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As Well As The Art Of Diplomacy, There Are Also The Arts Of Diplomacy

July 2024
18min read

On any list of events that have altered the course of history the opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854 must surely rank high. While the United States was pushing its boundaries westward to the Pacific and reaching the early stages of industrialization, Japan lay cradled in the tight shell of its own seventeenth century. Under an absolute ban on intercourse with the rest of the world imposed in 1638, Japanese citizens could not leave the islands, and foreigners could not enter them. No seagoing vessels were built, and Japanese fishermen shipwrecked on foreign shores were not allowed to return. The only contact permitted with the outside world was a very limited trade with certain Chinese, Korean, and Dutch merchants.

For the United States, Japan’s impervious isolation was a problem and a challenge. Steam vessels could be used in the China trade only if coaling stations could be found; American whalers who wandered into Japanese coastal waters needed protection and provisioning. Establishing relations with Japan was becoming imperative by 1850.

The deed might have been done by force; the British had won concessions from China during the previous decade by waging the Opium War. The United States assigned to the task Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who chose instead to use all of the arts of diplomacy to win Japanese friendship and respect as well as a trade agreement.

Few American diplomatic missions have employed so many different kinds of art in diplomacy as the Perry expedition to Japan used in 1854. Like other emissaries before and since, Perry alternately threatened and cajoled, exercising the skill that is usually referred to in the phrase “art of diplomacy.” But Perry went further: from initial contact to final treaty he made extensive use of the physical arts and crafts of his country to help persuade the secluded island empire to open its ports to Western trade, ending two centuries of isolation.


In careful preparation for the mission, gifts were chosen to please the rulers of Japan and to impress them with the wealth of the United States and the superiority of its fine and practical arts. Since the recently issued final volume of John J. Audubon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America was much coveted at a thousand dollars a copy, the five volumes of this work and its companion, The Birds of America , appeared to be presents fit for an emperor. Live plant and tree specimens were carefully tended during the voyage by the “agriculturist” of the expedition: forty oak trees, half red and half white; many fruit and ornamental trees; one poinsettia; and one prickly pear. Wine and whiskey, perfume and mirrors were packed in with pumps and plows, stoves and weapons. To demonstrate the novel art of photography a daguerreotype camera was included to take presentation portraits of Japanese officials. A working telegraph was expected to show the Japanese the latest thing in communications.

The most remarkable gift, however, was a quarter-size model railroad, perfect in every detail down to a quartersize coal bucket, made by the Norris Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. The steel, brass, and copper steam locomotive, tender, and coach reached a speed of 15.7 miles an hour on a circular track 370.5 feet long with a passenger or two astride the handsome rosewood passenger carriage made by the Kinball and Gorton Company. For all of this the Department of State paid $4,065.

As a result of Perry’s efforts articles of agreement were completed, and drafts were prepared in Japanese and English to be signed by the plenipotentiaries of both nations. Perry’s copy, the American “original” copy of the treaty, was brought back to the United States for President Pierce to send to the Senate for its advice and consent. In appearance it was a very simple document.

As a final impressive flourish, however, a good deal of money and effort were invested in the preparation of the American “exchange copy,” which was signed by the President and returned to Japan to signify the ratification of the agreement by Perry’s government. A large wax impression of the Great Seal of the United States was attached to the document with golden cords and encased in a gold box, or skippet. Samuel Lewis, a Washington jeweler, was paid $1,220.52 for the skippet and for gold hinges, buttons, screws, and a lock for the velvet-lined rosewood box in which treaty and skippet were placed.

In sending out an important diplomatic mission laden with rare and expensive gifts and in commissioning a handsome and costly binding, skippet, and treaty box for the Perry treaty, the United States government was actually conforming to European diplomatic custom—a conformity the United States had at first resisted as incompatible with a republican system. In Europe by the end of the eighteenth century the exchange copy of a treaty was often an elaborate work of art designed to reflect the majesty and culture of the royal personage whose signature appeared on the final page. And ostentatious gift-giving among monarchs and diplomats presented further opportunities to pay subtle compliments to foreign potentates while boasting silently of the wealth and skills of the donor’s country.

Into this world of opulent diplomacy the United States had stepped in 1776 with Utopian principles and empty hands. The principles were quite sincere. Steeped in the idealism of the eighteenth-century philosophes , many Americans felt messianic stirrings. They believed that their new nation would lead the decadent Old World into a period of international relations based on “right, not might” and characterized by open dealings under international law. By eliminating power politics Thomas Jefferson expected American policy to achieve “the total emancipation of commerce and the bringing together all nations for a free intercommunication of happiness.” Nothing that smacked of corruption must be permitted.

Of course, the poverty of the new American government was also grimly genuine. But the idealism permitted the country’s first diplomats to make a virtue of its indigence. With fine contempt they considered the glittering courts with their ceremonious forms and ornate ostentation to be symbols of the frivolous cynicism of traditional diplomacy. Sent by the Continental Congress to plead the American cause in France early in 1776, Silas Deane wrote piously to the Secret Committee of Congress, “Parade and Pomp have no charms in the eyes of a patriot, or even of a man of common good sense.” Benjamin Franklin made his fur cap an emblem of republican simplicity, and Abigail Adams described the gown she wore when she was presented at the Court of St. James’s in 1784 as “elegant, but plain as I could possibly appear, with decency.”


It might have been expected that this persistent nonconformity would carry over into other ceremonial and decorative aspects of American foreign relations. But American representatives abroad soon began to discover that there was more than mere gratification of vanity in the extravagant etiquette and elegant style of diplomatic exchanges. They learned that they must take subtleties of rank and deference into consideration if they were to serve their own country effectively. As John Adams gloomily observed, “We rnust submit to what we cannot alter.”

Soon the Continental Congress itself began to seek for the United States all the accouterments of nationhood. The members devoted much thought to the creation of a Great Seal, finally settling on a strong and simple design that has remained essentially unchanged ever since. It is described in the journal of the Continental Congress for June 20, 1782, in very unrepublican heraldic terms: “Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules …”

In treaty bindings, however, the United States at first exhibited an austerity of taste commensurate with its Puritan ideals. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 was a paper book without a cover, held together by the seal ribbons. The Jay Treaty of 1795 was also sent to Great Britain with no cover. The seal was applied through paper on red wax over blue ribbons on the signature page.

But it was not long before the Department of State had fallen completely in line with European custom in this regard. On March 13, 1815, one Joseph Milligan was paid sixty dollars for a “Portfolio of green velvet, lined with orange silk, tied with red, white, blue and yellow Ribband.—Gold Cord and Tassels, with Silver Box and Seal appendant” for the exchange copy of the Treaty of Ghent at the end of the War of 1812.


In 1824 a larger, more imposing seal die was ordered by the Department of State for pendant seals. From about 1833 until 1852 F. Masi & Company, a “Military and Fancy store” in Washington, supplied the department with treaty accessories. By midcentury the Department of State had fallen so far from republican grace that the typical American instrument of ratification was bound in velvet and bore a silver skippet attached with silver cord and tassels. Treaty boxes were usually satin-lined morocco with ornamental gold stampings.

By the late 1860’s some nations began to eliminate skippets. In February, 1871, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish asked his chief of the First Diplomatic Bureau, H. D. J. Pratt, to determine “what style of box & of seal do the Foreign Govt. use with the treaties they send here?” Pratt replied that the boxes varied in elegance from some made of “fancy woods,” ornamental morocco, or velvet to “merely pasteboard pouches, covered [in buckram]. …” He lurther observed:

Nearly all the treaties are in velvet covers with metallic seal boxes, mostly silver, and are arranged like those prepared here, with bullion cords and tassels. The French and some of the German States have not used metallic seals to recent treaties but have substituted paper seals affixed to the body of the ratifications. …

Fish scribbled across the top of the report, “Have no more fancy boxes made & no more metallic cases for seals.” The last payment for skippets was made in 1870 to Samuel Lewis: $720 for “six silver treaty boxes.” Probably the last one used was attached to the 1871 Treaty of Washington with Great Britain.

Although a few other nations continued to use pendant seals and skippets for some time, today most countries use simple gold-tooled morocco bindings and wafered paper seals. Sad to relate, some of the great recent multilateral agreements in the custody of the Department of State are now typewritten and bound in buckram.


If the Founding Fathers had difficulty reconciling themselves to monarchical customs requiring that treaties be accompanied by artistic trappings, the question of diplomatic gifts created an even stickier problem. The men who drafted the Constitution thought they were taking care of the matter in Article I, Section 9, which provides that

no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them [the United States], shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

There seems to have been very little real debate on the subject in the Constitutional Convention. James Madison’s notes record only that, in support of Article I, Section 9, “Mr. Pinckney urged the necessity of preserving foreign ministers, and other officers of the United States, independent of external influence.” Edmund Randolph explained to the Virginia Ratification Convention that a particular incident had prompted the inclusion of this prohibition in the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin had accepted a gift, probably a snuff box with a portrait of Louis XVI on it, from the king of France. “It was thought proper,” Randolph declared,

in order to exclude corruption and foreign influence, to prohibit any one in office from receiving or holding any emoluments from foreign states. I believe, that if at that moment, when we were in harmony with the king of France, we had supposed that he was corrupting our ambassador, it might have disturbed that confidence, and diminished that mutual friendship, which contributed to carry us through the war.

Nothing in the Federalist Papers deals with receiving gifts. But in discussing the reasons for having the Senate “advise and consent” to the ratification of treaties, Alexander Hamilton observed that the President might be “tempted to betray the interests of the State for the acquisition of wealth,” considering the fact that a man might be

raised from the station of a private citizen to the rank of chief magistrate, possessed of a moderate or slender fortune, and looking forward to a period not very remote when he may probably be obliged to return to the station from which he was taken.

Europeans apparently accepted without comment the austerity of Americans who joined the diplomatic corps in their capitals, but to the Moslem potentates of North Africa and the Near East a failure to exchange presents was an example of very bad manners, if not an expression of ill will. Recognizing this attitude, American policy alternated between a rather relaxed acceptance of established patterns within the spirit of the Constitution and occasional fierce attacks of conscience that caused strict adherence to its letter. In 1796, for example, Consul Joel Barlow reported that he had been welcomed by the dey of Algiers with a gift of “a fine Barbary stallion,” and President Washington expressed pleasure that he had been received so graciously. But when, in i?95, Pierre Adet, the French minister to the United States, presented George Washington with the colors of France on behalf of the French Committee of Safety, Washington replied formally:

I receive, sir … the colors of France, which you have now presented to the United States. … [They] will be deposited with the archives of the United States, which are at once the evidence and the memorials of their freedom and independence.

The first two Presidents surrounded themselves with a certain amount of pomp and ceremony as a means of demanding respect for the new office of the Presidency. But when Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated, all protocol went by the board, and the atmosphere in the White House became so studiedly informal that some representatives of foreign governments were insulted. Jefferson for his part did not hide his disapproval when the French minister, Gerneral Louis Marie Turreau de Garambouville, Baron de Linières, presented his credentials in 1804 in clothing heavily ornamented with gold lace. The President later remarked to John Quincy Adams that “they must get him [Turreau] down to a plain frock coat, or the boys in the streets will run after him as a sight.”

Jefferson was also scrupulous about receiving gifts. Even from American citizens he said he would not accept anything but a pamphlet, a book, or some curiosity of small enough value to be “below suspicion.” Many Presidents deemed it proper for their wives or children to accept presents, since they do not hold “any office of profit or trust,” but Jefferson would not permit his daughter to keep a cashmere shawl presented by the ambassador from Tunis. Although it was accepted ceremoniously as an expression of the good will of the bey of Tunis, it was sold at auction, and the proceeds were deposited in the Treasury.

Through the years the enforcement of Article I, Section 9 produced several tragicomic incidents. In 1839 Thomas N. Carr, United States consul at Tangier, was forced to accept a dismaying present. The story is best told in the words of his report to the Secretary of State: Sir, I am sorry to inform the Department that, although I have exerted myself to the utmost to prevent the presentation of any animals from the Emperor [of Morocco], and to convince his ministers of the impossibility of accepting a gift or present of any kind, my exertions have not been attended with success.… [Having failed to convince the Emperor’s officers of my earnestness], I resolved to write to the Emperor himself, but before a letter could be prepared the sound of drums announced the arrival of the Bashaw’s Nephew at the head of a troop of soldiers with an enormous, magnificent Lion & Lioness . As my determination was well known, the commander of the troop had prepared himself with the most “conclusive answers” to all my objections. I told him that [it] was perfectly impossible to receive the animals, the Laws of my Country forbid it. He replied that they were not for me, that they were for my Government. I told him that the President, the head of my Government, was in the same predicament as myself, that he had not the power to receive them. He said that the Sultan knew that but that they were not for the President but for my Congress. I replied that Congress had resolved never to receive any more presents, and that the Law prohibiting Public Officers to receive presents was part of the Constitution, & superior to the power of Congress itself. He wanted to know who made the Constitution, I replied the people [;] then said he if Congress will not receive them the Emperor desires them to be presented to the people, as a mark of his respect and esteem for the “Sultans” of America. At last I told him that I would not receive them , that my mind was fully made up; then said he, my determination is as strong as yours; I am ordered to deliver them to you; it will cost me my head if I disobey; I shall leave them in the street. The street upon which is the American Consulate is a narrow Cul de sac with a half dozen few houses in it beside my own. Preparations were made for placing a guard at the open end, and turning the lions loose in the street. Seeing further resistance hopeless … I was compelled to surrender to this novel form of attack, and to open one of my rooms for the reception of the animals where they now are. … I hope that I shall have the honour, and pleasure, of hearing upon this subject from the Department as soon as possible.

At virtually the same time, the imam of Muscat dispatched to President Martin Van Buren a magnificent selection of gifts including two Arabian horses, a bottle of attar of roses, five demijohns of rosewater, a package of cashmere shawls, a bale of Persian rugs, and a box of pearls. The consent of Congress to receive all this bounty was requested, and a resolution authorizing the acceptance and sale of the Moroccan lions and the gifts from Muscat was reported out of the House Committee on Foreign Relations by its chairman, future President James Buchanan. It was passed, but only over the bitter protest of former President John Quincy Adams, then representing Massachusetts in the lower house. In his journal he wrote: “I … affirmed that Congress never had in any one instance authorized the acceptance of presents.” Two days later he was still agitated about the matter: “No small part of this day,” he wrote, “was engaged in hunting up documents respecting the acceptance of presents by officers of the United States from foreign powers.”

The Moroccan lions were shipped to Philadelphia on the brig Tacon at a cost to the United States government of six hundred fifty dollars. They disappeared from the scene when they were sold at auction in the Philadelphia Navy Yard on August 31, 1840, to a Mr. Robert Davis for $375.

An interesting exchange took place between President Abraham Lincoln and His Majesty Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut, King of Siam. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, had sent the king a present of government publications to indicate his pleasure in the ratification of a commercial treaty with Siam in 1856. The king responded by sending a handsome sword in a gold scabbard inlaid with silver, a daguerreotype portrait of himself and his child, and a pair of elephant tusks. He took into account both the length of the voyage between Bangkok and Washington and the American custom of rotation in office when he addressed his accompanying letter to

His Most Respected Excellent Presidency, The President of United States of America, who having been chosen by the Citizens of the United States as most distinguished, was made President and Chief Magistrate in the affairs of the Nation for an appointed time of office.

In addition to thanking Buchanan, or “whomsoever the people have elected anew,” the king declared that he had been informed that the United States had no elephants. He offered to remedy this deficiency, explaining that “elephants being animals of great size and strength [they] can bear burdens through uncleared woods and matted jungles where no carriage and cart roads have yet been made.” He proposed to send several pairs that could be “turned loose in forests … [where] they will increase to be large herds. …” He gave detailed instructions in the care and feeding of elephants, saying that

if the president of the United States and Congress who conjointly with him rule the country see fit to approve let them provide a large vessel loaded with hay and other food suitable for elephants on the voyage, with tanks holding a sufficiency of fresh water, and arranged with stalls so that the elephants can both stand & lie down in the ship—and send it to receive them. … When they arrive in America … let them with all haste be turned out to run wild in some jungle suitable for them. …

When the letter and presents arrived in the United States, Lincoln was President. If the handsome sword, the daguerreotype, and the king’s letter in Siamese and English were superb examples of the arts of diplomacy, so were the words chosen by Abraham Lincoln in accepting the presents while courteously refusing the elephants. In a letter addressed to his “Great and Good Friend” Lincoln thanked the king for his gifts and explained that he could not personally keep them:

Your majesty’s letters show an understanding that our laws forbid the President from receiving these rich presents as personal treasures. They are therefore accepted in accordance with Your Majesty’s desire as tokens of your good will and friendship for the American People. … [They] will be placed among the archives of the Government, where they will remain perpetually as tokens of mutual esteem. …

As for the proffered breeding stock, Lincoln wrote:

I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of … a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States. Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam … has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.

Each succeeding administration conducted its own search for precedents and an examination of the Presidential conscience in regard to foreign gifts. When the sultan of Turkey presented President Grover Cleveland with a jewel-encrusted medal to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, the President sought the advice of the Department of State on the propriety of accepting it. Alvin A. Adee, Second Assistant Secretary of State, summarized a comprehensive review of pertinent legislation and precedent:

While Congress has on many occasions authorized officers of the United States to accept presents from foreign governments, I do not find … any authority granted to the President to receive such present for himself.

The medal was accordingly placed in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.

Some Presidents applied to themselves the rule established by Congress for American diplomats and military men that an officer was ineligible to take possession of gifts only while actually in office. When Calvin Coolidge left office in 1929, the State Department sent him eight medals, a shield, a photograph of the president of the Irish Free State, and two elephant tusks from among the things it had been holding for him until his retirement from office.

Still, no permanently satisfactory position on the matter developed. After the inauguration of Herbert Hoover the usual search for a policy took place. Between March 9 and May 9, 1929, eight opinions on the subject were offered from five offices in the Department of State: the solicitor (three memoranda), the Office of Coordination and Review, the Division of Western European Affairs, the Division of Protocol, and the assistant secretary. Assistant Secretary William E. Castle’s final word betrayed a bit of irritation at such a teapot tempest: “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that we might as well continue to act as reasonable individuals. … Nobody is going to bribe Mr. Hoover.”

Finally President Franklin D. Roosevelt provided one practical solution to the problem of gifts from foreign governments when he originated the concept of a Presidential library. Principally established to house the President’s papers and those of individuals closely associated with the President and his administration, the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York, is also the repository for many gifts of state. After the Harry S Truman Library was built in Independence, Missouri, former President Herbert Hoover decided that a similar arrangement in West Branch, Iowa, would facilitate the use of documents from his administration by scholars and the public. With the addition of the Dwight D.- Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, the Lyndon B.Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, and the John F. Kennedy Library soon to be constructed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there are now six libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Service of the General Services Administration. It has now become the custom for a President to place the gifts he receives while in office in the museum associated with his Presidential library. As the United States has assumed its position as a major world power the acceptance of gifts by the President has been increasingly taken for granted, and the Presidential library museums contain examples of the arts and crafts of nearly the entire world.

Although the receiving of official gifts caused endless diplomatic and ethical dilemmas, the giving of official presents never seems to have raised qualms in American minds. Some of the early gifts foreshadowed militaryassistance programs of a later day. When the emperor of Morocco sought to buy a hundred gun carriages during the war between Tripoli and the United States in 1802, President Jefferson wrote to him that

we feel it more conformable with our disposition to your majesty to ask your acceptance of them as a mark of the esteem and respect we bear you. …

And the pet lions forcibly presented to Consul Carr were sent in appreciation for a present of “two field pieces and ammunition.”

Books were a favorite selection. In 1847 Secretary of State James Buchanan “caused to be handsomely bound and lettered” for presentation to the sultan of Turkey “the Indian Biographies of Hall & McKenney, and of Catlin.” Other gifts were frequently described as “government publications.” In the igao’s the Department of State kept on hand a supply of sets of Moore’s International Law Digest . The first volume would be sent to the President with a suggested inscription for him to pen on the flyleaf before the books were sent off for presentation.

Photographs of the President were not released until all possible ramifications were explored. If it was thought that the possession of an autographed portrait could be used for political advantage or be construed as endorsement for a dubious cause, some other gift was chosen.

A rather strange decision was made in 1927 to send to the Empress Zauditu of Ethiopia a silver bowl purchased and engraved sixteen years earlier for presentation to her father, Emperor Menelik n. When a new American minister arrived at Addis Ababa in 1911 to present the bowl, he found that the emperor was too ill to receive him, and the bowl was returned to the Department of State. Before it was given to the Empress Zauditu, it received a thorough polishing and a new inscription. A note accompanied the bowl, explaining the origin of the gift.

In recent years Presidents have chosen a variety of presentation pieces. President Eisenhower often made gifts of fine Steuben glass. Among the presents of the Johnson administration were two interesting ones: a faithful reproduction of a wooden lap desk designed by Thomas Jefferson and a copy of an unusual brass candlestick that belonged to George Washington. Mrs. John F. Kennedy was inspired by the mineral collection at the Smithsonian Institution to have New York jeweler David Webb create a series of paperweights made of American minerals mounted in gold. One was made of New Mexican azurite and malachite in a mounting that resembled blades of grass with tiny gold and turquoise flowerettes; another was American topaz held by an American eagle executed in gold. President Nixon has taken advantage of the moon landings during his administration to prepare unique gifts for several heads of state. Tiny bits of moon rock were embedded in lucite on wooden bases. These were accompanied by a miniature of the recipient’s national flag, which had made the trip to the moon and back.

On the whole, the trained Old World diplomat of the eighteenth or nineteenth century would be pained indeed to see the unglamorous settings of some modern diplomatic meetings, and the frequent disregard of traditional etiquette and courtesy might grieve him. He would find no consolation in the unadorned, functional bindings of many present-day international agreements. But his heart would rejoice when he learned that the President of the United States had at last come to view the exchange of gifts as a gracious gesture rather than attempted bribery. In this respect at least, the age of elegance has survived, and the American conscience has permitted the arts of diplomacy to flourish.

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