The Hunter family of Rhode Island produced two important American diplomatists of the nineteenth century. The elder William Hunter served for nine years as the American envoy to Brazil, where he exerted positive influence over the young emperor, Dom Pedro II. The younger William Hunter entered the Department of State in 1829 and spent fifty-seven years there under twenty-one Secretaries of State. For decades the department’s third-ranking officer, he became its “mentor and authority.” The overlapping careers of Hunter and his two successors helped guide American diplomacy until 1937.
William Hunter, Jr., was the first of three great American civil servants, whose 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. Previous essays in this journal1 have looked at the careers of the latter two, Alvey Augustus Adee and Wibur J. Carr. It seems appropriate now to provide an outline of the life of William Hunter, Jr., the longtime Second Assistant Secretary of State, and also of that of his father, the elder William Hunter, who was a successful American minister to Brazil for nine years.
There were not just two but several William Hunters in this family. The first William Hunter in America, the father of Minister Hunter and the grandfather of the Second Assistant Secretary, was a Scot, born in Edinburgh in 1729, who had been a surgeon’s mate, on the losing side, at the battle of Culloden in 1745.2 Having sided with the Stuarts did not prevent him from graduating in medicine from the University of Edinburgh, but soon afterward, in 1752, he emigrated to America, as many other Scots were doing, and established himself at Newport, Rhode Island. One of the few graduates in America of a European medical college, Hunter soon prospered in his medical practice, and became known for his lectures on anatomy and surgery.3 He was a Loyalist in the Revolution, and he died of fever in 1777 while tending to British troops in Newport. His wife, whose family had been in America for over a century, subsequently took her daughters to England—she apparently hoped the British government would satisfy certain claims—but his young son, the second William Hunter, remained with relatives in Rhode Island.
This younger William Hunter was born in Newport in 1774. His family’s support for the Loyalist cause cost them most of their property, but the young man was nevertheless able to study at Rhode Island College (later renamed Brown University). After graduating with highest honors in 1791, he went to London to read law at the Inner Temple; on his return to America he was admitted to the Rhode Island bar and began the practice of law.4 When he was in his late twenties he met a girl named Mary Robinson, daughter of a successful merchant in New York City, when she came to visit her grandparents in Newport. William and Mary fell in love. He was an Episcopalian; her Quaker father would not let her see him. Finally love triumphed, they married in New York in 1804-and she was expelled from the Society of Friends.5
As the years went by, Hunter became a prosperous and prominent man in Rhode Island. In 1812 one of Rhode Island’s two U.S. Senators resigned and Hunter was appointed to his place. In 1814 he was elected to a full new term as Senator, served honorably until his term ended in 1821, and then returned to his law practice in Newport. In 1834 Hunter turned sixty. President Andrew Jackson needed to provide proper political rewards for New Englanders who backed him after he put down South Carolina’s near-rebellion in the recent nullification crisis. Jackson named Hunter chargé d’affaires in the Empire of Brazil. At this point the United States had no ambassadors or embassies abroad, only ministers heading legations, and in most of Latin America-Colombia being the sole exception-the American envoy was not even a minister, only a charge d’affaires.
Hunter had considerable success in Brazil. When he had been there almost seven years a young American, R.M. Walsh, arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the end of 1841, to become Hunter’s number-two as secretary of lega¬tion. Three decades later Walsh recalled how he had sailed on the U.S.S. Delaware “into the bay of Rio, the most beautiful in the world…. [with] the magnificent metropolis wandering over leafy eminences.”6 He found his new chief. Hunter, a man of “stately presence, distinguished manner, eminent ability.” Hunter had just been elevated to the rank of minister, reportedly at the urging of the sixteen-year-old emperor, Dom Pedro II, “.. .who had known him since his imperial legs were in pantaloons, looking up to him with almost filial consideration.” This second, and last, Brazilian emperor was and is known for both his intellectual curiosity and his concern for his subjects. Walsh wrote in 1871 that “all in all, he is perhaps the most respectable sovereign alive; and I have a shrewd suspicion that Mr. Hunter’s counsels to his early mentors should count for something in his remarkable career.”
In 1843 Minister Hunter was finally replaced, after serving for more than nine years in Rio. The new minister was George Profitt of Indiana, whom Walsh described as “insignificant in appearance, unpolished in manner, and uncultured in intellect… the very envoy to exhibit to wondering Brazilians the inscrutable capers of American politics.” Profitt’s nomination was eventually rejected by the Senate in Washington, but only after he had spent eight months in Brazil.
It was a time when both the spoils system and nepotism weighed heavy in American government and politics. William Hunter’s 25-year-old son Thomas Robinson Hunter had joined his father in Rio, and was soon appointed U.S. naval agent for the Navy’s Brazil station. When his father returned to the United States Thomas came home, too. In 1849, the year his father died, he was made attache at the American legation in Paris. He stayed just a year, taking frequent leave to visit an aunt in Pau, and then returned to Newport where for the next four decades he lived well but apparently did not work. One source comments that “Had he had the energy to take up his pen, he might have made its products most attractive, but in that he was wanting. It was altogether too much like routine work….”7 Fortunately for the national interest, Thomas Hunter had a more energetic older brother, who was the third William Hunter although he was known for many years as William Hunter, Jr.
William Hunter, Jr. was born in Newport on 8 November 1805. When he was fifteen—and his father was a Senator—he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He spent just two years there, and then left “on account of weak eyes.”8 Returning to Newport, he read law, despite his supposed vision problem, in his father’s office. For some reason, though, he dreamed of living in New Orleans, and studied French and Spanish to prepare himself. He soon moved to New Orleans, and apparently made short shrift of the Napoleonic code since he is reported to have been admitted to the New Orleans bar in 1826.9The following year young Hunter’s Southern adventure ended. He fell ill with yellow fever, and once again returned to Newport, to recuperate and then to practice law.
In 1829 Hunter was appointed to a clerkship in the State Department in Washington, through his father’s friendship with both President Jackson and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. His initial duties were mainly translation, presumably using his French and Spanish. The professional staff of the department then comprised a dozen men who were styled clerks and were supervised by the Chief Clerk, who prior to 1853 was the second-ranking officer of the department.11 Hunter started at the bottom, at an annual salary of $800, and for two decades worked his way steadily if slowly upward. By 1850 he was claims clerk at a salary of $2,000, and ranked just below William S. Derrick, the Chief Clerk.12 Derrick, who had entered the department two years before Hunter, died in 1852 shortly before his fiftieth birthday.13 Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who was himself to die five months later, made Hunter the Chief Clerk.
The following year, 1853, the Chief Clerk dropped one notch in the department hierarchy, when A. Dudley Mann was made number-two with the new title of Assistant Secretary. William Hunter, now to be the department’s number-three, was made Second Assistant Secretary, the title he would retain for more than three decades.
Few personal vignettes regarding William Hunter, Jr. have been found by this writer. He seems to have been a useful scapegoat for a secretary of state on at least two occasions. The first came soon after Secretary of State Webster made Hunter the Chief Clerk in May 1852. By the following month Webster was apparently nearing mental and physical collapse, and he signed two contradictory letters on the question of Peruvian sovereignty over islands which were sources for guano, then the prime fertilizer for American agricul¬ture. Webster tried to blame Hunter, but it became clear to President Millard Fillmore that Webster could no longer function as Secretary of State.14
Another occasion came in 1861, during the first months of the Civil War. The State Department was informed in a letter from a Dr. Guy Hopkins that a pro-Confederate organization, the Knights of the Golden Circle, intended to place members in government and military service in order to carry out treasonable activities. Former President Franklin Pierce was said to be a member of the group. Secretary of State William Seward wrote Pierce that “Your name is connected with a secret league, the object of which is to overthrow the government. Any information on the subject will be acceptable.” Pierce, furious, replied that the information was false and that he was surprised “that even a seeming credence should be given to the charge.” Seward offered an apology, explaining that the letter had been drafted for his signature by William Hunter.15
Hunter’s most celebrated single work was perhaps the note he drafted in 1853 for Secretary of State William Marcy to send to the Austrian chargé d’affaires in Washington, strongly defending the action of an American naval officer who prevented an Austrian naval vessel in an Ottoman port from kidnapping Martin Koszta, a Hungarian revolutionary who had fled the Austrian empire after the Hungarian revolution was put down. Koszta had lived in the United States but was not yet a citizen; nevertheless Hunter’s note insisted Koszta was entitled to protection by the U.S. government. The Hungarian cause was popular in America, and the department’s action was applauded by Congress and the public.16
We view Hunter briefly in a newspaper column on Washington social life in 1876, where he is described as “a gentleman of cultivated tastes and may be seen coming from Georgetown on the horse cars every morning, with his dispatch box, and reading some old classic.”17
Three years after this, in 1879, William Hunter celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his entry into the department’s service. A banquet was given in his honor, and President Rutherford B. Hayes paid a call on him, as did many other U.S. officials and foreign diplomats.18 His colleagues are said to have filled his desk with flowers, and the department was closed for half a day in honor of the event.19
The following year. 1880, Hunter fell seriously ill in his Georgetown home. It appears that he had suffered a stroke.20He recovered, and returned to work for six more years. In May 1884, as Hunter began his fifty-fifth year of service in the department, the Washington POST reported that “The years have touched him lightly. He is still in the active discharge of his duties, … He has become the mentor and authority of the department.”” In November 1884, he gave a rare interview to a reporter from the Post.21 Hunter told the reporter that
Hunter was seriously sick, “troubled wilh hemorrhages” by the time he gave the interview. He began to consult a specialist in Baltimore, without informing Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard. At least once Hunter rose at five AM and took a train to Baltimore to see the doctor, returning to Washington in time to reach his desk in the department at nine o’clock as usual. Bayard eventually saw that Hunter was sick and emaciated, and told him to absent himself from his office.23 For a time he rallied, but his condition thereafter went steadily downhill. William Hunter died at his home at 3327 N Street in Georgetown on 22 July 1886, at the age of 80, “the oldest official in continuous service in the United States.”24 He had served his country for fifty-seven years, under twenty-one Secretaries of State.
Hunter had taken losses, before he died. His wife of many years had died in 1884, two years before he did.25Their daughter Irene Hunter Stansbury had been widowed in 1882,26 and their son. the fourth William Hunter, had died in the Washington insane asylum at the age of 32, in 1878.27
It was said of Hunter after his death that “His memory was prodigious, and he was always able to set forth clearly the thread of a protracted by-gone negotiation or the history of a half-forgotten claim.”28 For his last nine years in the department he had a subordinate named Alvey August Adee, the head of the department’s Diplomatic Bureau from 1878 onward. When Hunter died, Adee immediately replaced him. Alvey Adee was a rather deaf bachelor who liked to take long cycling vacations. He was also a hardworking man who by the time of Hunter’s death was well prepared to take over the old man’s responsibilities-although the Washington Post opined that Hunter’s death “leaves a void in the State Department which is not likely to be filled.”29
The paper guessed wrong. After Hunter was gone Adee served with great distinction, for almost four decades, as the department’s number-three until he died at 81, in 1924, much revered and still in service. And when Adee died, Wilbur J. Carr, perhaps the greatest of the three, was ready to take his place, and served at the heart of the department until 1937, when Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent him to Prague as war clouds were gathering.
Republished by permission of the author and publisher from Diplomacy and Statecraft, 16: 251-257, 2005 Copyright © Taylor & Francis, Inc.