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American Writers Who Were Diplomats

by William Sommers

The Writer as Diplomat – his dispatches read like a continued short story

March 4, 1841 was the coldest – and totally unheated – inauguration day in U.S. history. Among its victims was the ninth President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, who, taking his oath of office, therein contracted pneumonia and died one month later on April 4th. This gave the ambitious Virginian, John Tyler, a short-term Vice President, a surprising promotion to the unheated White House! And, surprisingly, as the tenth US President, he achieved some remarkable outcomes, particularly in the 1842 treaty with Britain on the final boundary lines between the US and Canada as well as annexation of Texas in 1845. His Secretary of State was the New England sharpie, Daniel Webster (remember that marvelous movie: The Devil and Daniel Webster?)

At the same time one of the more important openings in the then current American diplomatic service was that of the US Ambassador to Spain. Spain had relative amicable relations with the United States, but was currently in a state of upheaval wherein a brace of warring factions were vying for control of the twelve-year old Queen Isabella II. So Webster and the President Tyler mulled over the possible candidates for U.S. Ambassador, with Webster pushing for Washington Irving. President Tyler was interested… but why Irving?

Webster was a great fan of Washington Irving and his folk stories of New England. He particularly enjoyed Irving’s satirical but jovial History of New York, written under the name of one “Dietrich Knickerbocker.”

One piece caught Webster’s eye when Irving ala Knickerbocker described the famous, but ancient, Dutch governor of New Netherlands – Wouter Van Twiller as being “…exactly five feet six inches in height, and six feet five inches in circumference.”

Of course, there was more to Webster’s assessment than Van Twiller. Irving had strong ties with Europe and especially Spain. The War of 1812 had put his family’s New York business on the ropes and young Irving went to England to try and save the trading interchange which was the basis for their commerce. He was unsuccessful and eventually his family had to declare bankruptcy on their operation. Without a job or prospects, and determined to stay in Europe until he had re-made on his writing skills and began to turn out stories and books by the score which set him up as a very popular writer. And with living and traveling between London, Paris, Dresden….and Spain… he stayed in Europe for seventeen years, returning to New York in 1832.

But the key to Webster’s choice was Irving’s diplomatic work in Spain. In early 1828, the US Minister to Spain, Alexander Hill Everett, invited Irving to join him in Madrid, particularly because the Spanish Government had opened to scholars and writers the cache of documents covering the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The ambassador wanted Irving to focus his skills on this literary treasure-trove. Irving was given full access to the a host of documents that revealed the beginnings of European – especially Spanish – activity in the eventual formation of the American world as colony and country. Fully adroit in both the language and the culture, Irving produced a remarkable tome: Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, of which 175 editions were published by the end of the century. He then moved from his initial quarters to Granada’s ancient palace, Alhambra, continuing his writings which were eventually published as The Chronicles of the Conquest of Grenada followed by Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus. He also gathered enough of the ambiance of the Alhambra to eventually publish his well -received Tales of the Alhambra. While digging deep into the Spanish archives and sketching his new volumes, he was, to his surprise, appointed Secretary to the American Legation in London. While reluctant to leave Spain, he did not want to disappoint family and friends who, without his knowledge, had worked for this appointment.

In London Irving worked directly for the American Minister, Louis McLane, who made him “aide-de-camp.” Irving became an adroit negotiator. He – and McLane – concluded an important trade agreement between the United States and the British West Indies. At the same time that Irving becaue intimate with the ups-and-downs of diplomatic life, Irving was awarded a medal by the Royal Society of Literature along with an honorary doctorate of civil law from Oxford.

Just as things were working out for him, McLane was ordered back to Washington to serve as Secretary of the Treasury. He left the embassy in Irving’s hands until some months later when President Jackson’s nominee for this post, Martin Van Buren, arrived. This gave Irving his long needed chance to resign and return to his first love, writing. But not long after, Van Buren found that he had lost his job when the US Senate refused his nomination, and the always sympathetic Washington Irving consoled Van Buren by predicting that the Senate’s action would go far toward elevating him “to the presidential chair.” That prediction was actually confirmed via the election of 1836 when the man with a full parcel of Dutch ancestry, became President. Irving’s understanding of the Dutch in building New York seemed to have given him insight into the political future of Van Buren who became the eighth President of the United States! Surely, as Irving must have realized – no Van Twiller he!

Thus it can be see that Daniel Webster’s choice was based on a profound appreciation of Irving’s understanding of Spain, its people and their culture and language. With the Secretary presenting the President with substantial reasons for the appointment of Washington Irving to be US Minister to Spain, President Tyler agreed and appointed Irving. Webster then sent off the notice to Irving who was now restfully settled in his newly purchased home – Sunnyside – in Tarrytown, New York.

When Irving received the news at Sunnyside, his snug retreat in upstate New York, he wrote: “I have been astounded, this morning, by the intelligence of having been nominated to the Senate as minister of Spain. Nothing was more unexpected. It was perfectly unsolicited.” As in his story of the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, there was a certain amount of exaggeration in his “astonishment. “ Actually Irving had been searching for something more sustaining than the uncertain income derived from the sale of his books. He had already applied for the post of customs collector in New York, and had offered himself as a candidate for consul in Paris. Perhaps his astonishment rested not so much on finally getting a job, but on its tailor-made suitability of going to Spain. His acceptance was sent off by return post.

His New Position Though Appealing Was No Plum

When Irving accepted the position, he was 59 – and famous as the first American writer of international reputation. His published works, which included histories, essays, short stories, travelogues and biographies, were circulated in England, France and Spain. He had just begun his piece-de-resistance, a biography of his namesake, George Washington. Today, however, Irving’s luster is dim; we know him because of his two famous tales: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” And it is much the same with his diplomatic service. Though we may recall that he once served at the Court of Spain, we know little of those well-written dispatches, in which Irving detailed Spain’s heady political life, dispatches that Daniel Webster, we are told, sought out as though they were installments in a serialized novel. Even more, his dispatches and letters reveal experiences that at once invite comparison and exhibit parallels with today’s diplomatic encounters.

Irving followed his letter of acceptance with a trip to Washington, where he dined with President Tyler and Secretary Webster. Their briefing left him with the clear understanding that his new position was no plum. Spain teetered on the edge of a crisis fostered by the political struggle between constitutional liberals and royalists. The country had lately come into the hands of General Espartero who, as dictator and regent, guarded the young infanta, Queen-to-be Isabella II, from her exiled mother and from the unconstructed royalists who still controlled parts of the army. The United States wanted Spain to appreciate its claims on Texas, and to remain neutral in the continuing difficulties with Mexico. At the same time, President Tyler asked Mr. Irving to assure the Spaniards that their hold on Cuba would be supported by the United States. In between the problems, they hoped Mr. Irving would find time to negotiate a couple of trade treaties, and restore the once flourishing commerce with Iberia. For a man whose life had been spent traveling, observing and writing, the workload described over dinner offered little comfort.

Realizing his job would require hard-working, loyal support, he lost no time in nominating the grandson of the Great Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, as his secretary, and Carson Brevoort, a longtime family friend, as assistant. He quickly wound up affairs at Sunnyside, put the house in the hands of his brother. and by April was on the S.S. Independence bound for London. He planned to call at the American legations in London and Paris, to get more background on events in Spain and to visit old friends. It was a little like taking the area studies program while en route to post.

Waiting.. and Waiting…and Waiting For His Household Effects

Washington Irving settled into a delightful apartment overlooking the Plaza de Ville. Though his household was nearly complete, it lacked the basic ingredients: household goods. These were locked in the implacable grip of Spanish customs authorities. Legation archives bulge with copies of the exhortations, threats, pleadings and frustrations showered on the chief of customs by the angry bard of Sunnyside. One letter mirrors a sentiment shared down the years by foreign service employees laboring under similar treatment. Imploring the customs office to relent and cough up his things, Irving recounted the “daily suffering, great inconvenience and growing expense arising from the detention of articles indispensable to my daily use and the entire arrangement of my domestic establishment.” And what did the shipment include? Besides equipment for horses, carriage harnesses, furniture and clothing, the Irving household was in real anguish over “three barrels of brandy, twelve hundred bottles of wine, one hundred bottles of liqueurs, six dozen packs of playing cards and five thousand cigars.” Even grief and suffering are paltry sentiments to vent on the intrusion of the daily absence of such essentials!

Irving, like his modern counterparts, wrestled with his share of vexing personnel problems. A lingering one centered on the U.S. consul in Balboa, one Maximo Aguirre. When the city of Balboa joined an abortive revolt against the regent, its citizens were assessed a heavy per capita fine, Aguirre included. But Mr. Aguirre refused to pay, claiming exemption as the U.S. consult. The Spanish government, ever in need of cash, saw differently and threatened to seize his house. Mr. Irving could find no justification for the exemption, and urged Mr. Aguirre to settle. Disgruntled at such ungrateful treatment, the consul, unknown to Mr. Irving, wrote directly to the Secretary of State who, to Mr. Irving’s burnt ears, advised that the fine be remitted by the legation. The minister was doubly miffed – fist, because Mr. Aguirre went over his head and, second, because Irving knew that the remittance would come out of his own pocket. He complained to the Secretary that this “gentleman has thought it necessary…to trouble you in a matter in which the legation has never been slow to render him all proper assistance.” Although Mr. Irving did remit the fine, Mr. Aguirre’s pride was crushed, and he threatened to resign. Mr. Irving’s undoubted impulse was to accept the resignation on the spot. But replacing the consul might raise even more difficulties. So the Minister was forced to sooth the consul’s ruffled feelings, confessing it was impossible to convince Mr. Aguirre that “after all a consul is but a mortal man subject to mortal laws.”

Washington Irving – the well known writer — was lionized by the literary set in London. The same was true during his trip to France, where he held a long interview with Louis Philippe who, it turned out, admired Mr. Irving’s work. He was thus able to gauge French intentions in Spain and make a cursory assessment of their view on Cuba.

But the many banquets, speeches, discussions and visitations began to wear him down. Though pleased to be in Madrid again, Irving began to get cold feet, apprehensive that he was in over his head, that he should be back on the Hudson River, not living in Spain. “It is possible,” he mused, “I may have gathered wisdom under the philosophical shades of Sleepy Hollow…it is certain that, amidst all the splendors of London and Paris, I find my imagination refuses to take fire…” A Minister’s plot lock, no doubt!

The Situation in Spain

In Madrid, however, things were heating up. The outgoing minister, Aaron Vail, anxious to leave, sent word to Mr. Irving to hurry along. Mr. Vail had arranged for the presentation of credentials on July 27, and Irving, with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Brevoort in tow, arrived out of breath with but two days to spare. Immediately they faced a dilemma. Irving’s letter of credence was addressed to the now-exiled queen mother, and his instructions directed that it be delivered to the teen-age queen. But the Spanish government asked Washington Irving to make his presentation to the minister of foreign affairs. Would the American minister insist on presentation to the queen and then, like the French ambassador, in a calculated insult, leave Spain when his request was refused? Mr. Irving had no stomach for confrontation, and no orders to precipitate it. He bowed to reality, presenting his letter to the minister of foreign affairs. Appreciative of his cooperation, the regent invited him to visit the next day and, within the week, Mr. Irving was received by the infanta, Isabella II.

Reporting to Secretary Webster, The Minister casually noted that “though my instructions specified the Letter should be delivered to the Queen, my verbal instructions gave me to understand that I might use my discretion.” With 2,000 miles of open ocean between Madrid and Washington, and an inevitably tardy pouch, Washington Irving was on a long leash. Somewhat of an envy for today’s immediacy via the internet from State to whomever is on the other line!

He dipped into discretion again a year later, when General Espartero was ousted, following a stormy revolution that held Madrid in siege for over a week. The new government, peopled by archconservatives and members of the old aristocracy, pressed for recognition. Mr. Irving, though fond of the banished general, had few options. Without awaiting instructions, he extended recognition to the new regent, General Navarre, and his government. Secretary Webster was eventually informed of this fait accompli in a leisurely letter, in which the Minister noted that the he should “treat always with the government de facto, without inquiry into its political history or origin.” Today’s diplomat, deluged with cabled instruction and subjected to transatlantic calls at midnight, might well gaze in envy at such casual days of yore!

Easier Said in the US than Done in Spain

The State Department pressed Mr. Irving to negotiate more liberal terms of trade with Spain while maintaining an open dialogue with the foreign office over French and English designs on Cuba. It was easier said in Washington than done in Spain. The peninsular political pot boiled to overflowing; today’s strong man became tomorrow’s exile. For all his knowledge of Spanish culture, Mr. Irving couldn’t get a handle on the erratic political scene. His problems, not unlike those of his present-day confreres, provoked a bewilderment that forms a consistent theme in private letters and public dispatches. The “cabinet shrouds itself in mystery,” he observed testily, while it rushes to increase military expenditures in the face of crippling deficits. This led him to conclude that the Spanish government “has an inscrutable secret of subsisting without money,” a cry not without currency in our own time. Even more frustrating to Irving was the constantly changing cast of political actors. “The late head of the cabinet is in exile,” he lamented, “another in prison, a former leader absconded,” and though these changes “would be considered too sudden and improbable for drama, in Spain…truth outruns fiction.” But Washington pestered him for tangible results which, in turn, prompted Irving’s sharpest rejoinder. He pointed out that over the last eight years there had been 42 changes in the war ministry, 25 in Commerce and 19 in Foreign Affairs, or “nearly two and a half per annum.” Under these fluctuating circumstances, getting anything done in the way of treaty revision was “like bargaining at the window of a railroad car: before you can get a reply… the other party is out of sight.”

Yet slowly the situation in Spain began to settle down. At the same time Irving was involved in negotiation of American trade interests in Cuba – and reported on Spanish parliament’s debates over slave trade – a not altogether pleasing part of his assignment. He was also pressed into service by the still American Minister in the Court of St. James, Louis Mclane, to help in negotiating the disagreements over the festering disagreements concerning the Oregon border.

But time was running out. Irving’s health, never good at best, weakened under the increasing pressure of his work. At the same time he had grown somewhat despondent about his diplomatic service:

“I am wearied and at times heartsick of the wretched politics of this country…the last ten years…of my life, passed among sordid speculators in the United States, and political adventurers in Spain, has shewn me so much of the dark side of human nature…I once beheld the world through the medium of my imagination and was apt to believe men as good as I wished them to be…. “

He suffered from a recurring herpetic irritation that surfaced in severe inflammation of his legs and ankles. Though not dangerous, it was tormenting. It drove him to his armchair, his cough and, finally, to bed for long periods. Rest and recuperation became vital, and Irving often absented himself from Madrid “to visit some watering place…(and) recover my health.”

Vexed, too, that he had so long neglected his projected life of Washington, the Minister began to dwell on the comfortable pleasure of Sunnyside. The time was propitious. James Polk had just been sworn in as the eleventh President of the United States, and Irving expected notice of his replacement within the month. But the summer and fall of 1845 passed with nary a notice. By December, he could no longer cope with the uncertainty. He sent in his resignation. Even then, his promised replacement, General Romulous Sanders, did not appear in Madrid until July 1846. By September, Mr. Irving was on the high seas bound for home. He returned to Sunnyside after a debriefing in Washington and, for the next 13 years, battled his malady and wrote his life of Washington, finishing the fifth and final volume shortly before he took his leave on November 28, 1859 and was buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery four days later.

A Badge for Washington Irving

Mr. Irving had served his country well. During a troubled and unsettled period, when the United States was still trying to build solidified relations with Spain, he tried hard to follow Secretary Webster’s purpose in appointing him as Minister. But, like many diplomats before and since, Irving often allowed his deep admiration for the country and its leading figures to dictate his analysis of events. He romanticized the influence and ability of the young Queen Isabella II, was taken in by the wily queen mother, Maria Cristina, and provided too optimistic an assessment of General Espartero’s staying power.

On the other hand, his dispatches flow with the grace and color of a literary masterpiece, filled with perceptive detail and acute observation. Shortly before Mr. Irving’s death, a distinguished Spaniard suggested that the United States reappoint Mr. Irving to Spain. “Why do you not,” he asked, “take as your agent the man whom all Spain admires, venerates and love? I assure you it would be difficult for our government to refuse anything which Washington Irving should ask.”End.

Note: The quotations and other items in this article are taken from the Washington Irving dispatches preserved on microfilm in the US Archives, from Volume II of Stanley Williams “Life of Washington Irving”, Oxford, 1935 and excerpts from substantial information on Irving in the current on-line Wikipedia.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

William and Joan Sommers
William and Joan Sommers

William Sommers, a graduate of Middlebury College, along with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Littaeur Center ( known now as the JFK School), spent many years in local government operations in the United States and also, appended to that experience, worked overseas on local government development in Thailand, Philippines, Korea, Egypt, Poland, Hungary, Indonesia and Bosnia. Bill’s wife – Joan – was the stalwart in all of this, having graduated from the Chicago Art Institute, and in all the confusion of a life focused on moving and traveling, raised six children, and – at the same time – ingested the art values of every country in which the Sommers family lived and held art shows where ever they were stationed. While she is well known for her Chinese calligraphy and related paintings, she, nevertheless, took time to enhance Bill’s frequent articles on writers who had worked in the American diplomatic service – thus illustrating the likes of Hawthorne, Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Washington Irving and a host of others.


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