FRUS’s Brush With Death

Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State


When Hamilton Fish took office as Secretary of State on March 17, 1869, he inherited both a political and administrative mess. Relations with Congress were terrible. Recently inaugurated President Ulysses S. Grant loathed the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner. For his part, Sumner quickly became an implacable opponent of the new president’s foreign policy and insinuated himself and his committee into State Department business whenever possible.

By year’s end, Fish was disgusted with what he considered the Senate’s blatant overstepping of its prerogatives. “The Senate, in fact Congress, but especially the Senate, [has] encroached largely beyond the former line of demarcation between their powers and those of the Executive,” Fish complained to a friend. “They still claim the same extent of power; they wish, practically, to dictate nominations not merely to ‘advise and consult.’ The constitutional power of the Senate is limited to yea or nay upon the names submitted to them.”1

Although he and Sumner were on cordial terms, Fish had no intention of giving Congress any more information on foreign relations than was absolutely necessary. But first he had to control what Grant revealed about underlying policy in his forthcoming annual message to Congress. On November 22, 1869, he handed President Grant a confidential abstract on foreign relations featuring both a candid appraisal of thorny issues — particularly Cuban belligerency and Spanish colonial rule—and advice as to how Grant should address them. In particular, Fish thought that the Cuban insurrection had run its course and wanted the president to raise no expectations of United States recognition of Cuban belligerency. “I had great sympathy for Cuba, but the Cubans are inefficient and have done nothing for themselves,” he wrote a friend. “They have been all the time crying to Hercules, without putting their own shoulder to the wheel. You cannot help those who will not help themselves.”2

Grant accepted Fish’s advice but softened the tone of his message. “The people and government of the United States entertain warm feelings and sympathies for the people of Cuba,” he told Congress in his December 6 message, “but the contest has at no time assumed the conditions…sufficient to justify recognition of belligerency.” Moreover, Grant said, the United States had “no disposition to interfere with the existing relations of Spain to her colonial possessions on this continent.”3

On foreign policy, the president’s words stood alone. No State Department correspondence accompanied his annual message; Congress and the nation would have to accept the president’s unsubstantiated appraisal of the Cuban situation.4

Perhaps to deflect possible Congressional complaints about the absence of the yearly Foreign Relations volume, on December 6, 1869, (the date of the president’s annual message), Fish responded to a nine-month old Congressional request for a report on the clerical force of the Department that had been gathering dust. Fish reminded Speaker of the House James G. Blaine that, in 1868, Congress slashed the number of Department clerks from forty-eight to thirty-one. “No [further] reduction in the number or compensation of the clerks now employed is compatible with the public interests,” Fish told Blaine, adding pointedly, “With so large a reduction the business of the Department is already seriously embarrassed.” Congressional parsimony came at a cost.5

Fish always maintained that staff cuts and the reshuffling of ministers occasioned by a new administration had precluded preparation of Foreign Relations for 1869. Three years later, when House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Nathaniel P. Banks asked him why there had been no Foreign Relations 1869, Fish reminded him “that the period alluded to embraces that in which many changes in the diplomatic agents of the government were made. The clerical force in the Department was small and much occupied at the close of the year, and for these reasons no publication was made.” Fish might have added that his staff was cleaning up behind former Secretary of State William F. Seward, preparing Foreign Relations 1868 for a tardy submission to Congress with Grant’s December 1869 annual message.6

Historians writing on Foreign Relations have wrongly attributed the break in Foreign Relations to Hamilton Fish, when in fact Seward halted the series in 1868. That year, outgoing President Andrew Johnson transmitted no diplomatic correspondence with his last annual message to Congress. This should come as no surprise. Relations between the executive and legislative branches were frosty at best. From February 1868, when the House of Representatives impeached him, until May 1868, when the Senate acquitted him by one vote, Johnson was locked in a death struggle with Congress. Secretary Seward staunchly supported Johnson. Between March and November 1868, he sent no formal correspondence to Congress, not even on the most routine matters.7

Staff constraints and the press of other Congressionally-mandated business may also partly explain why the Johnson administration did not transmit diplomatic correspondence to Congress with the president’s 1868 message. The preceding December, the Senate adopted resolutions calling for the State Department to provide all correspondence pertaining to the Alabama claims case. The most pressing and potentially explosive diplomatic issue of the day, the Alabama claims case pitted the United States against Great Britain in a dispute over the British government’s liability for losses to Union merchant vessels suffered at the hands of the Confederate commerce raider Alabama during the Civil War. Completing work begun under Seward, Secretary Fish submitted the Alabama correspondence, which ran to four volumes totaling three thousand pages, a month into the Grant administration. Undoubtedly the clerks who normally would have compiled Foreign Relations had their hands full with the Alabama papers.8

When the two-volume Foreign Relations 1868 appeared in December 1869, it was met with silence: the press ignored it,9 and Congress did not question its late appearance.

But Congress did want more than the simple recounting of Grant’s foreign policy priorities—particularly with respect to Cuba. On December 8, 1869, the Senate requested—with the usual caveat “if not incompatible with the public interest”—any information [Fish] may have in regard to the progress of the revolution and the political and civil condition of the island [of Cuba].”10 Five days later, the House passed a similar resolution. When Fish tried to pigeonhole the resolutions, the hostile but influential New York Herald Tribune demanded Fish produce the Cuba correspondence and implored Congress to take no “steps in the dark regarding our foreign relations.”11

Congress had no such intention. On December 17, Senator Sumner sent Fish a terse note insisting he comply with the resolutions. On January 7, 1870, the House passed a second resolution demanding the same.12

Fish yielded. On December 20, President Grant (the president always transmitted the Department’s response to calls for document with a brief cover letter) responded to the Senate request; in February 1870, he complied with the House request.

Fish’s compliance with the Congressional resolutions on Cuba reflected no softening in his sentiments about transparency. On the contrary, it hardened his determination to give Congress no more than it specifically requested and caused him to invoke the “incompatible with the public interest” caveat whenever possible to deny legislative branch requests. President Grant also became secretive. In late March he told Fish “not to communicate to Sumner any confidential or important information received at the Department—that he probably without knowing it, is unfair and not accurate in his representation of what he receives from the Department—that he has represented me [Fish] as opposed to the San Domingo Treaty and otherwise misrepresented the administration and its views.”13

The tussle with Congress over Cuba also caused Fish to consider abolishing the annual Foreign Relations volumes; or rather, not to resuscitate them after 1869. In an unofficial dispatch dated January 17, 1870, Fish told the U. S. Minister to Austria John Jay, Jr. that “the publication of the Diplomatic Correspondence has been discontinued.”14

But it wasn’t. As Fish discovered, unless he was willing to repeatedly defy Congress, the decision to release diplomatic correspondence was not his to make. During 1870 Congress passed more resolutions calling for diplomatic correspondence than it would in any subsequent year of the nineteenth century. By year’s end, Fish had provided Congress with 600 documents totaling 859 pages, all of which Congress published in documents that when aggregated equaled the size of a typical Foreign Relations volume. In December 1870, Fish resumed the Foreign Relations series, and it has continued uninterrupted to this day.

Neither Fish’s diary of his tenure as secretary of state or his personal papers reveals his reasons for resuming Foreign Relations. But persistent Congressional calls for correspondence in 1869 would appear to have been the deciding factor.15

The Foreign Relations series survived because Fish came to recognize, as did subsequent secretaries, that the annual volumes provided a relatively painless way of partially satisfying the foreign policy oversight prerogatives of Congress. Because the contents of Foreign Relations were contemporaneous, the volumes also provided a means for the executive branch to amplify its foreign policy goals or trumpet its successes. Foreign Relations became emblematic of transparency in government.

  1. Fish to Webb, January 1, 1870, Fish Papers, Container 277, Letters Sent, DLC; Michael J. Devine, “Hamilton Fish,” in Edward S. Mihalkanin, editor, American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004), 192–93.
  2. Fish Diary, November 22, 26 and 27, 1869, to Webb, January 10, 1870, Roll 277; Moore Files, Container 369; and Fish to Charles Sumner, November 26, 1869, Container 188, Letters Sent, all in Fish Papers, LC; Alan Nevins, Hamilton Fish, The Inner Workings of the Grant Administration (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1937), 294–95.
  3. Message of the President of the United States with the Reports of the Postmaster General and of the Secretary of the Navy, 41st Cong., 2d Sess., H. Ex. Doc. 1, pt. 1 (serial 1445), 7.
  4. Preceding the report of the Postmaster General and the Secretary of the Navy were two short foreign policy related documents from the State Department: Opinion and Award of the Commissioner under the Treaty of July 1, 1863 between Great Britain and the United States, for the Final Settlement of the Claims of the Hudson’s Bay and Puget Sound Agricultural Companies, Pronounced September 10, 1869, 41st Cong, 2d Sess. H. Ex. Doc. 1, pt. 2 (serial 1411), xxii-xxxviii, and Papers Relating to the Concession for a Submarine Cable, Made by the French Government to the Baron Erlanger and Mr. Julius Reuter, 41st Cong., 2d Sess., H. Ex. Doc.1, pt. 6 (serial 1411), xl-liv. In 1932, the State Department Division of Research and Publication described the manner of their publication as “a return to the practice of 1860 and earlier.” E. Wilder Spaulding to N. Andrew Cleven, July 26, 1932, 026 Foreign Relations/592, Department of State Decimal File, 1930–1939, RG 59, NA.
  5. Hamilton Fish to James G. Blaine, December 6, 1869, in “Reports of the Secretary to the President and Congress,” Volume 10, page 198, Miscellaneous Correspondence of the Department of State, 1784–1906, RG 59, NA; Clerks in the State Department, 41st Cong. 2d Sess., H. Ex. Doc 9 (serial 1416), 1–2.
  6. Hamilton Fish to Nathaniel P. Banks, May 18, 1872, in “Reports of the Secretary to the President and Congress,” Volume 11, page 199, Miscellaneous Correspondence of the Department of State, 1784–1906. RG 59, NA. Staff shortages plagued the Department throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century as it sought to balance preparation of Foreign Relations volumes and responses to Congressional requests for correspondence with other work. Referring to a Senate call for correspondence in March 1888, Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard told the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that “this Department is now actively engaged in preparing an answer to this resolution, which will require much clerical labor as the papers asked for have increased to a considerable volume since 1871.” Thomas F. Bayard to George F. Edmunds, March 27, 1888, Reports of the Secretary and President to Congress, A1, Entry 145, Volume 17, 141, RG 59, NA
  7. “Reports of the Secretary to the President and Congress,” Volume 10, Misc. Correspondence of the Department of State, 1784–1906, RG 59, NA.
  8. Correspondence Concerning Claims against Great Britain, 41st Cong. 1st Sess. S. Ex. Doc. 11 (serial 1440), 4; Register of the Department of State (Washington: Government Publishing Office, 1870), 8.
  9. All conclusions regarding U. S. newspaper coverage of Foreign Relations in this paper are based on a search of the one thousand-plus contemporaneous newspapers contained in, together with those contained in the Library of Congress project Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers,
  10. Normally Congress simply requested any correspondence that the Department might have on a subject; in this case the request was directed to Fish by name.
  11. Hamilton Fish to Ulysses S. Grant, December 14, 1869, in “Reports of the Secretary to the President and Congress,” Volume 10, 208, Misc. Correspondence., Entry 145, RG 59, NA; New York Herald Tribune, December 9, 1869
  12. Charles Sumner to Hamilton Fish, December 17, 1869, Letters Received, Container 188, Fish Papers.
  13. Fish Diary, March 30, 1870, Microfilm Roll 277, Fish Papers.
  14. Hamilton Fish to John Jay, Jr., January 17, 1870, Letters Sent, Container 277, Fish Papers; New York Herald Tribune, December 12, 1869; Cincinnati Daily Inquirer, December 16, 1869.
  15. I also examined Fish’s correspondence with Sumner as contained in the Charles Sumner Papers, Harvard University. Department Historical Advisor Tyler Dennett said Fish “was forced by the necessities of the case to resume it under the name with which it is now familiar to us,” but does not elaborate. No one else writing on Foreign Relations has ventured a guess as to why Fish resumed the series. (Dennett, “Governmental Publications,” 56). Nearly half the 1870 Foreign Relations volume dealt with the Franco-Prussian War, most of the remaining correspondence was devoted to American fishing rights in Canadian waters and to the Tientsin massacre and flight of American missionaries from China. A smattering of correspondence pertaining to nations other than Great Britain, France, Prussia, and China rounded out the volume. Perhaps because he had given Congress nearly 500 Cuba-related documents during the course of the summer, Fish did not include any subsequent correspondence on the subject.