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December 2011

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American Writers Who Were Diplomats: Nathaniel Hawthorne

imageWhen Franklin Pierce gained the presidency in 1853, one of his first acts was to nominate an old school chum, Nathaniel Hawthorne, as the American consul in Liverpool. Pierce and Hawthorne were close friends since their undergraduate days at Bowdoin College, a friendship that continued until Hawthorne’s death in 1864. Though the nomination had the air of the “old-boy network,” Hawthorne had earned it. Early in Pierce’s campaign, Hawthorne was asked to write a praiseworthy — and politically important — campaign biography. Laying aside the pen that had lately raised his literary stature – though not his bank account — via The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables — Hawthorne took in hand his political quill and wrote a laudatory, somewhat fictional piece (he couldn’t shake the habit) on the soon to be fourteenth President of the United States. Hawthorne also pushed for Pierce’s election among his Concord literary friends and enlisted, as well, support from his Boston publishers.

Hawthorne’s nomination was not without precedent. Thomas Jefferson appointed Philip Freneau (“Poet of the Revolution”) as the State Department’s first French translator, while James Madison, in 1811, sent Joel Barlow (Hasty Pudding) to France as chief negotiator on a tricky non-impressment treaty. And President Tyler continued the custom by appointing Washington Irving (The Alhambra) as minister to Spain in 1841.

Though Hawthorne gave well-written bangles to his old college chum, his actual goal was a job with a steady income to support his growing family. He was at the pinnacle of his literary powers, no doubt, but his books were not best sellers. The Old Salem darkness did not move sales, and there were no movie rights, nor New Yorker type magazines or other outlets to insure a regular income. His literary efforts barely kept food on the table and the cold New England winter from the door. The Liverpool appointment was a funded nirvana. The consul’s salary came from a set percentage of fees collected at the port, and Liverpool was the main entry for American ships headed to England. The author of The Scarlet Letter viewed the Liverpool Consulate as his lease on financial independence. What it was to cost him in soul-searching and the wear and tear of the daily grind was yet to be reckoned.

During his four-year stint in Liverpool, Hawthorne abandoned the well know fiction that had made him famous, keeping instead a meticulous journal of English goings-on which was eventually transformed into a 300,000 word tome published as the English Notebooks. At the same time, his consular activities were detailed in a stream of letters, dispatches and reports which filled over seven hundred pages of the consulate files. A review of these papers shows Hawthorne’s fascination — often negative — with the job, revealing a modernity making him kin with all who have been swamped by the paper work entailed in similar assignments.

When the Senate confirmed his nomination on March 26, Hawthorne set out for Washington where, like most novice entrants to the Department, he received an “orientation” of sorts. He lunched with President Pierce and discussed consular affairs with Secretary of State William Marcy, whom he was later to title, somewhat irreverently, as “Old Lord Massey.” He avoided whatever passed for the equivalent of the English area study program and no doubt, if tested, received an S4/R4 language proficiency rating. The Salem writer did, however, manage to secure control of the vacated sub-consulate at Manchester, adding another $1,000 to his per annum receipts. While all this was going on in Washington, his most-devoted wife, Sophia, was hard at work in Concord, packing the household goods, arranging for transatlantic passage and preparing the three Hawthorne children for life abroad, establishing a kinship to all of those who have been thusly immersed.

Drawing: Joan Sommers

The Hawthornes left Boston on the USS Niagra July 7, 1853, and, with good weather and tolerable food, arrived in Liverpool three weeks later. On August 1 this New England writer made his first visit to the consular office; his description is a classic example of undiluted culture shock:

“The consulate…was…a shabby and smoke-stained edifice four stories high. A narrow and darkened passageway gave access to an equally narrow and ill-lighted passageway on the first floor. The staircase and passageway were often thronged, of a morning, with a set of beggarly and piratical looking scoundrels… purporting to belong to our mercantile marine…the scum of every maritime nation on earth.1

Nor did the office look any better. Undoubtedly the Embassy GSO staff shunned the Liverpool office and Hawthorne was chagrined to find that his working quarters had all the charm of “an old fashioned American barber’s shop.”2

He never did accommodate fully to the delights of Liverpool, and his description might well have set the standard for a “hardship post” determination:

Liverpool is a most detestable place as a residence that ever my lot was cast in: smoky, noisy, dirty, pestilential; and the consulate is situated in the most detestable part of the city. The streets swarm with beggars by day and by night.3

No sooner had the author of New England depravity settled himself into these less-than-plush offices when he was hit with a Department circular asking for an assessment of the consular staff and a detailed justification of their numbers, which highlighted at an upcoming RIF. His evaluation, succinct and to the point, could serve as a model of fairness and candor, virtues not always present in today’s more complicated evaluation system.

“I have three persons in my office,” he began,

The head clerk, or vice consul…a second clerk and a messenger who does some writing. They are all honest and capable men, and do their duty to perfection. No American would take either of these places for twice the sums they receive; and no American without some months practice could undertake the duty.4

Mr. Hawthorne ranked them, noting that if a RIF were absolutely necessary, he would prefer to “displace the vice consul (rather) than the second clerk, who does a great amount of labor, and has a remarkable variety of talent.” The vice consul, Hawthorne opined, “though perfect in his own track, is nothing outside of it.”

But Mr. Hawthorne, like many of his successors, opposed the RIF. “I will not part with either of these men unless compelled to do so; and I don’t think Old Lord Massey (Secretary of State William Marcy) can compel me.”5 Since he was the confidant of the President and a close friend of the very powerful and protective Senator Sumner of Massachusetts, his statement was not an idle boast.
Hawthorne, like his modern counterparts, struggled with Washington’s persistent requests for off-the-wall information. True, he was not bugged by daily cable traffic, nor did the dispatches move as fast as today’s email. Yet some of his exasperated replies strike a sympathetic chord with today’s practitioners. In January 1854, for example, Hawthorne received a question on the origin of “Sea Island Cotton.” He replied that, although he had shown the query to a number of manufacturers and merchants, he reported that “I am unable to find anyone who can read or understand the query which you sent.”6

Drawing: Joan Sommers

Still, the fault was not that of the Department alone. A casual tardiness was sometimes a deliberate course when the work load became exhausting. In October 1853 the Department dispatched a long, involved and complicated series of 98 questions, ranging from shipping costs to navigational information to the registration of American shipping in Liverpool. Nine months later, in July 1854, the now seasoned diplomat bundled off his reply, which filled 107 pages of laboriously formed script backed by 6 pages of references and 49 pages of charts and tables. While there is no record that he had to soak his hand in Epsom salts for a week, his covering letter is a marvel. Couching it in the roundabout phrasing of a famous prose style, Hawthorne begged to note that “it was my earnest desire to convey to such information as should be reliable and calculated to be really helpful to the United States.” Thus he ignored Washington’s urgent time limits “rather than give the sanction of an official signature to hasty and inaccurate statements.”7 If Hawthorne were still around, he might have encapsulated his frustration via an email limited to four words: garbage in, garbage out!

For most of his tour, Hawthorne served under James Buchanan, minister to the British Royal Court. Buchanan used the post to advance his political fortunes, and eventually succeeded Pierce to the Presidency. The relationship between the minister and the consul was distant but not disagreeable, although, as was his nature, Buchanan avoided thorny issues and backed his subordinate only as far as it seemed politically prudent to do so. When Hawthorne railed against the gross excesses of the cruel justice meted out to ordinary seamen aboard American merchant ships, the soon to be president preserved a sideline silence, leaving Hawthorne alone in battle.

Understandably, the presence of a famous literary figure on his immediate staff, one wined and dined by the English literary crowd, made the somewhat limited Buchanan a trifle testy. At one literary soirée to which Buchanan had been invited, the after-dinner discussion came round to a public letter written by the Queen and encased in an effusion of purple prose. Buchanan turned to Hawthorne, putting him on the spot by asking in a loud voice for the latter’s opinion on the letter. Mr. Hawthorne demurred, saying it showed a nice sensibility. But Mr. Buchanan was not to be put off. “No,” he retorted, “what do you think of the style?” The not-to-be-downgraded Hawthorne, unfurled his heavy brow and in a measured voice, replied: “The Queen has a perfect right to do what she pleases with her own English.”8

But there were more important problems, one of which involved the issue of U.S. maritime policy which hung like a grey, dismal cloud over the four years of the New Englander’s assignment. He was involved repeatedly with cases where beatings, mayhems, kidnappings and legalized murder were the rule, and where the shipmasters, despite all his efforts toward justice, were nearly untouchable as arbiters of life or death aboard ship. Page after page of Mr. Hawthorne’s consular dispatches are filled with the documented mistreatment for which justice could not be rendered. He attempted time and again to “blow the whistle” on this practice which, he warned, would eventually cause a severe disruption in Anglo-U.S. relations.


Part of the problem lay in the harsh conditions aboard ship and the brutal recruitment practices; part arose from the inadequacy of American maritime law in dealing with murderous shipmasters. In a letter to Senator Sumner, Hawthorne complained bitterly that “matters are really in a very terrible state between shipmasters and seamen.”9 To another friend, he wrote that “there is nothing in this world so much like hell as the interior of an American ship.”10 But, as is the usual response of those who try and change terrible practices, his do-good efforts ended only in piling on more trouble for him. When Buchanan became president, and while Hawthorne waited longingly for his successor to be appointed, the issue of American seamen broke into open debate in Parliament, when Lord John Russell attacked the U.S. Government, accusing it of negligence. The new Secretary of State, General Lewis Cass, hardly an Anglophile, responded sharply to Lord Russell, arguing that the abuses were greatly exaggerated, that American laws were adequate to deal with the problem and that England, with her continuing impressment policies, was hardly in a position to point the finger.

Though Secretary Cass may have been expressing the opinion of many Americans, he had deliberately pulled the rug from under Hawthorne, who had argued exactly the opposite. The latter found that the Secretary’s reply exhibited a “perfectly astounding ignorance of the subject.” And so the New Englander felt greatly aggrieved and, since there was no “negotiated grievance procedure” available at the time, he wrote directly to the Secretary. Noting that he was unfamiliar with any existing laws that gave him the power to act, a point Secretary Cass had stressed, Mr. Hawthorne posed another choice:

If I have possessed the power to punish these offenses, and, whether through sluggishness, or fear, or favor, have failed to exercise it, then I am guilty of a great crime, which ought to be visited…with its evil consequences…. If I am innocent—if I have done my utmost, as an executive officer, under a defective law, to the defects of which I have repeatedly called the attention of my superiors—then unquestionably, the Secretary has wronged me by a suggestion pointing so directly at myself.11

But Cass was no dummy. A long experience in the diplomatic scullery instructed him to avoid a confrontation. The reply was delayed for months. When it did come, the letter was skillfully designed to say nothing, but say it well. If Mr. Hawthorne wanted to go public, there was little of substance to reveal. On the one outstanding moral issue to which Mr. Hawthorne had hitched his puritan wagon, he received only the bitter pill of defeat.

By this time, the author of the “Scarlet Letter,” and his diplomatic career, had run its course. He may have been the first documented case of Foreign Service “burn out,” for he wrote that

I am so sick and weary of this office that I should hardly regret it if they were to abolish it altogether. What with brutal shipmasters, drunken sailors, vagrant Yankees, mad people, sick people and dead people (for just now I have to attend to removal of the bones of a man who had been dead these twenty years) it is full of damnable annoyances.12

And he had not long to wait. Mr. Beverly Tucker arrived in Liverpool on September 9, 1857, and assumed the duties of consul on October 12. And Hawthorne’s final dispatch was dated December 31, 1857, enumerating his last draw for salary and expenses.


With uncanny insight, our writer-turned-diplomat, still nursing his resentment over the reduction in consular salaries, which Congress had legislated in 1856, commented that his successor, in order to survive,

would have to be “a rich man or a rogue.”13 Mr. Tucker was not rich, but he apparently bent every effort to reap his reward. According to an audit report published in 1861, Tucker spent “all the funds he could reach” and engaged in a course of “plunder and profligacy unequalled in consular history.” The report’s only consolation came in the announcement that “this plunderer no longer graces the Government abroad.”14

1. Byers, John (ed.), Consular dispatches of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Essex Institute historical collection, Vol. CXIII, October 1977, p. 242.
2. Ibid., p. 243.
3. Ibid., p. 246.
4. Ibid., p. 245-6.
5. Ibid., p. 246.
6. Ibid, p. 256.
7. Ibid., p. 260.
8. Mellow, James R., Nathaniel Hawthorne in his times, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1980, p. 452.
9. Ibid., p. 434.
10. Ibid., p. 445.
11. Ibid., p.474.
12. Dispatches, op. cit., p. 247.
13. Ibid., p. 247.
14. Barnes, Wm. & Morgan, John H. Foreign Service of the United States, U.S. Department of State, Washington, 1961, p. 124.

This article is a rewritten version of the author’s “Nathaniel Hawthorne: Our Man in Liverpool" which appeared in the July, 1981 issue of State Magazine.

imageWilliam Sommers, a graduate of Middlebury College, along with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Littaeur Center ( known now as the JFK School), spent many years in local government operations in the United States and also, appended to that experience, worked overseas on local government development in Thailand, Philippines, Korea, Egypt, Poland, Hungary, Indonesia and Bosnia. Bill’s wife – Joan – was the stalwart in all of this, having graduated from the Chicago Art Institute, and in all the confusion of a life focused on moving and traveling, raised six children, and – at the same time – ingested the art values of every country in which the Sommers family lived and held art shows where ever they were stationed. While she is well known for her Chinese calligraphy and related paintings, she, nevertheless, took time to enhance Bill’s frequent articles on writers who had worked in the American diplomatic service – thus illustrating the likes of Hawthorne, Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Washington Irving and a host of others.

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