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by William Sommers

Just off the roaring traffic on Highway 2A in Cambridge, Mass., near the now-blocked intersection with Elmwood Avenue, stands a weathered granite monument which tells the infrequent passerby that hidden in the shrubbery behind is “Elmwood,” once the home of James Russell Lowell. The house has long since left the Lowell domain, and h

as been used as the residence of Harvard University’s President. And Lowell the preeminent literary lion of the United States in his time, is now indifferently remembered with street names, college buildings and an occasional quote on the op-ed pages from “The Bigelow Papers.” His poetry is forgotten, his essays dusty with disuse and his literary criticism a Victorian anachronism. Even his work as a diplomat is all but a whisper of the State Department’s past. Yet he served his country with distinction, first as minister to Spain, 1877-80, then as minister to Great Britain, 1880-85.


Elmwood, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on February 22, 1819, Lowell fell into the Brahmin mold and, in keeping with the requirements, graduated from Harvard in 1838. Unsure of his future, he switched to law school and got his degree in 1840. But he soon realized that this was not his forte, and turned to a literary life for sustenance. During a long period of writing poetry and critical essays, Lowell gained status with his appointment as editor of the fledgling Atlantic Monthly. In 1855, upon the death of Longfellow, Lowell took over as professor of French and Romance languages at Harvard, a post he held until 1877, when he was appointed US Minister to Spain by the short lived President Hayes.

This wasn’t an appointment out of the blue; nor was it one that was offered on his merit as writer, Hispanic scholar or New England Brahmin alone. Lowell, before and after the Civil War, became increasingly involved in national politics. A staunch supporter of the Union cause, he nevertheless became disillusioned over the growing corruption during the postwar years. He was concerned that the “new” Union was receiving a scandalous international reputation because of the generally abysmal character of its overseas representation. Nor was this his opinion singular.

In 1870 The Nation magazine complained that the US Minister to Russia, for example “spent nearly the whole of his term in a vain endeavor to be sober enough to be presented to the Emperor.” His valet was said to have dragged him to the mirror many a morning with the dunning question: “Is them the eyes for a minister plenipotentiary?” Reformers lamented the lack of a professional “foreign service” so that even if the best man were to be selected, he would suffer “from the fact that he is not a member of a regular calling, and that his fitness, either natural or acquired, may have had nothing whatever to do with his appointment.” Although things have changed substantially since then, some of these backwater appointments are still part of the current scene.

‘A little … bitterness’

But Lowell, in 1869, had been turned down the appointment trail once before when it looked as though he might receive the nod as Minister to Spain from President Grant. His friend, Rockwood Hoar, the new attorney general and the man to whom Lowell had dedicated his second series of “The Bigelow Papers,” had became a friendly advocate. The then Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, approved Lowell’s appointment. However, Lowell’s fellow Bay State resident — and powerful foe of President Grant — Senator Charles Sumner intervened with a negative insert. He insisted that the great historian, Motley (another Boston Brahman) be sent to England. This meant that a place had to be found for the infamous Daniel Sickles, a political hack of the period. It was essential that he be given something — which, of course, focused on the only place available — Spain. Thus the disappointed Lowell, though dropped out of consideratio for the inept — but politically influential — Sickles — could still remark to his daughter that he had come “within an ace of being the Minister—or, if I may be allowed a little natural bitterness, under the circumstances, within an ass of it.”

Though Lowell’s current appointment had much to do with his stature and eminence as a writer, teacher and Spanish scholar — it also had its political connection. Lowell had early joined maverick Republicans in Boston to counter the possible nomination of Senator James Blaine as the Republican standard bearer in the elections of 1876. Mr. Lowell went to the GOP convention representing the Eighth Congressional District and, in the subsequent machinations, he led the Massachusetts delegation in voting for Rutherford B. Hayes. The much-disputed 1876 election was finally resolved in the Electoral College. As a member of the College, Mr. Lowell’s vote was essential. The word spread that he was going to switch and vote for Sam Tilden, the Democratic candidate. These rumors fed upon Mr. Lowell’s well-known concern over the corruption issue that had plagued the Grant administration. But the gossip was soon squelched when Lowell announced publicly for Hayes. At the official meeting of the Massachusetts electors in the Parker House, across from the Boston Common, Lowell cast his vote for the man from Ohio.

And mimicking the TONIGHT SHOW there was “still more to come.” Hayes, using as his messenger William Dean Howells (who was consul to Venice during the Civil War, an eminent author himself and brother-in-law to the new President), to offer Lowell the choice of a foreign service post in Austria or Russia. Howells, in his memoirs, tells how he carried the letter from the President “to Elmwood where I found Lowell over his coffee at dinner. He saw me through the threshold and called to me to come in, and I handed him the letter.” Lowell read it and tossed it to his wife, who in turn read it with a silent smile. But, Howells noted: “I could see that she was intensely eager for it. The whole situation was of a perfect New England character in its tacit significance; after… we turned into his study without further allusion to the matter.”

Departure from Boston

To Howells’ chagrin, a few days later he received a note from Lowell, turning down the offer, but leaving the door open by remarking offhandedly: “I should like to see a play of Calderon [The Spanish writer].” His heart was still set on Spain.

Howells lost no time in setting the wheels in motion. He arranged with the President’s approval to have William Evarts, the new Secretary of State, visit Boston and offer the Spanish post directly to the Cambridge scholar. This done, Lowell of course accepted. After weeks of preparation including the renting of his beloved Elmwood, the Lowells sailed from Boston to Spain on July 14, 1877. They arrived in Madrid exactly one month later, in the high heat of the Spanish summer. Three days later, they were on their way to La Granja, where the young King of Spain, Alphonso XII, had his summer palace and where Mr. Lowell was to present his credentials.

The dispatches Lowell sent to Washington, describing the presentation were indicative of the style and viewpoint that was to follow. Describing his trip from Madrid to La Granja, he related: “Our journey was by night and over the mountains, the greatest height reached by the road being about that of Mt. Washington. Eight mules with red plumes and other gorgeous trappings formed our team. A guardia civil, with three-cornered hats, cross belts, and a rifle, mounted the rumble and with a cracking of whips quite as noisy as a skirmish of revolvers in Virginia City, and much shouting, away we pelted.”

But Lowell could switch to a more formal, professorial tone when the situation demanded. After all the intricate protocol of preparation and the notice of arrival, the audience with the King was inexplicably delayed. This riled Lowell, who reported: “I trust that our proposed action and the protest privately made to the Minister of State as a preliminary to it will meet your approval. Arrived at the palace we were kept waiting some 25 minutes in an antechamber, and though I suspected this was due to some mistake, I thought it no more than becoming to say to the Introducer when he apologized for the delay, that so far as I personally was concerned I was perfectly satisfied with his explanations, but must beg him to remember that it was not I but the United States who was left waiting.” It was a sentiment, no doubt, that many an ambassador since has felt like shouting to the heavens.

“Humorous, pathetic… reporting

Mr. Lowell’s dispatches, as one critic has noted, were “not without a great deal of political sagacity, but they are written in his characteristic epistolary vein—humorous, pathetic, frank, sometimes bookish with his habitual whimsicality only a little chastened by any sense of occasion.” One can only wonder whether Mr. Lowell, in today’s State Department, might have won top awards for his political dispatches or might have been sent to the Foreign Service Institute for courses on “How To Write Winning Diplomatic Reports.”

Nevertheless, to the Spanish, Lowell’s appointment came as a delight and a courtesy, in contrast to that of the disputatious and aggressive General Sickles. Mr. Adee, the chargé d’affaires, looked on Lowell’s arrival as an attempt by the United States “to revive the amiable traditions of Washington Irving’s day.” Mr. Lowell was genially hailed by the Spanish press as “Jose Bigelow,” and lines of his poetry were flatteringly quoted to him by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. In the latter, Manuel Silvela, Lowell met a truly compatible counterpart. Senor Silvela was a scholar himself who enjoyed Lowell’s excellent tobacco. The two fell into the pleasant habit of talking more about the Cid, Cervantes and Calderon than they did about the details of commerce or consular affairs.

Still, there was work to do and Lowell, impelled by his puritan ethic, set to it with a will. Finding lodgings was his first order of business; this proved difficult, if not alarming as it has for thousands of U.S. Foreign Service employees since that time. Though Mr. Lowell at first found his salary generous—a reason to leave Harvard and its impecunious prestige—he soon discovered that after securing his lodging and furnishings, along with other necessary expenses, he had in four months spent all of his salary plus over $2,000 of his savings. With no credit union to turn to and no catalogue of allowances for “settling in,” the author of “The Vision of Sir Launfal” found little pecuniary reward in his newly-acquired Camelot.

Beard-deep into details

But Lowell, for all his erudition and experience, was seized as are many foreign service people today, by “first-assignment fright.” He feared that, being an academic, he might fall prey to an inability to manage practical, run-of-the-mill affairs. Thus he plunged beard-deep into all the details. He became obsessed with tariff applications, customhouse collections and the various claims that came in an endless and monotonous array. As a biographer described it, he began to perform his duties with “a conscientiousness that bordered on mania.” In a letter to his friend, Charles Storey, Lowell took up the question of his workload in a lighter vein: “We have plenty to do in this legation I can assure you, what with Cuban claims and Captains of vessels who thrust their heads incautiously into the wasp’s nest of a Spanish port, where the officials look on it as a duty to suppress trade if they can. I think the old subordinates of the Inquisition have all turned custom House officers.” Except for all the intervening time, the red tape of customs throughout the world still bear the mark of the Ambassador’s description.

He also suffered from a local language inversion. Though he had taught Spanish literature and culture for nearly 20 years, had high literary reading skills and knew classical or “old” Spanish, he had but few smarts when it came to ordinary conversation. He was, he admitted, unable even to offer a chair to a visitor. But determined that he would not falter, he insisted from the beginning of doing all the legation’s business in Spanish. This further exacerbated his plight, and contributed to a heightened tension that in turn began to prey upon his health. He wrote, on the fears of the first assignment: “I had a hard row to hoe at first. All alone, without a human being I had ever seen before in my life, and with unaccustomed duties, feeling as if I were beset with snares on every hand, obliged to carry on the greater part of my business in a strange tongue… I don’t much wonder that the gout came upon me like an armed man.”

Lowell turned to that long-time recourse which has been, and is, the great healer: R & R (rest and recreation). In the spring of 1878, he asked for and received a two-month leave. With Mrs. Lowell, he set sail on a slow French steamer to Italy, Greece and Turkey. This was the tonic he needed. While in Greece, he seized an opportunity to visit Constantinople, noting to a friend: “I have a theory that peaches have only one good bite in ‘em, and that a second spoils that. I am glad we went… Our four days at Constantinople were nothing more nor less than so many Arabian Nights.” When he returned to Madrid, he was improved in health and spirit and ready, with moderation, to begin to enjoy his assignment. “I have come back,” he wrote, “a new man, and have flung my blue spectacles into the paler Mediterranean.”

No more Boston bulldog

As Lowell began to get a handle on the job, he moderated his concern with the details and began to learn the language, not by the “Boston bulldog” approach, but by taking on a tutor. This new, “gentler” regime was encapsulated in a schedule of his daily routine which he sent to a friend. “This is the course of my day. Up at 8; from 9 sometimes till 11 my Spanish professor; at 11 breakfast; at 12 the legation; at 3 home again and a cup of chocolate, then read the paper and write Spanish till a quarter to 7; at 7 dinner, and at 8 a drive in an open carriage in the Prado till 10; to bed at 12 to 1. In cooler weather we drive in the afternoon. I am very well—cheerful and no gout.”

One duty that the Ambassador took upon himself was the translation of Spanish news and magazine articles that seemed of particular interest to him and, he assumed, to the State Department. Thus his work schedule of reading the papers, then writing “Spanish till a quarter to 7,” included the compilation of translations and commentary. He translated and commended on the King’s remarriage after the death of his young queen; the prospects of a commercial treaty between Spain and the United States; the corruption of the ”new” Spain; the overthrow of the current ministry and the causes of the prime minister’s resignation; the pacification of Cuba. The dispatches were clear and contained in many cases shrewd assessments of conditions and suggestions for options that the United States might consider these issues. They were at the same time long and leisurely, and probably caused frustration among the clerks who had to copy them and among the Stateside administers who had to read them.

Even in reply, Lowell had much to say. Writing a private letter to the Secretary of State, he complained of the lack of security and confidentiality of State’s communications to the legation, noting that “a telegram from the Department not in cipher gets into the hands of the Government and newspapers here before it reaches mine.” The managed and unmanaged “leak” so prevalent these days was not unknown even in the Gilded Age!! These same dispatches, and the hundreds of letters that Lowell wrote to accompany them, and those he wrote to his friends, reveal a man changing in the light of new circumstances, a man who belied his Brahmin upbringing and his New England reticence. In a long dispatch on the King’s remarriage, he reflected on the art, the politics and the civilization of the world in which he was serving: “If the ninety years since the French Revolution have taught anything, it is that institutions grow, and cannot be made to order,— that they grow out of an actual past, and are not to be conspired out of a conjectural future,—that human nature is stronger than any invention of man. How much of this lesson had been learned in Spain, it is hard to say; but if the young King would apply his really acute intelligence . . . Spain may at length count on that duration of tranquility the want of which has been the chief obstacle to her material development.”

‘Half Communist’

In a letter to a friend, he commented on the biting, demoralizing poverty, suffering and neglect that seemed to grow out of the indifference of the national government to the poor. “They (i.e., the madrilènes) sleep in the day… and at night are as lively as insects… far from being a grave people, they seem to me a particularly cheerful one, and yet I am struck with the number of deeply furrowed faces one meets, the mark of hereditary toil. I turn half communist when I see them.”

In another vein he expounded that “one makes plenty of acquaintances, but very few friends in Diplomacy, and an American Minister, unless he has a private fortune, can’t afford much mere society, even if he likes it, which I don’t.” The truth of that commentary hasn’t failed the test of time.

When concluding an analysis of an extended government crisis involving the fall of the prime minister and his cabinet, the Ambassador, as is the wont of every diplomat, got a few good licks on the press: “As usual in such cases of crisis… all sorts of wild rumors are in circulation, but I am inclined to await events rather than to trust in the ratiocinations of journalists who mutually excite and outbid each other in the bewildering competition of immediate inspiration.” Is there a modern parallel?

Nor did Lowell fail to sight the broad humor in any incident, a trait which endowed “The Bigelow Papers” with their sustained appeal. The Spanish government had complained that an American company, working with a certain Mr. Fourcarde, was smuggling refined oil into the country to avoid duties. The State Department signaled Minister Lowell to investigate and give a full report directly to the Secretary.

The ‘Fred Allen Award’

He did investigate, and his Dispatch No. 66 most certainly, in a later day, would have gotten him the Secretary’s Fred Allen Award for the most humorous dispatch of the year. Mr. Fourcarde, it seems, had established storehouses in the suburbs, where he hid his refined oil. In order to get his product past the custom checkers and thus avoid the tax, he hired the skinniest women from among the villagers. Then with tin cases filled with the petroleum, “he made good all their physical defects… thus giving them what Dr. Johnson would have called “ the pectoral proportions of Juno. In this guise he was able to supply thousands of households with their needed oil – and, of course to avoid taxes as well! Mr. Fourcarde’s pockets swelled with the profits. “

Lowell, relying on his great writing skills. brought his dispatch to a climax thusly: “Could he have been more moderate! Could he only have bethought him in time of the “ne quid nimis.“ But one fatal day he sent a damsel whose contours, aroused in one of the guardians at the gate the same emotions as those of Maritornes in the bosom of the carrier. With the playful gallantry of a superior he tapped the object of his admiration and—it tinkled. He had ‘struck oil’ unawares. Love shook his wings and fled; Duty entered frowning; and Mr. Fourcarde’s perambulating wells suddenly went dry. With a gentleman so ingenious the Spanish Government is perhaps justified in being on its guard. Even charity has eyes and ears.”

President Grant: Tone Deaf

Toward the end of 1878, General and Mrs. Grant came to Spain on an official visit. The trip was designed as a diplomatic expiation for the turmoil created over Cuba during Mr. Grant’s regime. “The affair Virginius,” which occurred in 1873, during Grant’s second term as President, centered on an attempt by a group of Americans, with or without official sanction, to effect a revolution in Cuba, a not-unfamiliar theme in recent American history. The Americans were tried and executed by the Spanish administration in Santiago. A protocol agreement was eventually signed between Spain and the United States, and the Ambassador was privy to the payment of a $500,000 indemnity to the survivors by the Spanish Government. Part of his assignment and, indeed, justification for his appointment to Spain, was to try to smooth over such ruptured feelings and work toward more amicable relations. Grant’s tour was the capstone of the healing process; it was from that point of view, a success, and Lowell could report to the State Department that “every possible attention and courtesy were shown to General Grant during this stay by the Spanish Government, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs took occasion to tell me that these civilities were intended not only to show respect and good will to General Grant, but to the Government and people of the United States.” In private, however, Lowell considered that his distinguished guest would prove to “be rather an elephant on our hands.” He confided to that same correspondent the fact that the Grants had been invited to the opera in Madrid. But Mr. Grant “had barely been in the box five minutes when he said to Fanny (Mrs. Grant): ‘Haven’t we had ‘most enough of this?’ He told me that he “couldn’t distinguish one tune from another, knowing only the bugle calls and even those after some trouble.”

Undoubtedly the most distressing aspect of Lowell’s Spanish tour was the sickness of his wife, an off-and-on-again debilitation that eventually led to her death near the close of Lowell’s tenure as Minister to England. In the summer of 1879, just as the Lowells were on their way for home leave, Frances Lowell fell sick and, while the doctors summoned pronounced a passing fever, Lowell wasn’t convinced. He’d seen the same symptoms reported for the King’s young queen, only to see her struck down by typhus. By evening of the same day, Mrs. Lowell’s fever had risen sharply and it was clear that typhus had entered the Lowell household. From then on, it was an up-and-down battle. At times she seemed to be gaining, and she began moving about the household with the same buoyancy which Lowell had so much prized in their marriage. But at other times she seemed seized by death, became delirious and accused Mr. Lowell of conspiring against her. Once she became convinced that she was in the Inquisition, and she complained of apparitions and secret passages. It was a terrible time for Lowell, who occasionally went two and three days without sleep, staying with her and hoping for a recovery.

On January 22, 1880, Lowell received a cipher dispatch from the State Department announcing that the President had nominated him Minister to England and would he accept? Lowell, of course, was delighted but requested a two-month delay, which was granted. With his wife on the way back from one of her frequent relapses, he left for his investiture. The Spanish sojourn was over. When his successor, Lucius Fairchild, sent his first dispatch upon arriving in Spain, he provided a handsome tribute to his predecessor:

“Having thus entered upon the duties of my office, it gives me great pleasure to tell you of the most charmingly pleasant feeling of friendship which I meet everywhere for Mr. and Mrs. Lowell… They have won the esteem and confidence of all. Ambassador Lowell’s footsteps are clean, there is no mud on them, and it will be to me a great pleasure to follow them to the best of my ability… I find the legation, its books and papers in excellent condition and everything therein in as good order as could be wished.”End.

In a subsequent narrative, William Sommers will tell about James Russell Lowell as the envoy to the United Kingdom.

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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