Review by John M. Handley
Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands, by Peter D. Eicher: Potomac Books, 2018, 370 pages with end-notes and index, $36.95; ISBN 978-1-61234-970-1.
Since its inception the United States has sent envoys to advance American interests both across the ocean and to areas that later became part of the country. From China to Chile, Tripoli to Tahiti, Mexico to Muscat, Peter Eicher chronicles the experiences of twelve men sent to foreign shores to raise the American flag. The author covers the 75-year period from the end of the Revolutionary War to the start of the Civil War replete with intrigues, revolutions, riots, war, shipwrecks, swashbucklers, desperadoes, and bootleggers. Communication between these men and the government took months, often many months, leaving the envoys largely on their own to do what they believed was in the best interest of their government. Appointed to their positions either through their individual prominence or political support, they were not salaried until 1856 but were expected to earn a living by their own wits. The US did not confer the title of ambassador until 1893, thus the top envoys were at best ministers, if not further down the line of commissioner, charge d’affaires, agent, or secretary. Some were titled special diplomatic agent, confidential agent, or treaty negotiator, while others were consular officers, specifically consuls general, consuls, vice consuls, consular agents, and commercial agents. In order to support themselves, regardless of title, most acted as consuls in order to retain the consular fees and supplemented this income by private business, which was not seen at that time as a conflict of interest. The State Department did not have the resources to supervise its personnel abroad. In the 1850s, with hundreds of consulates and a few score of diplomatic missions around the world, it still had only seven clerks who spent most of their days copying correspondence by hand.
With the above as background, Peter Eicher provides a well written, interesting, and extremely well researched account, based almost entirely on unpublished material, of twelve men, largely unknown today, who helped chart the United States foreign policy that ushered America onto the world stage. He starts with Samuel Shaw and the first American contacts with China, then goes on to James Catheart and William Eaton and the First Barbary War, and then Danial Clark and diplomacy in New Orleans. From New Orleans, the author takes the reader to Argentina, Chile, and Mexico and the interventions of Joel Poinsett; next comes Edmund Roberts and his remarkable work in Cochin China, Siam, and Muscat. The author then explores the diplomatic role of Commodore David Porter at the Sublime Porte, followed by “adventures in paradise” with Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout and Samuel Blacker in Tahiti. The next chapter, “The Land of Gold,” covers the activities of Thomas Larkin and William Leidesdorff and the Americanization of California. The final chapter recounts the unbelievably difficult role of Townshend Harris and the opening of Japan.
Themes which runs throughout all these accounts include the extent to which commerce drove America’s initial outreach to many countries. Additionally, they recount a continuing and often unfriendly competition with Great Britain as they depict American expansion around the world and across North America. They illustrate increasing American military power and a willingness to use it, both in war and in “gunboat diplomacy,” and they show a link between American diplomatic history and American naval history. They demonstrate the firm American conviction that representative democracy is the best form of government while they also demonstrate the frequently neglected role of diplomacy as advancing American ideals, influence, and interests around the world.
I highly recommend this book for its unique insight into American diplomatic history.