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Congress Takes a Hand in Reform

Congress took no action to improve the lives of American representatives abroad until 1856, when it enacted legislation to reform the Diplomatic and Consular Services. The law concentrated on the most publicized problem—inadequate compensation. It prescribed salaries for ministers that ranged from $10,000 per year for most locations to $17,500 per year for London and Paris. While this was an adequate salary for the mid-19th century, that $17,500 salary cap for heads of mission remained in effect for the next 90 years. Consuls, too, were given regular salaries and the fees that they collected were sent to the Treasury. Written regulations were developed to improve the performance of the foreign services.

The Act of 1856 was a step forward, but it fell short of providing for truly professional foreign services. For some in the Consular Service, the transition was painful since consuls now had to rely solely on their salaries, which were often insufficient for a comfortable lifestyle. The novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who experienced both the fee-based and salary systems as U.S. consul in Liverpool, disliked the new salary arrangement. Upon leaving Liverpool in 1857, he commented that his successor, to be successful, would have to be either “a rich man or a rogue.” His remark was prescient. An auditor reported in 1861 that one of Hawthorne’s successors as consul in Liverpool had not reported expenditures of public money for three years, “contracting public and private debts, which . . . probably exceed $200,000. It is perhaps some consolation to know that this plunderer no longer graces the Government abroad.”