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by Peter Bridges

Alvey Augustus Adee (1842-1924) spent a diplomatic apprenticeship in the American legation at Madrid. In 1877, he entered the State Department in Washington and served there until his death. Adee spent almost four decades as the Second Assistant Secretary of State, the closest the United States has come to having a Permanent Under-Secretary. He managed American diplomacy in crises as well as quieter times, with an unparalleled expertise. —Ed.

Alvey Augustus Adee was the second of three great American civil servantsWilliam Hunter was the first, and Wilbur J. Carr the thirdwhose overlapping careers provided the Department of State with deep experience, wise guidance and stability for over a century, from the administration of President Andrew Jackson until the eve of the Second World War.1 Alvey Adee served in the Department for 47 years under 22 Secretaries of State. For almost four decades, until his death in 1924 at the age of 81, he was the nearest the United States has come to having a Permanent Under-Secretary.2 Adee’s long continuous service as a top policy maker has never been equaled in Washington. It was Adee who guided American diplomacy during the Spanish-American War in 1898; President McKinley reportedly said privately that it had been ‘Adee’s War’.3 It was Adee who, after studying for years the question of an Atlantic-Pacific canal, shaped the Panama Canal Zone which came into being in 1903. And it was Adee who supervised American diplomatic and military actions during the Boxer Rebellion in China, while the Secretary of State lay prostrate from exhaustion.

Alvey A. Adee, back row standing, center. In a group photo of senior Dept. of State officials, ca. 1915. Also standing, to the left, Wilbur Carr; to the right, Breckinridge Long. Seated, left, Frank L. Polk; right, Secretary of State Robert Lansing.Photo credit: From Katherine Crane, “Mr. Carr of State” (1960).

Adee was born on 27 November 1842 in Astoria, New York. His mother’s father, David Graham, was a successful New York lawyer. Adee’s own father, Augustus Adee, was a naval surgeon who fathered five children, of whom Alvey Augustus was the last. The naval surgeon seems to have had an adventurous life, once even participating in an expedition against pirates off the coast of Cuba.4 He was also something of an amateur scientist. Although Dr Adee died in 1844 when Alvey Augustus was not quite two years old, his father’s intellectual bent and love of travel seem to have been inherited by the youngest son.Alvey’s mother was left in comfortable circumstances after her husband’s death. Young Alvey, whose hearing had been impaired by scarlet fever, was tutored at home and never went on to college or university, although years later, in 1888, he would proudly receive an honorary degree from Yale University where his father and other Adees had studied. Alvey Adee’s endeavours in several fields show clearly that he was well educated, and had great energy and an inquiring mind. A rare reminiscence of Alvey Adee as a young man describes him spending a summer in a Vermont village busily gathering an insect collection, learning to set type at the local newspaper and wanting to learn every other job in town, and walking many miles across the hills with a shepherd and his flock.5

In April 1867, when Adee was 24, he sailed to Europe, alone, to undertake a grand tour. He wrote to his brother Graham that he wanted to see all he could ‘for I will probably never come again’.6 In London he visited the British Museumwhere he wished he could spend a year – and the Royal Geographical Society; he was disappointed that the great scientist Michael Faraday was too old and sick to receive him. Crossing to the continent, Adee undertook a strenuous foot tour of the Alps, averaging 16 miles a day, and went on to visit most of the cities of central and western Europe. He returned to America in December 1867 after almost eight months in Europe.Adee may originally have dreamed of an academic or literary career. He described himself in a fanciful play he wrote at 15 as ‘Professor of Languages etc.’7 At about the same time he began to contribute poems to several newspapers. But Adee’s lack of formal education was perhaps an obstacle. He decided to become a civil engineer, under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, Charles Graham, who was the surveyor of the port of New York.8 Soon, though, another maternal uncle, the lawyer, John Graham, arranged for young Adee to meet the uncle’s friend and client, Daniel Sickles, whom President Grant had named Minister to Spain. Sickles invited Adee to accompany him to Madrid as his private secretary.

Daniel Sickles was one of the more flamboyant public figures in nineteenth-century America. Unlike most political appointees to American diplomatic posts, he had some diplomatic experience, having served as Secretary of Legation in London in 1853-55. Later, while a Member of Congress from New York, he shot his wife’s lover dead in Washington’s Lafayette Square, was acquitted of murder, and then forgave his wife. When the Civil War began he raised a brigade of volunteers at his own expense, was later promoted to major general, and lost his right leg at Gettysburg. Sickles was one of the early supporters of the presidential campaign of the former Union commander-in-chief, Ulysses Grant, and President Grant rewarded Sickles with the Madrid legation.9When Adee reached Madrid, the Secretary of Legation was John Hay. Hay did not occupy a career positionthere was then no American career servicebut he ranked second to the Minister. Hay had been one of President Lincoln’s two private secretaries. He was just four years older than Adee, and the two became friends. The following year Hay left Madrid, and Adee replaced him as Secretary of Legation after Hay, who had once complained privately that President Grant filled the diplomatic ranks with ‘swine’ and ‘nonentities’,10 had written the President a warm letter of recommendation for Adee, ‘a gentleman of the highest character for integrity and industry’.11 Three decades later, in 1898, John Hay would become Secretary of State and the semper paratus Adee, as Hay called him, would be Hay’s invaluable helper.12

It was Hay who gave Adee the idea for Adee’s only published work of fiction, a curious story called ‘The Life Magnet’, which appeared in Putnam’s Magazine in 1870, and which would be reprinted in 1899 in a volume of Famous Occult Tales together with pieces by Washington Irving and H.G. Wells. One is tempted to see something Freudian in this tale of a young American who, thanks to a German alchemist’s ‘life magnet’, is left with the traits of four people including the mother of a young girl named ‘Birdling’. Adee never married, and there seems to be no evidence of any sexual interest on his part in later life. But several of his poems in a manuscript volume dated 187213 and several of his teenaged newspaper poems are dedicated to girls or women. In one we read ‘My far away birdie, once my own’. Another reads ‘Too slight was my fancy’s mesh for birdie …’. This suggests something less than a robust passion for Birdie or Birdling, whoever she may have been.

Alvey Adee spent eight years at the Madrid Legation, and this laid the foundation for his mastery of diplomacy and diplomatic history, which was unparalleled among Americans of his time. Madrid was an excellent training ground. When Adee died a half-century later, the New York Times wrote that ‘His services extended through the memorable time of Spanish history, including the institution of the provisional government that followed upon Queen Isabel’s downfall, the two years’ reign of King Amadeo, the short-lived republic, the dictatorship of Marshal Serrano and the Bourbon restoration under Alfonso XII’14

Adee seems to have worked diligently throughout his long tour in Madrid, during which he was several times chargé d’affaires, despite ill health – he may have caught malariain his last several years there. His first experience with a diplomatic crisis came in 1873, when Spanish warships captured the steamer Virginius, which was carrying arms to insurgents in Cuba. After the Spanish authorities executed the captain and most of the crew, including many who claimed to be American citizens, the United States demanded release of the ship and the remaining prisoners. Minister Sickles was instructed to close the Legation and leave Madrid if Spain did not agree within 12 days; Sickles himself was ready to close down in five days. The crisis was defused when Spain offered to negotiate a solution in Washington. Sickles, who had been carrying on an affair with Isabel, the former Spanish Queen, during visits to Paris, resigned his post and went to live in Paris in March 1874. Before his departure, Sickles wrote to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish that Adee had done more than any three other secretaries of legation together.15

Throughout his time in Madrid, Sickles had called on young Adee not only for diplomatic work but for personal servicesordering fine wines and luxury goods from London and Paris, renting a box for the minister at the Madrid operaand it was perhaps in this period that Adee learned to be meticulous in meeting, where possible, personal as well as official requests. An Adee letter of 1900 shows the care he took in such matters years later, while serving as the busy third ranking official of a major foreign ministry. He wrote to Mrs John Brooks Yale, daughter of a deceased Secretary of the Treasury, that, although ‘I am swamped with work and have no time even for my own modest affairs’, he had done all he could to meet Mrs Yale’s request that he help a certain Mrs Cole find a job as a charwoman. He had had ‘a protracted interview’ with Mrs Cole, had offered her a letter of recommendation, and had suggested that her husband apply for a steward’s berth on a passenger ship.16

Sickles had played the ‘Yankee King’ in Madrid and left behind a particularly bad taste.17 It was perhaps well that Adee had four months as chargé d’affaires ad interim to improve the tone of relations before the new minister, Caleb Cushing, arrived. Cushing was a veteran Massachusetts politician who had first been elected to Congress four decades earlier; he had been Minister to China, and Attorney General. Grant nominated him to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but then withdrew his name after partisan attacks and gave him the Madrid legation instead. Cushing was 74 years old when he went to Spain, and died less than two years after his mission ended in 1877. Adee understandably did much of the work.

Adee’s best known feat at Madrid came in late 1876 when he was chargé d’affaires during Cushing’s temporary absence. ‘Boss’ Tweed, the notoriously corrupt New York politician who had finally been sent to jail in 1875, escaped from justice and fled to Spain, with which the United States had no extradition treaty. The Department of State cabled Adee that Tweed was on a ship bound for Vigo and that Adee should if possible arrange for his arrest on arrival. Adee arranged both for Tweed’s arrest and, despite lack of a treaty, his return to America.18 Adee thereafter emphasized to Washington the difficulties in extraditing notorious criminals in the absence of a treaty, and suggested the model extradition convention of 1877.19

When Cushing left Madrid for good in 1877, Adee became chargé d’affaires for the last time, pending the arrival of the new American minister, James Russell Lowell. Lowell said he wanted Adee to stay on, but Adee thought that after eight years, much of it in ill health, it was time for him to go. Cushing wrote to Adee, apparently after making inquiries in the department, that Adee could have either a consular position abroad or a clerkship in the department. Adee chose the latter ‘as being best suited to my permanent interests’20 Permanent, indeed. More than three decades later, when Adee had already served 24 years as Second Assistant Secretary of State, the New York Evening Post would eulogize him in an editorial entitled ‘The Permanent Official’, which urged that Washington take a lesson from the British and formally name Adee Permanent UnderSecretary.21

State, War & Navy Building, c 1900-1920.

And yet it seems that a position in Washington was not what Adee had dreamed of. In October 1876, Adee had written to an influential family friend, Edwin D. Morgan, that he thought he had done well in his almost seven years in Spain, during which he had served as chargé d’affaires for a total of 16 months. He was frank to note his partial deafness, but added that it ‘does not seem to interfere with the effective discharge of my duties, or to hamper my intercourse with Ministers and all with whom I am brought in business contact’. Adee continued that there seemed to be a growing disposition in the United States to establish a diplomatic career, and this made him think that he might aspire to ‘one of the recently reduced South American chargéships, where my knowledge of the language could come into play’.22 Morgan, who was certainly listened to by the administrationhe had led the 1872 Republican Party campaign which won President Grant reelectionforwarded Adee’s letter to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish under his own letter of recommendation, but for some reason Adee was not sent to South America.In August 1877 Adee handed over his legation to James Russell Lowell and headed home. Hamilton Fish had been replaced as Secretary of State in March by William M. Evarts, and Evarts offered Adee a ‘temporary’ position in the department, where he would be called on to exercise the drafting talent he had shown in Madrid, to prepare diplomatic correspondence. Adee had averaged a dispatch a day to the department during the periods he was in charge of the legation, and presumably drafted most of what went out over the signature of the ministers when he was not in charge. The writing in the Madrid dispatches is clear and cogent, and Adee seems to have avoided the temptation to report on superfluous matters. One dispatch reports on a flurry of schemes in Spain to attract unwary investors by offering them as much as 30 per cent interest a month, which, as Adee noted, worked as long as new deposits increased sufficiently to meet interest payments to the earlier investors. This was not superfluous reporting, Adee wrote: ‘a scheme of fraud like this is too ingenious and too sure of success not to find its way across the Atlantic’.23 And so it did, some decades later, beginning with the schemes Charles A. Ponzi used to defraud American investors in the 1920s.

Adee seems to have told friends at about the time he left Spain that his ultimate aim was to retire to private life; that he might go into banking.24 But it did not take the hard-working Adee long to prove himself to Secretary Evarts, who was not interested in the routine of the department and who had been criticized for tardiness in answering important correspondence.25

The department had recently moved into the great Victorian building which still stands on the west side of the White House. It shared the building with the Navy and War Departments and for the Foreign Ministry of a growing power its staff was small in size, with no more than 80 employees, excluding diplomatic and consular staffs abroad. A Secretary of State or an Assistant Secretary (the title then borne by the department’s second-ranking officer) seldom stayed long in office, but the Second Assistant Secretary, William Hunter, had been in the department since 1829, almost a half-century, and he was a wise man with an encyclopedic memory. Below Hunter were several bureaus, including a First and a Second Diplomatic Bureau, which between them did the basic work of maintaining America’s diplomatic relations with other governments. They were the heart of the department. In 1878 the two bureaus became one, and Alvey Adee, not quite 36 years old, was named the chief of the Diplomatic Bureau after a year in the department.

This was the beginning of three decades during which Alvey Adee became, and remained until at least 1909, the undisputed authority in American diplomacy. These were the decades in which the developed northern world, dominant in world affairs, experienced the intensification of nationalism, the strengthening both of industrial capitalism and of the socialist movement, the weakening of liberalism and the growth of imperialism, and a boom in armaments. All this increasingly affected American foreign relations, which had also to deal with serious problems in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, particularly toward the end of the century. This article is not the place to attempt a detailed analysis of Adee’s place in American diplomatic history, yet one may ask whether he was the right person at the right time for the considerable responsibility he held. The best answer is perhaps that he did very well in the crises he confronted, and that very few men come to mind who might conceivably have done better.

Adee undoubtedly realized from the beginning of his days in the department that he had much to learn. The catalogue of books he bought over four decades26 shows a number of acquisitions in 1878-81 in diplomatic history and international law. He continued to prove himself to his superiors. In 1882, under Secretary of State Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, Adee was promoted to Third Assistant Secretary and took on some administrative responsibilities in addition to continued oversight of the Diplomatic Bureau. In 1886, while Thomas F. Bayard was Secretary, William Hunter died in office at the age of 80, after 57 years in the department. Adee was named to replace him as the Second Assistant Secretary and, as such, became the department’s third-ranking officer.

The 1880s were not a time of many crises in American foreign relations. Henry Adams said that even for Cabinet officers ‘the period was wearisome and stale’.27 Indeed, Washington could be a sleepy place, especially in the summer, when foreign envoys sought cool resorts elsewhere and left subordinates sweltering in the Potomac heat. The department did not work to a long schedule. Office hours had been set in 1869 at 9:30 am to 4 pm. After 1883 this became 9 am to 4 pm, with a half-hour allowed for lunch.

Adee clearly believed the adage Mens sana in corpore sano. He took up canoeing on the Potomac River, and bicycling. Adee’s younger colleague, Wilbur J. Carr, who entered the State Department in 1892, recorded in his diary how he took long Sunday walks and rides through the green countryside across the river in Virginia. One imagines Adee may have done the same; but unlike Carr, Adee left no diary (although he reportedly kept one for some years) and we know relatively little about his private life.

At some point in the 1890s Adee began annual cycling trips to Europe. He took as much as two months’ leave each springwhich successive Secretaries of State granted, presumably on the basis that the reliable Adee would be in charge of the department during their own summer vacationsand he would do between 1,500 and 2,000 miles on his ‘wheel’ through Europe, alone or with a friend or two. His most frequent companions were Alexander Thackara, a senior American consular officer, and Thackara’s wife, who was the daughter of General William T. Sherman, the Civil War commander. France was Adee’s favourite cycling ground, but he also toured Italy, Germany and the Alps. At least once, in 1895, he cycled through England and Scotland, where he is said to have met Woodrow Wilson, then a professor at Princeton University, and to have continued his tour together with the future President.28

Adee also cycled to the State Department while living in Washington, and was the only official permitted to bring his bicycle into the State Department building and stand it in a particular place in the corner.29 But Adee did not always live in Washington. He had a house on Fifteenth Street, but some time before the end of the century he also bought what was described as a ‘handsome estate’ called Yarrow Farm, a few miles from Laurel in Howard County, Maryland, which he shared with his brother, David Graham Adee, until the latter’s death in 1901. Here Alvey Adee spent many nights, except in winter.30

Adee continued his literary pursuits into the 1890s. His ‘life magnet’ story had been published while he was in Madrid. After his move to Washington, he published one poem in The Atlantic Monthly in 1881, and an article in The Century Magazine in 1886; both had to do with Spain.31 Shakespeare interested him, and by the time of his death he had acquired over 500 volumes of Shakespeariana. Adee joined the Shakespeare Society of New York, and it was under their auspices that he published his only book, in 1890: King Lear, which appeared as Volume 10 of the Bankside Edition of Shakespeare, and which incorporated a uniform reference system of Adee’s devising. Adee’s last non-official published writing came in 1899, when he wrote an introduction to a volume of Impressions of Spain by James Russell Lowell, who had died in 1891.32 The great writer had served as Minister at Madrid in an uneventful time; a Lowell biographer says a search of Spanish archives relating to Lowell’s mission turned up only ‘routine references to formal diplomatic occasions.’33 Adee’s introduction to what is basically a selection of Lowell’s dispatches from Madrid gives a brilliant precis of what transpired in Spain during Adee’s more eventful years there, and goes on to give a polite if not uncritical account of Lowell:

Necessarily lacking the knowledge of the true springs of national impulse … he dealt with the surface indication, and analysed the character and motives of the men on top, whose peculiarities most caught his attention. … His kindly nature forbade any wounding comment or trenchant imputations … it is charming reading all the same.34

The Washington foreign affairs scene turned more eventful in the 1890s. The Republican Party platform of 1892 emphasized ‘the manifest destiny of the republic’. Problems loomed, particularly in Latin America, where the United States was intent on maintaining the Monroe Doctrine with which the British government found itself in continuing disagreement. The boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela had been in dispute since the 1870s, and the British had refused an American offer to mediate. Adee pointed out to his superiors that the Colonial Office List of 1886 had made a ‘silent addition’ of 33,000 square miles to the 76,000 square miles claimed for British Guiana in the previous year’s publication. The matter rankled, and came to a head in Washington after President Cleveland made Richard Olney his Secretary of State in June 1895. It had been Olney who as a strong-minded Attorney General the previous year had persuaded the President to use troops to break the Pullman strike in Chicago. Now, after a month at the State Department, he sent the British government a lecture and a warning, in the guise of a diplomatic note, over the boundary dispute. The note was Olney’s, but the drafting was largely done by Adee. The British, wanting to protect their American flank while facing a growing crisis in South Africa, agreed in 1896 to arbitration.

Meanwhile Cuba, still under Spain, neared crisis. The American interest was great. Every American President from Jefferson to McKinley, with the exception of Lincoln, who was preoccupied with the Civil War, had wanted to obtain Cuba for the United States.35 Adee was well versed in the Cuban problem from his years in Madrid, when the Cuban insurgency of the 1870s had led to the Virginius affair. The 1880s had been relatively quiet in Cuba, but in 1895 a new insurgency began. The Spanish captain-general in Cuba shocked North American public opinion by putting the population of disaffected provinces into concentration camps, where perhaps 200,000 died. Then came the publication of a private letter from the Spanish Minister in Washington, sharply critical of McKinley. The minister resigned. In February 1898, the US battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbour. The United States declared war.

McKinley had made John Sherman his Secretary of State, and Sherman was old and half-senile. The Assistant Secretary was William R. Day, a judge with no experience in foreign affairs or politics. It was left to Adee to manage American diplomatic action. Adee had a cot placed in his office, and slept there many nights, sometimes deciphering incoming telegrams when the code clerk had gone home. His notes and instructions had the vital result of helping keep other governments neutral, as Washington prosecuted a short and victorious military campaign. The combination of the close-mouthed McKinley, the senile Sherman and the deaf Adee, led to the saying that ‘The President says nothing, the Assistant Secretary hears nothing, and the Secretary of State knows nothing’.36 But the fact was that Adee had played a major part in engineering victory. As noted earlier, the President is said to have called it, at least in private, ‘Adee’s War’.

After Sherman and Day both left the State Department, Adee became Secretary of State ad interim for two weeks in September 1898, after which John Hay became the new Secretary. Hay and Adee, friends since Madrid days, worked harmoniously together in the department for almost seven years, until Hay, who had been retained in office by McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, died in office in July 1905.

One of the great questions for American policy at century’s end was that of an inter-oceanic canal. Adee’s interest in the question can be dated to an 1871 dispatch he sent from Madrid. In 1880 he had purchased a book on a possible canal. In 1886 he had first worked on the problem in the State Department.37 The problem had much to do with the United Kingdom. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 required joint action by the two governments on any inter-oceanic canal. In 1900, Secretary Hay and British Ambassador Pauncefote agreed on a new treaty which would permit the United States to build a canal alone, but would not permit the United States to fortify the canal. The US Senate refused to ratify the new treaty. In April 1901, Adee drafted for Hay a new treaty which he sent to the Secretary with a note saying he had endeavoured ‘to reserve silently the right to fortify, to the end of preserving the canal from attack…. I have always thought that the greatest danger to the canal may lie in its attempted seizure or destruction by Central American insurgents’.38 The new treaty based on Adee’s draft was ratified in 1902.

Meanwhile, the United States was negotiating with Colombia a new treaty on construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, then part of Colombia. The Colombians proposed to permit the United States the ‘use’ of a five-kilometre strip on either side of the canal. Adee insisted on the ‘grant’ of a wider five-mile strip on either side. In August 1903, the Colombian Senate rejected the treaty, which the US Senate had approved. At the beginning of November 1903, Panama declared independence, and the treaty which the United States quickly concluded with the new republic granted the United States in perpetuity the wider Canal Zone which Adee had pushed for. Later, President Roosevelt would boast that ‘I took Panama’. That was the case; but the President’s success was based to a considerable degree on Adee’s quiet work.

Theodore Roosevelt owed much to Alvey Adee. Aside from Panama, for example, one writer has found that Roosevelt was led in good part to seek a peaceful solution to the Russo-Japanese War, which he achieved in the Treaty of Portsmouth of 1905, because of the information, official and personal, which Adee submitted to him.39 Roosevelt was proud of his personal achievements, but he did once give some minor credit to the Second Assistant Secretary, saying:

I write four or five telegrams every day and old Adee does that for me. I never see them unless there is something of special importance. But I am always sending a congratulation, or a felicitation, or a message of condolence or sympathy to somebody in a palace somewhere or other, and old Adee does that for me. Why, there isn’t a kitten born in a palace anywhere on earth that I don’t have to write a letter of congratulation on to the peripatetic Tomcat that might have been its sire, and old Adee does that for me!40

Perhaps Adee’s finest hour came at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. The foreign legations in Beijing were besieged, and the whole question of China’s future as a country was in doubt. On 3 July, when it remained uncertain whether the legations could be saved from a massacre, and when it seemed likely that the military forces of the powers would carry out a grand division of China, Secretary Hay sent a circular note to the powers making clear that the policy of the United States was to ‘preserve Chinese territorial and administrative entity’ while safeguarding the open-door principle for trade with China. It was a bold note, which at the same time stopped short, in the term ‘administrative entity’, of guaranteeing American support for a continuance of Chinese imperial government. The term was Adee’s clever invention. Adee was not Hay’s only senior adviser during the 1900 China crisis. William Woodville Rockhill, who had served as Secretary of Legation in China and as chargé d’affaires in Korea (and who is probably the only American diplomat to have served as an officer of the French Foreign Legion, and to have walked across Tibet), had been responsible for America’s open-door policy, first enunciated in American notes of September and November 1899.

But on 19 July 1900, with the American Minister to China, Edwin Conger, still incommunicado in his besieged legation, Rockhill was named Special Commissioner for China and quickly left for Shanghai. On 3 August, Secretary Hay suddenly left Washington for his country house in New Hampshire, suffering, the press reported, from ‘nervous exhaustion’.41 David J. Hill, the Assistant Secretary, was out of town. This left Adee in charge. As he had done during the Spanish-American War, Adee began to spend nights on a cot in the department. Late in the evening of 20 August he was still in the department when a telegram arrived in cipher from China. Adee personally deciphered it. It was from Conger, reporting that the siege of the legations had been lifted. Adee now had to cable Conger, whose judgment he may not have entirely trusted, that during the time Conger had been out of touch Rockhill had been named Commissioner and was now on his way to Beijing. Who would take precedence? Adee instructed Conger to ‘confer fully with him and together make recommendations as to action now and future’.42 Whatever Conger may have thought of this arrangement, he stayed in place until five years later, when Rockhill replaced him as Minister to China.

Adee’s main problem in dealing with the powers during these weeks was with Germany, which had designs on Chinese territory. He found that America had somewhat similar views to those of Russia, and played on this as best he could.43 On 18 September came what Adee described to Hay as ‘a bomb in the allied camp’,44 when the German Kaiser took matters into his own hands and said that the perpetrators of the crimes committed in Beijing against international law should be brought to judgment. The Kaiser had spoken foolishly, and like the proposal to bring Somali ‘war criminals’ before international justice in the 1990s, it came to nothing. Adee kept Secretary Hay currently informed of his actions, and when Hay finally returned to Washington on 30 September, after almost two months away, he expressed his thorough agreement with all the actions taken in his absence.45

After Hay’s death in 1905, Elihu Root, a former Secretary of War, became Secretary of State. Adee, acknowledged as a permanent fixture, remained Second Assistant Secretary. Huntington Wilson, a veteran of service in Japan, became Third Assistant Secretary. Wilson admired Adee, a ‘veritable encyclopedia of precedent and of all the past business of the Department … a valuable restraining and conservative influence’.46 But Wilson thought that the department’s organization was antiquated, and he persuaded Root to begin reorganizing the department on a regional basis. At the same time, Adee’s eventual successor, Wilbur J. Carr, then chief of the Consular Bureau, was urging personnel reform. In 1905 President Roosevelt signed an executive order placing both diplomatic and consular positions below the rank of Ambassador or Minister on a career basis, with entrance to be through competitive examination and promotions on the basis of merit.

In 1909 Philander Knox replaced Root as Secretary, and Huntington Wilson, who had been subordinate to Adee, was promoted above him to become Assistant Secretary. Wilson continued to push reorganization. A new high-level position was added, that of Counselor of the Department, and Alvey Adee now found himself the fourth- rather than third-ranking officer. Whether this worried Adee is not clear. It was taken for granted that he would continue to exercise a directing influence over all matters which concerned the department.47

Adee was in any case always more of a single player than a manager. At times in his career he was called on to run the department, but what he was best at was dealing personally with ambassadors and ministers, and drafting or redrafting diplomatic notes and instructions which embodied his great knowledge and experience. Philander Knox is said to have called him in one day to ask if the United States should recognize the new government in China. Knox supposed Adee would bring volumes of data with him, but Adee came into the Secretary’s office with an ear-trumpet and a brief memorandum listing some dates. He made a detailed presentation to Knox, citing precedents from Brazil, France and a number of other countries beginning in 1792. A stenographer took notes, and the somewhat incredulous Secretary later asked someone to check Adee’s account—which turned out to be completely accurate.

Adee was a disciplined man, who, after presenting the facts in a case and his views and proposals for action, was content to leave the decision to his superior. He was not necessarily self-effacing. Over the years a number of articles in praise of Adee appeared in newspapers and magazines, and one suspects that some of them were based on interviews with their subject. Edward G. Lowry wrote in Harper’s Weekly in 1911 that ‘Adee the Remarkable’ was ‘the complete diplomatist … as prized and permanent a possession of the Federal government as the Great Seal of State which his department is charged with keeping’.48 The Nation described him in 1915 as ‘The Anchor of the State Department … an encyclopaedia of international relations and usages’.49

Adee continued his European cycling trips, and these usually occasioned an article or two in the daily press. In 1908 he told the papers that in 14 annual trips he had ridden a total of 30,000 miles, at times doing 60 miles a day, and that he had worn out half a dozen bicycles; he thought that at 65 he was stronger than he had been a decade earlier. In 1912 the papers reported that Adee had had to change his travel plans; he had booked passage on the first eastbound voyage of the Titanic. In 1913, with the world pointed toward war, the Boston Evening Transcript said that Adee’s departure for his cycling trip ‘will do more to calm the fevered brows of jingoes looking for a fight than any other thing could possibly have done’, since if there had been the slightest cloud on the horizon Adee would have postponed his trip.50

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his uncle, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his uncle, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

In the spring of 1914 Adee sailed as usual for Europe, this time to attend an international conference on Spitzbergen at Christiania (now Oslo). Adee had never attended conferences, probably because of his deafness, and it is not clear why he went to this one. On 17 July he wrote from Christiania to ‘Dear Cousie’ that there were no signs of the conference coming to a close and not much chance of it doing anything; but if he could get away by the first of August, he would take three weeks’ leave ‘and ride a little before sailing for home. My wheel and riding luggage are in Paris’. But the guns exploded in Europe that August, and instead of going riding Adee returned home, with difficulty, through Denmark and England, in companionship with an estimated 60,000 American tourists caught by the war in Europe. He never regained possession of his bicycle—and he never bought another, although cycling might have helped him maintain his strength and vigour.

For Alvey Adee was now in his seventies; and his influence was not what it had been. When Woodrow Wilson entered the White House in March 1913, he made William Jennings Bryan his Secretary of State and quickly announced the retention of two efficient servants of the government, General Leonard Wood as Army Chief of Staff and Alvey Adee as Second Assistant Secretary of State. Bryan was a poor Secretary, intent on applying the political spoils system in his new department and uninterested in learning about diplomacy. Both John Bassett Moore, the Counselor of the Department and an authority on international law, and Joseph W. Folk, the Solicitor of the Department, resigned their positions, and early in 1914 it was reported that Adee too was dissatisfied and might retire. In the end Adee remained, but in an administration where even Secretaries of State—Bryan was replaced by the more competent Robert Lansing in June 1915—came to have less influence than President Wilson’s unofficial adviser on foreign affairs, Colonel Edward M. House. A study of Wilson’s State Department found that ‘by 1917, Adee had no policymaking function in the department and served essentially as the official diplomatic note writer’.53

The war ended. In 1921 Warren Harding replaced Wilson in the White House, and made the eminent Charles Evans Hughes Secretary of State. The old Second Assistant Secretary kept coming to work, although he turned 80 in 1922. By 1924 Adee had to be helped to his desk, and in the early summer he went off to the New Jersey coast hoping to regain his health. It was too late. He came back to his office, but collapsed and died on 4 July 1924. As the press commented, he had realized his wish to die in harness.

Unlike his colleague Wilbur Carr, who has rightly been called the father of the American Foreign Service, Alvey Adee left behind him no distinct memorial. He is little remembered today. But his country owes him very much, for all he did to advance America’s international interests during the long decades he remained near, and in, positions of great influence and power.End.

Published in Diplomacy & Statecraft, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 1999). Republished by the kind permission of Frank Cass, London, and the author.


1. Carr’s final service as Minister to Czechoslovakia in 1937-39 is described in the author’s ‘Mr Carr goes to Prague’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, Vol.8, No.3 (1997).

2. Until the position of Counselor of the Department was created in 1909it was replaced by the position of Under-Secretary in 1919 Second Assistant Secretary Adee occupied the third-ranking post in the State Department. Four days before his death, in accordance with the new Rogers Act which eliminated numerical designations, Adee was commissioned ‘Assistant Secretary’. See~Graham Stuart’s The Department of State: A History of Its Organization, Procedure, and Personnel (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949).

3. George Sheppard Hunsberger, ‘The Diplomatic Career of Alvey Augustus Adee with Special Reference to the Boxer Rebellion’ (M.A. thesis, The American University, Washington, DC, 1953), p.79, quoting Ruth B. Shipley, Adee’s long time secretary and assistant.

4. Dr Adee’s 1825 ‘journal of an antipiratical expedition’ is preserved, together with the catalogue of his shell collection, among the Adee Family papers in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. The expedition apprehended several individuals but just one vessel, which turned out to be H.B.M. schooner Union.

5. Newspaper clipping from The Vermont Union, Lyndon, VT, 8 April 1898 in Box 2, Folder 2, Adee Family papers, LC.

6. Letter of 29 June 1867 in Box 1, Folder 8, Adee Family papers, LC.

7. ‘Volcania: A Tragedy’ in Box 2, Folder 8, Adee Family papers, LC.

8.’Adee, Alvey Augustus’, Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles ScriLner’s Sons, 1928), vol.1, p.105.

9. David E Trask, A Short History of the U.S. Department of State 1781-1981 (Washington DC: United States Department of State, 1981), p.17.

10. Quoted in Patricia O’Toole, The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends (New York: Clarence Potter, 1990), p.42.

11. Letter of 30 August 1870 in Applications and Recommendations for Public Office 1797-1901, 968:1, State Department records, National Archives, Washington, DC.

12. William Roscoe Thayer, The Life and Letters of John Hay (Boston, MA, and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915), p.187.

13. In Box 2, Folder 10, Adee Family papers, LC.

14. New York Times, 6 July 1924, p.21.

15. Hunsberger, ‘The Diplomatic Career of Alvey Augustus Adee’, p.16.

16. Letter of 19 December 1900 in McCulloch manuscript collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.

17. Martin Duberman, James Russell Lowell (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966), p.285.

18. Denis Tilden Lynch, ‘Boss’ Tweed: The Story of a Grim Generation (New York: Arno Press, 1974; reprint of 1927 edition), pp.393-401. Adee’s full report to the department is in Madrid dispatch No.272 of 11 Sept. 1876, subject ‘William M. Tweed’s Arrest’, 31:80, Diplomatic Records, National Archives, Washington, DC.

19. Stuart, The Department of State, p. 160.

20. Hunsberger, ‘The Diplomatic Career of Alvey Augustus Adee’, pp.36-8.

21. New York Evening Post, 10 Sept. 1910. Clipping in Box 2, Folder 2, Adee Family papers, LC.

22. Letter of 23 Oct. 1876 in Applications and Recommendations for Public Office 1797-1901, 968:1, State Department records, National Archives. The ‘reduced chargéships’ may have been in Colombia and Ecuador, where American ministers who resigned in the autumn of 1876 were not replaced for some time.

23. Madrid dispatch No. 394, 8 Nov. 1876, subject ‘Thirty per cent a month’, 31:82, Diplomatic Records, National Archives.

24. Dictionary of American Biography.

25. Stuart, The Department of State, p.153.

26. In Box 1, Folder 1, Adee Family papers, LC.

27. Ernest Samuels (ed.), The Education of Henry Adams (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), p.295.

28. Hunsberger, ‘The Diplomatic Career of Alvey Augustus Adee’, pp.53-4.

29. Undated clipping from the Baltimore Star in Box 2, Folder 2, Adee Family papers, LC, which also contains other newspaper accounts of Adee’s cycling.

30. Undated clipping, ibid.

31. ‘Philip’s Death in the Escorial’, The Atlantic Monthly, 48: 136, July 1881, and ‘Reminiscences of Castelar’, The Century Magazine, 9 (March 1886), pp.792-4.

32. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.

33. Duberman, James Russell Lowell, p.461.

34. Impressions of Spain, pp.17-19.

35. Robert H. Ferrell, American Diplomacy: A History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1969), p.252.

36. Walter LaFeber, The American Age (New York: WW. Norton & Company, 1989), p.183.

37. Hunsberger, ‘The Diplomatic Career of Alvey Augustus Adee’, p.99.

38. Ibid. Adee’s memo is interesting in view of recent Panamanian concerns over insurgents infiltrating Panama from Colombia.

39. Hunsberger, ‘The Diplomatic Career of Alvey Augustus Adee’, p.138.


40. Quoted in Ferrell, American Diplomacy, p.470.

41. New York Times, 6 Aug. 1900, p.1.

42. Telegram of 26 Aug. 1900 from Adee, Acting, to Peking via Taku, in Diplomatic Instructions, China, 6:50, Department of State records, National Archives.

43. See, for example, the article on a ‘Russo-American Combination’ in the New York Times, 31 Aug. 1900, pp.1-2, presumably based on information provided by Acting Secretary Adee.

44. Hunsberger, ‘The Diplomatic Career of Alvey Augustus Adee’, p.230.

45. New York Times, 1 Oct. 1900, p.1.

46. Quoted in Stuart, The Department of State, p.205.

47. Ibid., p.214.


48. Harper’s Weekly, 18 Nov. 1911, p.9.

49. The Nation, 5 Aug. 1915, pp.14-15.

50. Clipping in Box 1, Folder 10, Adee Family papers, LC.

51. Letter in Box 1, Folder 8, Adee Family papers, LC.

52. Clipping from New York Evening Post, 5 March 1914, in Box 2, Folder 2, Adee Family papers, LC.

53. Maryann Civitello, ‘The State Department and Peacemaking, 1917-1920’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of History, Fordham University, New York, 1981), p.9.



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