Alvey Augustus Adee (1842-1924) spent a diplomatic apprenticeship in the American legation at Madrid. In 1877, he entered the State Department in Washington and served there until his death. Adee spent almost four decades as the Second Assistant Secretary of State, the closest the United States has come to having a Permanent Under-Secretary. He managed American diplomacy in crises as well as quieter times, with an unparalleled expertise. Ed.
Alvey Augustus Adee was the second of three great American civil servantsWilliam Hunter was the first, and Wilbur J. Carr the thirdwhose overlapping careers provided the Department of State with deep experience, wise guidance and stability for over a century, from the administration of President Andrew Jackson until the eve of the Second World War.1 Alvey Adee served in the Department for 47 years under 22 Secretaries of State. For almost four decades, until his death in 1924 at the age of 81, he was the nearest the United States has come to having a Permanent Under-Secretary.2 Adee's long continuous service as a top policy maker has never been equaled in Washington. It was Adee who guided American diplomacy during the Spanish-American War in 1898; President McKinley reportedly said privately that it had been 'Adee's War'.3 It was Adee who, after studying for years the question of an Atlantic-Pacific canal, shaped the Panama Canal Zone which came into being in 1903. And it was Adee who supervised American diplomatic and military actions during the Boxer Rebellion in China, while the Secretary of State lay prostrate from exhaustion.
Alvey's mother was left in comfortable circumstances after her husband's death. Young Alvey, whose hearing had been impaired by scarlet fever, was tutored at home and never went on to college or university, although years later, in 1888, he would proudly receive an honorary degree from Yale University where his father and other Adees had studied. Alvey Adee's endeavours in several fields show clearly that he was well educated, and had great energy and an inquiring mind. A rare reminiscence of Alvey Adee as a young man describes him spending a summer in a Vermont village busily gathering an insect collection, learning to set type at the local newspaper and wanting to learn every other job in town, and walking many miles across the hills with a shepherd and his flock.5
In April 1867, when Adee was 24, he sailed to Europe, alone, to undertake a grand tour. He wrote to his brother Graham that he wanted to see all he could 'for I will probably never come again'.6 In London he visited the British Museumwhere he wished he could spend a year - and the Royal Geographical Society; he was disappointed that the great scientist Michael Faraday was too old and sick to receive him. Crossing to the continent, Adee undertook a strenuous foot tour of the Alps, averaging 16 miles a day, and went on to visit most of the cities of central and western Europe. He returned to America in December 1867 after almost eight months in Europe.Adee may originally have dreamed of an academic or literary career. He described himself in a fanciful play he wrote at 15 as 'Professor of Languages etc.'7 At about the same time he began to contribute poems to several newspapers. But Adee's lack of formal education was perhaps an obstacle. He decided to become a civil engineer, under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, Charles Graham, who was the surveyor of the port of New York.8 Soon, though, another maternal uncle, the lawyer, John Graham, arranged for young Adee to meet the uncle's friend and client, Daniel Sickles, whom President Grant had named Minister to Spain. Sickles invited Adee to accompany him to Madrid as his private secretary.
Daniel Sickles was one of the more flamboyant public figures in nineteenth-century America. Unlike most political appointees to American diplomatic posts, he had some diplomatic experience, having served as Secretary of Legation in London in 1853-55. Later, while a Member of Congress from New York, he shot his wife's lover dead in Washington's Lafayette Square, was acquitted of murder, and then forgave his wife. When the Civil War began he raised a brigade of volunteers at his own expense, was later promoted to major general, and lost his right leg at Gettysburg. Sickles was one of the early supporters of the presidential campaign of the former Union commander-in-chief, Ulysses Grant, and President Grant rewarded Sickles with the Madrid legation.9
When Adee reached Madrid, the Secretary of Legation was John Hay. Hay did not occupy a career positionthere was then no American career servicebut he ranked second to the Minister. Hay had been one of President Lincoln's two private secretaries. He was just four years older than Adee, and the two became friends. The following year Hay left Madrid, and Adee replaced him as Secretary of Legation after Hay, who had once complained privately that President Grant filled the diplomatic ranks with 'swine' and 'nonentities',10 had written the President a warm letter of recommendation for Adee, 'a gentleman of the highest character for integrity and industry'.11 Three decades later, in 1898, John Hay would become Secretary of State and the semper paratus Adee, as Hay called him, would be Hay's invaluable helper.12
It was Hay who gave Adee the idea for Adee's only published work of fiction, a curious story called 'The Life Magnet', which appeared in Putnam's Magazine in 1870, and which would be reprinted in 1899 in a volume of Famous Occult Tales together with pieces by Washington Irving and H.G. Wells. One is tempted to see something Freudian in this tale of a young American who, thanks to a German alchemist's 'life magnet', is left with the traits of four people including the mother of a young girl named 'Birdling'. Adee never married, and there seems to be no evidence of any sexual interest on his part in later life. But several of his poems in a manuscript volume dated 187213 and several of his teenaged newspaper poems are dedicated to girls or women. In one we read 'My far away birdie, once my own'. Another reads 'Too slight was my fancy's mesh for birdie ...'. This suggests something less than a robust passion for Birdie or Birdling, whoever she may have been.
Alvey Adee spent eight years at the Madrid Legation, and this laid the foundation for his mastery of diplomacy and diplomatic history, which was unparalleled among Americans of his time. Madrid was an excellent training ground. When Adee died a half-century later, the New York Times wrote that 'His services extended through the memorable time of Spanish history, including the institution of the provisional government that followed upon Queen Isabel's downfall, the two years' reign of King Amadeo, the short-lived republic, the dictatorship of Marshal Serrano and the Bourbon restoration under Alfonso XII'14
Adee seems to have worked diligently throughout his long tour in Madrid, during which he was several times chargé d'affaires, despite ill health - he may have caught malariain his last several years there. His first experience with a diplomatic crisis came in 1873, when Spanish warships captured the steamer Virginius, which was carrying arms to insurgents in Cuba. After the Spanish authorities executed the captain and most of the crew, including many who claimed to be American citizens, the United States demanded release of the ship and the remaining prisoners. Minister Sickles was instructed to close the Legation and leave Madrid if Spain did not agree within 12 days; Sickles himself was ready to close down in five days. The crisis was defused when Spain offered to negotiate a solution in Washington. Sickles, who had been carrying on an affair with Isabel, the former Spanish Queen, during visits to Paris, resigned his post and went to live in Paris in March 1874. Before his departure, Sickles wrote to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish that Adee had done more than any three other secretaries of legation together.15
Throughout his time in Madrid, Sickles had called on young Adee not only for diplomatic work but for personal servicesordering fine wines and luxury goods from London and Paris, renting a box for the minister at the Madrid operaand it was perhaps in this period that Adee learned to be meticulous in meeting, where possible, personal as well as official requests. An Adee letter of 1900 shows the care he took in such matters years later, while serving as the busy third ranking official of a major foreign ministry. He wrote to Mrs John Brooks Yale, daughter of a deceased Secretary of the Treasury, that, although 'I am swamped with work and have no time even for my own modest affairs', he had done all he could to meet Mrs Yale's request that he help a certain Mrs Cole find a job as a charwoman. He had had 'a protracted interview' with Mrs Cole, had offered her a letter of recommendation, and had suggested that her husband apply for a steward's berth on a passenger ship.16
Sickles had played the 'Yankee King' in Madrid and left behind a particularly bad taste.17 It was perhaps well that Adee had four months as chargé d'affaires ad interim to improve the tone of relations before the new minister, Caleb Cushing, arrived. Cushing was a veteran Massachusetts politician who had first been elected to Congress four decades earlier; he had been Minister to China, and Attorney General. Grant nominated him to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but then withdrew his name after partisan attacks and gave him the Madrid legation instead. Cushing was 74 years old when he went to Spain, and died less than two years after his mission ended in 1877. Adee understandably did much of the work.
Adee's best known feat at Madrid came in late 1876 when he was chargé d'affaires during Cushing's temporary absence. 'Boss' Tweed, the notoriously corrupt New York politician who had finally been sent to jail in 1875, escaped from justice and fled to Spain, with which the United States had no extradition treaty. The Department of State cabled Adee that Tweed was on a ship bound for Vigo and that Adee should if possible arrange for his arrest on arrival. Adee arranged both for Tweed's arrest and, despite lack of a treaty, his return to America.18 Adee thereafter emphasized to Washington the difficulties in extraditing notorious criminals in the absence of a treaty, and suggested the model extradition convention of 1877.19
When Cushing left Madrid for good in 1877, Adee became chargé d'affaires for the last time, pending the arrival of the new American minister, James Russell Lowell. Lowell said he wanted Adee to stay on, but Adee thought that after eight years, much of it in ill health, it was time for him to go. Cushing wrote to Adee, apparently after making inquiries in the department, that Adee could have either a consular position abroad or a clerkship in the department. Adee chose the latter 'as being best suited to my permanent interests'20 Permanent, indeed. More than three decades later, when Adee had already served 24 years as Second Assistant Secretary of State, the New York Evening Post would eulogize him in an editorial entitled 'The Permanent Official', which urged that Washington take a lesson from the British and formally name Adee Permanent UnderSecretary.21
In August 1877 Adee handed over his legation to James Russell Lowell and headed home. Hamilton Fish had been replaced as Secretary of State in March by William M. Evarts, and Evarts offered Adee a 'temporary' position in the department, where he would be called on to exercise the drafting talent he had shown in Madrid, to prepare diplomatic correspondence. Adee had averaged a dispatch a day to the department during the periods he was in charge of the legation, and presumably drafted most of what went out over the signature of the ministers when he was not in charge. The writing in the Madrid dispatches is clear and cogent, and Adee seems to have avoided the temptation to report on superfluous matters. One dispatch reports on a flurry of schemes in Spain to attract unwary investors by offering them as much as 30 per cent interest a month, which, as Adee noted, worked as long as new deposits increased sufficiently to meet interest payments to the earlier investors. This was not superfluous reporting, Adee wrote: 'a scheme of fraud like this is too ingenious and too sure of success not to find its way across the Atlantic'.23 And so it did, some decades later, beginning with the schemes Charles A. Ponzi used to defraud American investors in the 1920s.
Adee seems to have told friends at about the time he left Spain that his ultimate aim was to retire to private life; that he might go into banking.24 But it did not take the hard-working Adee long to prove himself to Secretary Evarts, who was not interested in the routine of the department and who had been criticized for tardiness in answering important correspondence.25
The department had recently moved into the great Victorian building which still stands on the west side of the White House. It shared the building with the Navy and War Departments and for the Foreign Ministry of a growing power its staff was small in size, with no more than 80 employees, excluding diplomatic and consular staffs abroad. A Secretary of State or an Assistant Secretary (the title then borne by the department's second-ranking officer) seldom stayed long in office, but the Second Assistant Secretary, William Hunter, had been in the department since 1829, almost a half-century, and he was a wise man with an encyclopedic memory. Below Hunter were several bureaus, including a First and a Second Diplomatic Bureau, which between them did the basic work of maintaining America's diplomatic relations with other governments. They were the heart of the department. In 1878 the two bureaus became one, and Alvey Adee, not quite 36 years old, was named the chief of the Diplomatic Bureau after a year in the department.
This was the beginning of three decades during which Alvey Adee became, and remained until at least 1909, the undisputed authority in American diplomacy. These were the decades in which the developed northern world, dominant in world affairs, experienced the intensification of nationalism, the strengthening both of industrial capitalism and of the socialist movement, the weakening of liberalism and the growth of imperialism, and a boom in armaments. All this increasingly affected American foreign relations, which had also to deal with serious problems in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, particularly toward the end of the century. This article is not the place to attempt a detailed analysis of Adee's place in American diplomatic history, yet one may ask whether he was the right person at the right time for the considerable responsibility he held. The best answer is perhaps that he did very well in the crises he confronted, and that very few men come to mind who might conceivably have done better.
Adee undoubtedly realized from the beginning of his days in the department that he had much to learn. The catalogue of books he bought over four decades26 shows a number of acquisitions in 1878-81 in diplomatic history and international law. He continued to prove himself to his superiors. In 1882, under Secretary of State Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, Adee was promoted to Third Assistant Secretary and took on some administrative responsibilities in addition to continued oversight of the Diplomatic Bureau. In 1886, while Thomas F. Bayard was Secretary, William Hunter died in office at the age of 80, after 57 years in the department. Adee was named to replace him as the Second Assistant Secretary and, as such, became the department's third-ranking officer.
The 1880s were not a time of many crises in American foreign relations. Henry Adams said that even for Cabinet officers 'the period was wearisome and stale'.27 Indeed, Washington could be a sleepy place, especially in the summer, when foreign envoys sought cool resorts elsewhere and left subordinates sweltering in the Potomac heat. The department did not work to a long schedule. Office hours had been set in 1869 at 9:30 am to 4 pm. After 1883 this became 9 am to 4 pm, with a half-hour allowed for lunch.
Adee clearly believed the adage Mens sana in corpore sano. He took up canoeing on the Potomac River, and bicycling. Adee's younger colleague, Wilbur J. Carr, who entered the State Department in 1892, recorded in his diary how he took long Sunday walks and rides through the green countryside across the river in Virginia. One imagines Adee may have done the same; but unlike Carr, Adee left no diary (although he reportedly kept one for some years) and we know relatively little about his private life.
At some point in the 1890s Adee began annual cycling trips to Europe. He took as much as two months' leave each springwhich successive Secretaries of State granted, presumably on the basis that the reliable Adee would be in charge of the department during their own summer vacationsand he would do between 1,500 and 2,000 miles on his 'wheel' through Europe, alone or with a friend or two. His most frequent companions were Alexander Thackara, a senior American consular officer, and Thackara's wife, who was the daughter of General William T. Sherman, the Civil War commander. France was Adee's favourite cycling ground, but he also toured Italy, Germany and the Alps. At least once, in 1895, he cycled through England and Scotland, where he is said to have met Woodrow Wilson, then a professor at Princeton University, and to have continued his tour together with the future President.28
Adee also cycled to the State Department while living in Washington, and was the only official permitted to bring his bicycle into the State Department building and stand it in a particular place in the corner.29 But Adee did not always live in Washington. He had a house on Fifteenth Street, but some time before the end of the century he also bought what was described as a 'handsome estate' called Yarrow Farm, a few miles from Laurel in Howard County, Maryland, which he shared with his brother, David Graham Adee, until the latter's death in 1901. Here Alvey Adee spent many nights, except in winter.30
Adee continued his literary pursuits into the 1890s. His 'life magnet' story had been published while he was in Madrid. After his move to Washington, he published one poem in The Atlantic Monthly in 1881, and an article in The Century Magazine in 1886; both had to do with Spain.31 Shakespeare interested him, and by the time of his death he had acquired over 500 volumes of Shakespeariana. Adee joined the Shakespeare Society of New York, and it was under their auspices that he published his only book, in 1890: King Lear, which appeared as Volume 10 of the Bankside Edition of Shakespeare, and which incorporated a uniform reference system of Adee's devising. Adee's last non-official published writing came in 1899, when he wrote an introduction to a volume of Impressions of Spain by James Russell Lowell, who had died in 1891.32 The great writer had served as Minister at Madrid in an uneventful time; a Lowell biographer says a search of Spanish archives relating to Lowell's mission turned up only 'routine references to formal diplomatic occasions.'33 Adee's introduction to what is basically a selection of Lowell's dispatches from Madrid gives a brilliant precis of what transpired in Spain during Adee's more eventful years there, and goes on to give a polite if not uncritical account of Lowell: