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American Diplomatic Style

Following the early practice of Benjamin Franklin, representatives of the United States traditionally wore unpretentious clothing and adopted simple manners, a departure from the ostentatious practice at European courts. Americans considered this policy appropriate for emissaries of a young republic that had repudiated monarchy. Thomas Jefferson particularly was opposed to undue ceremony and rigid protocol. Later, he refused to recognize formal social distinctions at dinners held in the White House during his presidency, especially the order of precedence—i.e., seating by rank—a practice that greatly annoyed the foreign diplomatic corps.

Even if the new nation’s democratic ideology had not mandated republican simplicity, the meager salaries paid to American ministers would have produced the same effect. In 1817, President James Monroe, a former Minister to France and a former Secretary of State, complained to a congressional committee about the nation's failure to provide sufficient salaries and allowances for members of the Diplomatic Service. Monroe insisted that American diplomats had to gain access to the most important social circles before they could do their jobs. “By taking the proper [social] ground,” Monroe wrote, “He will become acquainted with all that passes and from the highest and most authentic sources... Deprive him of the necessary means to sustain this ground, separate him from the circle to which he belongs and he is reduced to a cipher.”

Congress turned a deaf ear to these arguments, and ministers at important posts such as London or Paris were forced to spend their own private fortunes. As a result, only those with wealth could aspire to a diplomatic career. Lack of adequate funding also meant that little or no interchange took place between those serving in Washington and those overseas. The diplomatic service and the consular service remained strictly separate. Ultimately, these circumstances limited flexibility and interfered with the development of professionalism.