve focused a lot of my work on kind of the Civil War, forward in time. And the service is quite a lot bigger, during and after the Civil War than it is before the Civil War. And one of the things that’s just fascinating to me is, I see kind of all of this detritus in the archives of the State Department employees trying to figure out how to keep track of who works for the consular service, you know, and where they’re posted. And they never came up with a good system. I mean, like, one of the things that I’m working on is a database of where the posts were, and who was working at them. Because that’s not information that the State Department can easily provide. Um, and, you know, there’s the State Department data that says, Oh, you know, I think there’s about 800 different consular posts, and I’ve found almost 1400, over different places over the century. So it’s a very complicated system for them to try and understand. And I actually don’t think they really get a good handle on it until after World War I.

MULLEN: So, do you have a favorite consul? Or a non-favorite, who’s your least favorite consul?

PHELPS: Well, so this guy is perhaps both. As a historian, I am deeply enamored of Alfred Gottschalk, who was one of these consul generals at large. Before he was that, he was a consul in Peru and Mexico. And then he becomes one of these consul generals at large. And then later, he’s posted to Brazil, to Rio. But he is the consul general at large, who created the most paperwork. And so as a historian, I love him because he created all of this paperwork. But it’s not only the kind of official paperwork, but it’s also, you know, he’s writing private letters to people at the State Department, that have been archived there, where he’s speaking much more openly and frankly about what he’s seeing and what needs to be done. And he offers comments about the local culture and things like that. So, you can really see, his devout belief in efficiency. He really thinks the world will be a better place if we can operate like businessmen. But then you can also see some of his racial prejudices, you can see some of his gender prejudices, class prejudices. So, it’s a really cool set of documents and he was also inspecting Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and into Russia. And so it’s also helpful as a historian to see kind of that range of places because it gives a comparative perspective as well. So yeah, It’s good. 

MULLEN: Cool! 

PHELPS: Actually, if I could mention one thing both about him, but also about the kind of professionalization and inefficiency here. So like, these inspection reports, the inspector sits down with the consul and it’s like 250 questions that they have to go through. And it’s like, all sorts of stuff, like, which furniture is in the office and who owns it and all of this. But the first set of questions is about where the consular office is, and where the residence is. And this is also something that in the instruction manuals, the first instruction is when you get there, go right to the State Department and tell us that you got there, but also tell us where the consular office is. Because these are, you know, it’s not a permanent building. So the consuls have to find their own office space. And sometimes they pass it along from one consul to another, but not always. And it’s, you know, it’s not something that’s organized from Washington. And so to me that that question of, like, how do we find you? Is a rather shocking question, but really shows I think, how little real control Washington had over these people out there in the world, it’s quite miraculous that the consular service worked as well as it did.

MULLEN: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point that, you know, they have so much autonomy, because the State Department just can’t keep track of them. And so that’s a really interesting example of that case. 

So why are consuls important in their own time? Why are they important to the people they’re working with?

PHELPS: Well, so I would argue that consuls are the overseas embodiment of the US government. And so they are projecting American sovereignty abroad. They are people who are enforcing US laws abroad. And they’re absolutely crucial to the functioning of the US government as a whole. Earlier, I mentioned how important they are to the customs process and the collection of federal revenue. But then also, all of this other data that they collect, especially the data that goes to the Treasury Department, I think is really crucial in keeping the domestic US government and the domestic US economy functioning. So they’re really kind of the nuts and bolts of the federal government, when it comes to connecting the US government to various places around the world.

MULLEN: So maybe this is the same question, but why should we care about consuls today, when we’re trying to tell the history of the United States?

PHELPS: I definitely think that it’s absolutely related, you know, that the work that they’re doing outside of the US political borders, is essential for projecting sovereignty for projecting us power. They’re also crucial in creating international law, creating international norms. So a lot of the ways in which people and goods move in the world, in the late 18th century, in the 19th century, and on through the 20th, to the present, those channels were either established by consuls, or they were fortified by consuls. So they’re really, really shaping the ways that both governments interact, but also the way that private citizens interact and the way that private citizens interact with their government. 

Certainly, you know, for a historian, I think consuls are a great site for understanding transnational history. But the transnational history you know, there’s people who see transnational history as looking at private citizens, like avoid the state, and there are other people who think transnational history has to involve the state. And by looking at consuls, I think you kind of have the best of both worlds, because you’re seeing how everyday people interact with the state. You know, whether that’s sailors, whether that’s merchants, whether that’s tourists, all sorts of Americans, and all sorts of foreigners interact with the US federal government in a consuls office, and I think that’s a really, you know, it’s methodologically interesting. And we can get a lot of good understanding of how the world worked, and, and how the world worked, not just for really powerful people, but for lots and lots of people dealing with lots and lots of problems. Consular records are great for that.

MULLEN: So what you’re saying is anybody who’s working on the US and the world should not just take the consuls for granted, but they should really jump right in on those guys.

PHELPS: Absolutely. And, you know, the traditional narrative is, you know, there’s very little scholarship on the consular service as a whole. When we find out things about consuls, it’s usually because somebody is looking at a very particular consul in a particular place. And traditionally, the narrative is the diplomats did important stuff, consuls, they did this administrative stuff and it’s not interesting. But it’s really crucial. And, you know, I got interested in consuls, because I was working on my dissertation, and my first book about the relationship between the United States and the Habsburg government. There wasn’t a lot in the diplomatic, pure diplomatic relationship. But both diplomats and then consuls generated tons of paperwork, because of, well, in that case, because of the problems that arose from the migration of people between Austria Hungary and the United States and back and forth. But also trade issues and things like that, as well. I mean, the relationship really exists in the consular service, not in the diplomatic corp. And I think that’s actually the case in a lot of US relationships in the 19th century and some cases into the 20th. So I think it’s really, you know, we need to rather than us deciding what’s important, we need to like, where did they generate a lot of paperwork? Clearly, they spent a lot of time on it. So why did they think it was important enough to spend all that time on it. It’s great stuff, the consular services. Awesome.

MULLEN: Well, thank you so much, this has been really helpful. And I know that it will inform our episodes going forward. But also it will inform my own work, because I’m in the same boat as you a little bit actually, that I didn’t set out to look for consuls, but they just kind of kept showing up. And so then you have to ask yourself, well why do these guys keep showing up? What’s going on here? So that’s actually how Consolation Prize came to be as well, because I’m not a diplomatic historian by discipline or subdiscipline, but they’re just so interesting. And the more we’ve learned about them, the more we’ve realized that consuls, they’re just everywhere, and they’ve got lots of fun stories. 

Thanks for tuning in to this special bonus episode of Consolation Prize, which is a production of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History in New Media at George Mason University. If you were intrigued by what you heard here, might I recommend that you go listen to one of our other episodes, they air every three weeks on Tuesdays. This episode was produced by me, Abby Mullen. Our music is by Andrew Cody. Special thanks go out to Nicole Phelps, our guest. You can find out more about her and her work in our show notes at consolationprize.rchm.org. You can find us in your ears wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening.

Nicole Phelps

Nicole M. Phelps is an associate professor of History at the University of Vermont. She holds a BA summa cum laude from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and a MA and PhD from the University of Minnesota. Her first book, U.S.-Habsburg Relations from 1815 to the Paris Peace Conference: Sovereignty Transformed, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2013 (paperback 2015). She is an active member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) and the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE), as well as holding a leadership position in the Alpha of Vermont Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.