“A Surprising Manifestation of Backbone”: The 1872 Foreign Relations Affair

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


In 1895, the Chicago Inter Ocean gleefully greeted the annual Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume, which contained a hefty sampling of the year’s correspondence between the Secretary of State and his ministers abroad. “As it is made up of dispatches which have passed between [American] foreign representatives and the government, and as they are deferred so long that they are of the quality of last year’s bird’s nests, it is possible the reading public fancies the book must be dry and musty.”

Quite the contrary, said the Inter Ocean. In order to convince the reading public to secure a copy of FRUS “either for perusal at home or as a charming volume for summer outings,” the Inter Ocean quoted several hyperbolic statements and malapropisms of U.S. diplomats. Among them was this gem from the U.S. minister in Nicaragua, who said that Managua’s forfeiture of the interoceanic canal concession was “the most ghastly stab under the fifth rib of the credit of your own government which could be inflicted by the keenest Damascus blade.” In a more serious vein, the Inter Ocean added that FRUS illustrated “the folly of our whole diplomatic system and the following of making appointments helter-skelter or using diplomatic and consular offices as part of the national spoils.”

Perhaps so. But on occasion, there was a more sinister relationship between FRUS and the spoils system—that is to say, Secretaries of State manipulated the contents of volumes for partisan political purposes. I will be writing on this aspect of the 19th Century FRUS at a later date. In this article I will present an episode that reflects the use of FRUS as a public affairs and public diplomacy tool during a delicate and dangerous diplomatic dispute.

Before doing so, I want to offer some conclusions that I have drawn from my research into the Foreign Relations series during the Gilded Age—conclusions that challenge conventional assumptions about the series, and that perhaps will provide fodder for further discussion.

The premise guiding my research has been this: We must expand our definition of the Foreign Relations series for the period 1870–1897 to include the many Senate and House Executive Documents consisting of collected State Department correspondence that appeared during the era in response to Congressional requests. They should be considered as unacknowledged FRUS supplemental volumes. As with the normal FRUS volumes, which derived from select State Department diplomatic correspondence of the current year (and occasionally prior years) appended to the president’s annual message to Congress, the president also submitted the documents in response to the Congressional resolutions over a covering letter from the secretary attesting to their completeness.

Many of the resultant Congressional executive documents ran into the hundreds of pages. My expanded definition of the Foreign Relations series is supported by the 1894 volume, which was published with seven supplemental volumes containing the State Department submissions that appeared as Congressional Executive Documents for that year, or on issues for which Congress had requested documents, but with which the Department had not yet complied.

In years that Congressional requests were numerous and yielded large executive documents, the FRUS volumes normally were noticeably thinner. The Department had no cause to republish the material, as the audience in both cases was Congress.

The choice of documents for annual submissions to Congress (that is to say, Foreign Relations volumes) appears to have been guided by an intent to include material that clarified or provided justification for the president’s foreign policy priorities and issues that he emphasized or even tangentially referred to in his annual address to Congress. Many of those issues might seem trivial today, but we must judge the contents of FRUS in the context if its day.

This expanded definition of FRUS suggests that the contents of the series during the Gilded Age was more complete than many assume them to have been. This is not to say that they were comprehensive. They did not provide the window into Washington decision-making that FRUS does today. Only correspondence between the Secretary of State or his deputy and U.S. ministers and consuls was included in FRUS.

We often speak of the Foreign Relations series in the context of the issue of transparency in government. But in the 19th Century, transparency in government was seldom cited in public discussion as an argument for FRUS. On the contrary, when documents appearing either in FRUS or Congressional Executive Reports created difficulties with foreign governments or for U.S. representatives abroad, most newspapers condemned the Department for releasing the offending documents and advocated greater secrecy.

And now, to the episode that is the subject of my essay, which deals with the high-stakes use of FRUS as a public diplomacy and public affairs tool.

Hamilton Fish entered office as Secretary of State in March 1869 determined to kill the Foreign Relations of the United States series. Congress had slashed the State Department staff by 40%, from 48 clerks to 31.

Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division cph.3a37879)
“With such a large reduction,” Fish wrote the Speaker of the House on December 3, 1869, “the business of the Department is already seriously embarrassed.” The date of Fish’s letter was not random; that very day, President Ulysses S. Grant transmitted his annual message to Congress. For the preceding eight years, the collection of selected annual diplomatic correspondence that the GPO published as Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) accompanied the president’s message. But not in 1869. Congressional parsimony came at a cost—no money, no FRUS, reasoned Fish.

Fish’s decision would only hurt Congress, which during the Nineteenth Century was the intended audience for FRUS. Although mandated by an act of Congress in 1861 in order to compel the Lincoln administration to reveal its diplomatic correspondence, neither the series nor its utility ended after the Civil War. The State Department continued to select material for FRUS in order to explain and justify the president’s foreign-policy priorities. FRUS, in turn gave Congress a framework for debating policy and holding the executive branch accountable. As Fish was to discover, Congress was not about to relinquish this prerogative.

Budget cuts aside, Fish had no love for the 41st Congress. “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,” he complained privately of the chamber dominated by fellow Republicans. “They wish, practically, to dictate nominations [of ministers], not merely to ‘advise and consent’ and consult. The constitutional power of the Senate is limited to yea or nay upon the names submitted to them.”

And they were lucky to get names. President Grant and Fish were at loggerheads with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Charles Sumner. Senator Sumner, for his part, was offended that Grant had not consulted him on diplomatic appointments, and he made Grant pay in Latin America. Grant wanted to buy Samana Bay from Santo Domingo to build a naval base. Sumner pretended to go along with the plan, but at the same time he quietly subverted it in the Senate.

As the American Public Saw the Cuban Insurrection (Harper’s Weekly, September 11, 1869)

The Cuban insurrection was a second wedge between the two branches of government. A growing number of influential Americans, including many of both parties in Congress, wanted the insurgents accorded belligerent status. Fish, on the other hand, considered the rebels to be a feeble and poorly organized force, hardly worth jeopardizing relations with Spain. But Spanish brutality troubled Fish. “The present state cannot be indefinitely prolonged,” Fish warned the Spanish minister. The Grant Administration, he added ominously, “reserved the right of future action.”

Fish’s refusal to provide Congress with the diplomatic correspondence that was grist for the annual FRUS backfired. The New York Herald-Tribune, a pro-administration newspaper, insisted he produce the Cuba correspondence, and warned Congress against taking “any steps in the dark regarding our foreign relations.”

Congress agreed. Five days after receiving the president’s annual message, the Senate requested that Fish provide it with all correspondence pertaining to the Cuban revolution. On December 17, Sumner demanded the dispatches of the U.S. minister to Spain. And on January 7, 1870, the House passed a second resolution soliciting the Cuba correspondence.

Fish yielded. But his compliance with the Congressional resolutions on Cuba did not reflect an intent to resume FRUS. On the contrary, in January 1870 he assured a U.S. minister embarrassed over the leak of certain compromising letters that “The publication of the Diplomatic Correspondence has been discontinued.”

But as the year wore on, it became clear to Fish that killing the series would neither be easy nor wise. The drumbeat of Congressional resolutions continued, and Fish found himself transmitting to Congress enough correspondence to fill a FRUS volume.

Undoubtedly concluding it better to preempt demands whenever possible, Fish resumed FRUS in December 1870.

Two years later, Fish was glad he had. The Cuban insurrection was in its fourth year, with no end in sight. Spain not only had failed to deliver on its pledge to emancipate slaves in Cuba and Puerto Rico and undertake municipal reforms and other liberal measures that the Grant administration had urged, but the colonial government in Havana also imposed high tariffs on American imports and began expropriating American estates. Pressure for Grant to act escalated. To inflame public opinion, in July 1872 the New York Herald correspondent in Cuba provoked the Spaniards into arresting him. Fish also learned that Cuban sympathizers in New York were secretly arranging to send provocateurs to the island. Herald editors accused Fish of “blundering mismanagement” of Cuban affairs, and House leaders promised to demand a hard policy on Cuba when Congress reconvened in December 1872.

Fish had to do something before Congress legislated real trouble. Without consulting Grant, on October 29 Fish told United States Minister in Madrid Daniel Sickles to advise Spain that Administration forbearance had its limits.

U.S. Minister to Spain Daniel E. Sickles, in the uniform of a major general during the Civil War (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs Collection, LC-DIG-cwpb-05563)
Entered into the records as Letter of Instruction No. 270, it was, as Fish biographer Alan Nevins said, “The most menacing document…from the State Department during the Grant Administration.”

Fish recapitulated both the resistance of the colonial government in Cuba to reforms Madrid had mandated and Spain’s inability to prevent the “causeless seizure” of American estates, asking Sickles rhetorically, “If Spain permits her authority to be virtually and practically defied in that island by a refusal or neglect to carry into effect acts of the home government of a humane tendency, is not this tantamount to an acknowledgment of inability to control?”

The Administration had repeatedly prevented “reckless adventurers…and other partisans of the insurgents” from using U.S. soil to launch “hostile expeditions” against the colonial government. In “discharging those duties…we are conscious of no neglect,” said Fish, “but the trial to our impartiality by the want of success on the part of Spain in suppressing the revolt is necessarily so severe that unless she shall soon be more successful it will force upon this Government the consideration of the question, whether duty to itself and to the commercial interests of its citizens may not demand some change in the line of action it has thus far pursued.”

Then the menacing instruction:

It is hoped that you will present the views above set forth, and the present grievances of which this Government so justly complains… in a way which, without giving offence, will leave a conviction that we are in earnest in the expression of those views, and that we expect redress, and that if it should not soon be afforded Spain must not be surprised to find, as the inevitable result of delay, a marked change in the feeling and in the temper of the people and of the Government of the United States.

Sickles received his instructions on November 23 (mail was slow by sea). The day before, Spanish Minister of State Cristino Martos y Balbi had given Sickles a copy of a confidential cabinet agreement to abolish slavery and institute sweeping reforms in Puerto Rico by executive decree. But the cabinet abjured any change of policy in Cuba until the insurgents surrendered.

Sickles delivered his instructions orally to Martos. After a gathering of the diplomatic corps five days later, he read them again to Martos, who copied the threatening paragraph.

It was a delicate moment. Anticipating President Grant’s December message to Congress, Martos feared that “anything like a hostile demonstration coming from the United States would greatly embarrass Spain by depriving her concession of that spontaneous character so essential to her independence and dignity.” But, Martos reiterated, the Spanish government could not inaugurate reforms in Cuba until it had pacified the island.

When he learned that No. 270 had failed, Fish decided to apply more tangible pressure. He persuaded Grant to send with his annual message to Congress a recommendation for high discriminatory duties upon goods from Cuba and Puerto Rico. Fish hoped this would satisfy congressmen sympathetic to the Cuban insurrectionists without exciting jingoism. It also would ruin the powerful Spanish sugar growers, who were the slave holders and opponents of reform.

Fish advised the Spanish minister of Grant’s impending message, and Spain in turn promised to order emancipation in Cuba.

Doubting Spain’s sincerity, Fish opted for a middle course. He removed the tariff threat from Grant’s draft message as too menacing. Instead, to show Congress that the Grant Administration nonetheless was serious about Cuba, he inserted Instruction No. 270 into the diplomatic correspondence for publication in FRUS.

Fish was right to doubt Madrid. A bill calling for immediate emancipation in Puerto Rico sailed through the Spanish Senate in late December, but the Spanish government retracted its pledge on Cuba. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Congress, Republican Senator Frank P. Blair introduced a resolution anticipating a joint U.S.-Latin American demarche to Spain for Cuban independence. In the House, Foreign Affairs Chairman Nathaniel P. Banks was drafting a resolution demanding Grant take firm action to protect American interests in Cuba.

The 1872 Foreign Relations volume was published on January 8, 1873. The American press greeted Instruction No. 270 with a mix of wonder, admiration, skepticism, and fear. The New York Herald Tribune was delighted; this “surprising manifestation of backbone on the part of [Secretary Fish] was “a plain hint that a new line of action will be adopted.”

But the always hostile New York Herald remained skeptical. “Since [No. 270] was written, the State department appears to have relapsed into a state of indifference, being satisfied, we suppose, with having made the usual red-tape demonstration.” The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune worried that Fish’s “ominous” dispatch might lead to war. “We cannot help thinking that the language of Secretary Fish must have amazed the Spanish government. It is not often that such language is used in diplomatic dispatches unless it be meant as a prelude to hostilities.”

Praise of Fish turned to mockery when Spain announced it had not seen No. 270. The Herald wondered, “In whose mouth lives the diplomatic lie?” The Herald Tribune withdrew its endorsement of Fish’s course. The Spanish denial, it said, was a “dilemma [with] no favorable horn. If Mr. Fish knew his instructions had not been carried out in Madrid, there is an apparent disingenuousness in printing this note…. If he did not know this, the discipline of the Department is extraordinarily lax, and the publication was a piece of reckless thoughtlessness. In any event, the effect of the incident cannot but be unfortunate. But the whole country read yesterday the words in which [Spain] indirectly accuses our government of a deception practiced upon our own people. It is highly desirable that this should be explained.”

The Spanish Senate (upper chamber of the legislative branch, or Cortes) also demanded an explanation. Brandishing a copy of FRUS, on January 16, 1873, the Conservative opposition called upon the government to follow the American example and provide the Cortes with its diplomatic correspondence on Cuba. He dismissed the government’s claim not to have received No. 270, and accused it of having granted emancipation in Puerto Rico in a “cowardly attempt to conciliate America,” an act that “could only strengthen the hands of the rebels in Cuba.” Several days of acrimonious debate ensued between Conservatives and government ministers, who reiterated their denial.

The London Times entered the fray on behalf of the United States, reminding its readers that for two years both the Grant Administration and Her Majesty’s Government had exercised a “gentle pressure” on behalf of Puerto Rican independence, and that the Spanish government “have all along been pledged to emancipation in Puerto Rico instantly, and in Cuba as soon as peace may be restored.”

Meanwhile, Secretary Fish was trying to limit the damage domestically and bring Spain into line. He told the press that the Spanish government had not, strictly speaking, received his note because he had written it to Sickles, and Sickles had read it to the minister of state. “No copy would be furnished unless asked for, and none was asked for,” averred Fish, “so that, diplomatically speaking, the government has received no such communication; but the Spanish government has full knowledge of the latest views of this government on the subject of slavery in the Spanish West Indian possessions, whatever they may say in the Cortes.”

Fish’s explanation left the New York Herald Tribune cold. “We would suggest that the American people had quite sufficient of this diplomatic humbug…and they would like now a little plain, intelligible language. Let us know where the responsibility rests.”

Privately, Fish told the Spanish minister to the United States that he had done Spain a favor in publishing No. 270 and related correspondence. Fish noted in his diary that he had told the Spanish minister that the “publication of the letters submitted with the president’s December 2 message to Congress was necessary to satisfy Congress that the administration had the subject in hand—that the danger has been and is one of the question of Congressional debate, which would give occasion to the utterance of many hard things and would agitate the public mind.” Fish begged the minister to ask Madrid to desist from further denials or controversial statements on the matter.

Whatever Fish’s original intent, he clearly did not have “the subject in hand.” American opinion was hardening in favor of intervention in Cuba. The press expected Grant to take a firm stand in his March 4 inaugural address. On February 3, the House Foreign Affairs Committee reported out a resolution asking Grant to talk informally with European governments about joint measures to protect non-combatants in Cuba, hasten emancipation, and promote peace.

A Convenient Intervention: Proclaiming the New Republic in the Spanish Cortes, February 1873. The creation of a Republican government in Spain diffused the diplomatic crisis between the United States and Spain caused by the Cuban insurrection. (London Graphic, March 8, 1873)

But Providence smiled on Fish. On February 9, Spain declared for a republic. The well-meaning but ineffectual King Amadeus abdicated. The two chambers of the Cortes coalesced into a National Assembly. Fish telegraphed Sickles to recognize the republican government “as soon as it was fully established.” Sickles apparently exceeded his instructions and announced that the United States had “determined to cooperate as far as it depends upon them in bringing the insurrection in Cuba to an end.” Not even the interventionists objected. All America rejoiced at the birth of a new republic in the monarchical Old World.

Although history has forgotten the No. 270 affair, the fundamental question it posed returned as the core American argument during the 1895 rebellion: that Spanish authority in Cuba had collapsed in Cuba. Unfortunately, FRUS could not help the U.S. and Spain find a modus vivendi in the 1890s.

The FRUS that Fish disdained in 1869 turned out to be a useful tool for the Secretary’s public diplomacy in 1873.

What more does this episode tell us about post-bellum 19th Century FRUS using our expanded definition? First, that it could have an impact on policy. Second, that the volumes received high-level scrutiny in the Department; this was not an isolated case of a Secretary reviewing a FRUS volume. Third, it could serve as a public diplomacy and public affairs tool. Fourth, that it was integral to the foreign policy debate between the Executive and legislative branches. And lastly, as the 1872 volume did for Dan Sickles, correspondence in FRUS volumes sometimes put ministers in embarrassing predicaments and had a chilling effect on candor in reporting.

Most 19th Century FRUS volumes were noncontroversial, and their publication went largely unnoticed. But incidents such the No. 270 affair, which arose from the engagement of the highest levels of the Department in its composition and the immediacy of its contents, leave little doubt that FRUS then lay far closer to the heart of U.S. policy-making than does its comparatively tardy 20th and 21st Century descendents.