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Diplomacy under the Articles of Confederation

While negotiations in Paris were underway, legislators in the United States created a new government—the Articles of Confederation.

Robert R. Livingston, First Secretary for Foreign Affairs
Today’s Department of State began on January 10, 1781, as the "Department of Foreign Affairs.” Shortly after approval of the resolution, Congress selected Robert R. Livingston of New York as the first Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Many of America’s leading public figures served as envoys under the Articles of Confederation, among them John Adams in the Netherlands, John Jay in Spain, and Thomas Jefferson in France.

Robert Livingston’s 19 months in office were filled with frustration since the weak and inefficient Articles of Confederation diffused foreign policy making authority. After Livingston complained, Congress further restricted his authority to act. Livingston’s successor, John Jay, another New Yorker, was appointed Secretary for Foreign Affairs on May 7, 1784, and found the job equally frustrating. During the national debate on whether to adopt the new constitution drafted in 1787, Jay summarized his critique of congressional foreign policy under the Articles of Confederation:

John Jay, Envoy to Spain and Second Secretary for Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation
“They may make war, but are not empowered to raise men or money to carry it on. They may make peace, but are without power to see the terms of it imposed. . . . They may make alliances, but [are] without ability to comply with the stipulations on their part. They may enter into treaties of commerce, but [are] without power to enforce them at home or abroad.”

While “ministers” handled the country’s official business, other officials, known as “consuls” handled business matters for Americans overseas. Although a 1778 treaty with France provided for the appointment of consular officials, no American consuls began their service until 1781.

Thomas Barclay of Pennsylvania was appointed consul in France on October 2, 1781, replacing William Palfrey, who was lost at sea on his way to post. In early 1786, Congress appointed Samuel Shaw, a Yankee merchant whose ship Empress of China had just returned from a successful trading voyage to the Far East, as consul at the China’s western trading port, Canton.