As Well As The Art Of Diplomacy, There Are Also The Arts Of Diplomacy


Into this world of opulent diplomacy the United States had stepped in 1776 with Utopian principles and empty hands. The principles were quite sincere. Steeped in the idealism of the eighteenth-century philosophes , many Americans felt messianic stirrings. They believed that their new nation would lead the decadent Old World into a period of international relations based on “right, not might” and characterized by open dealings under international law. By eliminating power politics Thomas Jefferson expected American policy to achieve “the total emancipation of commerce and the bringing together all nations for a free intercommunication of happiness.” Nothing that smacked of corruption must be permitted.

Of course, the poverty of the new American government was also grimly genuine. But the idealism permitted the country’s first diplomats to make a virtue of its indigence. With fine contempt they considered the glittering courts with their ceremonious forms and ornate ostentation to be symbols of the frivolous cynicism of traditional diplomacy. Sent by the Continental Congress to plead the American cause in France early in 1776, Silas Deane wrote piously to the Secret Committee of Congress, “Parade and Pomp have no charms in the eyes of a patriot, or even of a man of common good sense.” Benjamin Franklin made his fur cap an emblem of republican simplicity, and Abigail Adams described the gown she wore when she was presented at the Court of St. James’s in 1784 as “elegant, but plain as I could possibly appear, with decency.”


It might have been expected that this persistent nonconformity would carry over into other ceremonial and decorative aspects of American foreign relations. But American representatives abroad soon began to discover that there was more than mere gratification of vanity in the extravagant etiquette and elegant style of diplomatic exchanges. They learned that they must take subtleties of rank and deference into consideration if they were to serve their own country effectively. As John Adams gloomily observed, “We rnust submit to what we cannot alter.”

Soon the Continental Congress itself began to seek for the United States all the accouterments of nationhood. The members devoted much thought to the creation of a Great Seal, finally settling on a strong and simple design that has remained essentially unchanged ever since. It is described in the journal of the Continental Congress for June 20, 1782, in very unrepublican heraldic terms: “Paleways of thirteen pieces, argent and gules …”

In treaty bindings, however, the United States at first exhibited an austerity of taste commensurate with its Puritan ideals. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 was a paper book without a cover, held together by the seal ribbons. The Jay Treaty of 1795 was also sent to Great Britain with no cover. The seal was applied through paper on red wax over blue ribbons on the signature page.

But it was not long before the Department of State had fallen completely in line with European custom in this regard. On March 13, 1815, one Joseph Milligan was paid sixty dollars for a “Portfolio of green velvet, lined with orange silk, tied with red, white, blue and yellow Ribband.—Gold Cord and Tassels, with Silver Box and Seal appendant” for the exchange copy of the Treaty of Ghent at the end of the War of 1812.


In 1824 a larger, more imposing seal die was ordered by the Department of State for pendant seals. From about 1833 until 1852 F. Masi & Company, a “Military and Fancy store” in Washington, supplied the department with treaty accessories. By midcentury the Department of State had fallen so far from republican grace that the typical American instrument of ratification was bound in velvet and bore a silver skippet attached with silver cord and tassels. Treaty boxes were usually satin-lined morocco with ornamental gold stampings.

By the late 1860’s some nations began to eliminate skippets. In February, 1871, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish asked his chief of the First Diplomatic Bureau, H. D. J. Pratt, to determine “what style of box & of seal do the Foreign Govt. use with the treaties they send here?” Pratt replied that the boxes varied in elegance from some made of “fancy woods,” ornamental morocco, or velvet to “merely pasteboard pouches, covered [in buckram]. …” He lurther observed:

Nearly all the treaties are in velvet covers with metallic seal boxes, mostly silver, and are arranged like those prepared here, with bullion cords and tassels. The French and some of the German States have not used metallic seals to recent treaties but have substituted paper seals affixed to the body of the ratifications. …

Fish scribbled across the top of the report, “Have no more fancy boxes made & no more metallic cases for seals.” The last payment for skippets was made in 1870 to Samuel Lewis: $720 for “six silver treaty boxes.” Probably the last one used was attached to the 1871 Treaty of Washington with Great Britain.

Although a few other nations continued to use pendant seals and skippets for some time, today most countries use simple gold-tooled morocco bindings and wafered paper seals. Sad to relate, some of the great recent multilateral agreements in the custody of the Department of State are now typewritten and bound in buckram.