AHA Presidential Addresses
The Inadequate Recognition of Diplomatists by Historians
By James B. Angell, President of the American Historical Association, 1891–93
Inaugural Address delivered at the AHA annual meeting in Chicago, Illinois, on July 11, 1893. Published in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1893, 15–24.
The scholars of our time have often congratulated themselves that historical writers have in these later years been giving a wider scope to their work than the older historians gave to theirs. These later writers, in describing the history of a nation, have not confined themselves to the records of battles and of court intrigues and of royal genealogies. They have deemed it proper to give us some idea of the progress of the nation in letters, in art, in science, in economic development, in religion, in all that makes up what we call civilization. They have attempted to give us a vivid and accurate conception of the forces and the processes which have made nations what they are. And they have had in mind the true ideal of the historian’s task.
But in the course of my studies I have been led to the conviction that most of the general historical narratives have failed to set forth with sufficient fullness the important features of great diplomatic transactions, and have failed even more signally in specific recognition of the signal merits of many of the gifted negotiators of epoch-making treaties.
The work of international congresses, which have remade the map of Europe or the maps of other continents, which have extinguished the life of proud and ancient states or have created new states, which have given larger freedom to commerce and wider liberty in the use of the high seas, which have mitigated the cruelties of war and have swept the slave trade from the ocean; this work, so wide and far-reaching in its influence, of the diplomatic representatives of powerful states has been often passed over altogether by historians of renown or dismissed with the most succinct summary which was possible. Even where the results of negotiations are given it is rare that one finds any fairly complete account of the processes by which these results were reached. May we not fairly ask whether to the reader of ordinary intelligence the important details of the discussions and deliberations in the congress at Münster are not of as much consequence as the details of any battle of the Thirty Years’ War? Are not the particulars of the debates between Franklin and Jay and John Adams on the one side, and Oswald and Strachey and Fitzherbert on the other, in framing our treaty of independence, of as much interest and consequence as the details of the battle of Trenton?
But even when the results of negotiations are given with some fullness and estimated with justice, for the most part little or none of the credit which is due is given to the men who have brought the negotiations to a successful issue. Generally not even their names are mentioned. The consequence is that no class of public servants of equal merit is so inadequately appreciated even by those who are pretty well read in history. Our very school children are so taught that the names of great generals, Wallenstein and Tilley, Marlborough and Prince Eugene, Turenne and Condé, Washington and Greene, are familiar to them. But if you will try a simple experiment, as I have done several times, upon persons of cultivation, I venture the guess that you will find that scholars of considerable familiarity with European history can not tell and can not say that they have ever known who were the principal negotiators of the Peace of Westphalia, or of treaties of such historical importance as those of Nimeguen, Ryswick, Utrecht, or Paris of 1763, or Paris of 1856. And the reason is not far to seek. It is because most of the general histories of the periods, to which those treaties belong, have little or nothing to say of the envoys, who, with much toil and discussion, wrought them out. To learn the names of those neglected men, and especially to learn anything of their personality, one must have recourse to special diplomatic histories or personal memoirs, when such can be found.
If my impression of the treatment which important diplomatic work has received in most of our general histories is correct, I think we shall all agree that they are seriously deficient in this regard. If any events in European history for the last two centuries and a half have been of vital importance, the negotiation of some of the treaties I have named must be ranked as such. When we recall how the Peace of Westphalia weakened the German Empire, strengthened France, adjusted the relations of the three great branches of the church in Germany, and practically established the modern state system of Europe; or how the Treaty of Utrecht permanently separated the crowns of France and Spain, added to England’s possessions Newfoundland, Hudson Bay, Acadia, St. Kitts, Gibraltar and Minorca, and fixed the Hanoverian succession, enlarged the power of Savoy and recognized the King of Prussia; how the Treaty of Paris of 1763 gave Canada and the Floridas and the navigation of the Mississippi to England, and how the Treaty of Paris of 1856 abolished privateering and established new guarantees to neutral trade upon all the seas; who shall say that the framing of these treaties and of others, hardly less important, does not deserve ample treatment, and that the talent and skill of the men who negotiated them does not deserve generous recognition in our more important general histories as well as in the special diplomatic histories?
The distinguished publicist, Pradier-Fodéré, has well said that a good minister is sometimes equal to an army of a hundred thousand men. Pyrrhus is credited with the remark that his envoy, Cyneas, had given him more cities than any of his generals. John Adams, who filled so many high offices with honor, was apparently, and justly, prouder of his treaty with the Netherlands, which he procured in the face of well-nigh insuperable obstacles, than of almost any other achievement of his life. His no less distinguished son, John Quincy Adams, declared that he considered his signature of the so-called Florida treaty with Spain in 1819 the most important event of his life.
It may be said in answer to my plea for the ampler recognition of the services of great diplomatists that they only register the results which the great soldiers have really secured, and therefore deserve less fame than the generals. To this two rejoinders can fairly be offered: First, while war may decide that one nation is to gather the larger part of the fruits of a negotiation with another, it does not decide the details of the settlement to be made. And in fixing these, in determining with large foresight the consequences of particular adjustments, in felicity of statement, in cogency of discussion, in knowledge of international law, in weight of personality, the representatives of the conquered nation may, and often do, win back much of what seemed to have been wrested away by the victorious sword of the antagonist. The skillful diplomatists of Louis XIV repeatedly enhanced the value of his victories and diminished the losses incurred by his defeats. The American victory at Yorktown determined the fact that we should somehow have our independence, but we owe it to our commissioners at Paris, especially to Jay, rather than to the generals in command of our armies, that Great Britain was constrained to treat with us as an equal and independent nation, that we did not accept independence as a grant from the mother country, that our treaty was a treaty of partition, and not of concession. The important results of that fact are familiar to us all. By no means is the work of the negotiator done by the military commander.
And, secondly, some of the most important negotiations are not the consequence of war, are not preceded by war. Rather they serve to prevent war. Take as an example the treaty of Washington of 1871, popularly known as the Alabama treaty. It was drawn to remove the dangerous causes of dissension between us and Great Britain. Few events in our national life have been of more consequence than the negotiation and execution of that treaty. It belongs to so recent a date that most of us remember distinctly the meeting of the high joint commissioners who framed it. Does any one now question the supreme importance of their work? And yet how few even of the well-informed citizens of Great Britain or of the United States can repeat the names, I will not say of all, but of the most prominent members of that commission. Do our school children find them given in any of the manuals of United States history which are placed in their hands?
It is then far from true that the value of the services of diplomatists is wholly dependent on the deeds of the soldier. In some cases it is not true that they are at all determined by military achievements. There is no good reason why the historian should with emphasis dwell on the skill of generals, and be silent concerning the genius and the work of great masters of the diplomatic art.
Let us now notice briefly what we do find in some of our histories concerning a few important treaties and the men who drew them. Take the great treaties negotiated at Münster and Osnabrück, to which as a whole the name of The Peace of Westphalia is generally given. All will agree that it is one of the most important events in the history of modern Europe. Of course no history of the great continental states in the seventeenth century can altogether omit reference to it. But if we turn to Dyer’s Modern Europe, or Russell’s Modern Europe, or Crowe’s France, or among German works to Kohlrausch’s History of Germany or to Menzel’s, the subject is touched very lightly or not at all, and nothing can be learned from them about the negotiations. Coxe’s House of Austria, which gives a good succinct summary of the treaties, is silent about the men who made them. One might suppose that Gindely’s Thirty Years’ War would at least have had a closing chapter on the treaties. But it has not a word, though the American translator has added a chapter in which some attention is given to the subject. And apparently the call upon the author by readers, who were surprised at his omission, led him to publish a little supplemental brochure to supply it. Martin, the French historian, treats the subject, as he does other negotiations, with considerable fullness, and gives his readers an idea of who the negotiators were.
But if one would learn much of the details of the transactions or of the traits even of the leading negotiators, one must turn to such special histories as Bougeaut’s Histoire des Guerres et des Négociations qui précédèrent le Traité de Westphalie, and Le Clerc’s Négociations Sécrètes, or Garden’s Histoire des Traités de Paix. He could there find that France was represented by the Count d’Avaux, who had, on an embassy to Venice, settled a difficult question about Mantua, that he had secured a truce between Poland and Sweden, that he had negotiated a treaty at Hamburg, which prepared the way for the Peace of Westphalia, and that he was a man of large skill and experience; also by Servien, the Count de la Roche des Aubiers, who had been secretary of state under Richelieu, had seen diplomatic service, and had by his brilliancy became a favorite of Mazarin; and finally by the renowned Duc de Longueville. He could see that Sweden had sent to the congress the son of the great chancellor Oxenstiern, a man of large learning and capacity, and Salvius, who had won the favor of his Queen Christina. He would learn that the empire had in Dr. Volmar and Count Trautsmandorf envoys who were in ability and good sense peers of any in that great assembly, and that Venice was represented by Contarini, who had rendered conspicuous public services at the principal courts of Europe, and that the mediator sent by the Pope was Fabio Chigi, afterwards raised to the Holy See by the title of Alexander VII, and that he was one of the shrewdest and most experienced diplomatists present. Not to mention any of the one hundred and forty others whose names are given by Garden, surely these dominant men, who shaped the great settlement from which in an emphatic sense what we call modern Europe may be said to date its life, might well have their names recalled and their work recognized as theirs by any historian of the seventeenth century.
If we pause to notice the three principal treaties of the reign of Louis XIV, those of Nimeguen, Ryswick, and Utrecht, we shall find a very slight treatment of them in several histories of repute. From Dyer and Russell and Crowe the reader will learn little or nothing. Green’s larger work on England has the briefest possible notice of these treaties. Even Philipson in his volume on the Age of Louis XIV, forming a part of Oncken’s great Historical Series, while giving the results of the treaties, says hardly anything of the men who negotiated them. Martin gives some of the names, but not all; and does not dwell on the merits of the men he does name. Lecky says he omits any detailed account of the treaty of Utrecht because it is fully described elsewhere, as, in fact, it is in Stanhope’s Queen Anne. Hume is reasonably full on the negotiations at Nimeguen, Macaulay on Ryswick, and Capefigue on both. In general the French historians as a class have given more attention to diplomatic history than either the Germans or the English.
When we remember that in the making of the treaties referred to such men as Colbert-Croissé, Caillières, De Harlayand Polignac of France, and Sir William Temple and Hyde and Sir Leoline Jenkins of England, and Van Bevening of the Netherlands were engaged, may we not fairly ask whether some special attention might not have been given to them by the historians of their period?
With the single exception of the great treaty of Vienna of 1815, we shall find the case much the same in more recent European history. The names of any of the negotiators of the treaty of Paris of 1856, which summed up the results of the Crimean war and introduced perhaps the most important changes in maritime affairs ever made by a single treaty, are not so much as mentioned in Justin McCarthy’s interesting History of our Time.
It is but just to say that the American historians, especially Hildreth and Bancroft, have set a better example in writing of the treaties made by the United States in the period covered by their works. But the authors of our school manuals of American history give the children little or no information concerning the diplomatic labors of the men who, by their skill, helped win in Europe those victories in the council chamber which were as influential in securing our independence as the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown.
If we can not justify the neglect of many historians to treat with sufficient fullness the work of diplomatists, we can perceive some of the causes of that neglect. That work does not appeal to the imagination and excite the passions of men like the battles of the warrior. The processes by which it is accomplished are often, perhaps generally, guarded by governments with more or less secrecy. Even when the French and Spanish ambassadors used to make their entry into a capital with great display, their discussions in a congress and their dispatches were not given to the public. Flassan (I, 37) well says “the lot of negotiators is less favorable for celebrity than that of generals. Their works are often buried; if recent, they can not be made public; if they have become a little old, they lack interest, unless the pen which has traced them has such a superior style that we can regard them as models of logic and of human wisdom.”
But if the reader is more dazzled by the description of battles than of even the most important negotiations, is it not the duty of the historian to correct his bad taste or to disregard it by setting forth in due proportions what is really important, and by giving to great negotiators the credit which is really their due for promoting the interests of their country and of humanity?
While general histories should give more attention to the important features in diplomatic work, it seems desirable that the diplomatic history of each nation should be written by some one of its own citizens. It is due to each nation that its diplomatic relations be set forth in such a special work in more detail than the general historian can properly resort to in his narrative. The custodians of the archives can give more liberty to one of their fellow-citizens in examining papers than they sometimes are free to grant to foreigners. But more liberality in the use of documents, and at the same time more care in preserving them, may well be exercised by governments.
So impartial an editor as De Martens complains in the preface to his Nouveau Recueil de Traités that he has been unable to procure many important documents which he needed, because they had not been published or because governments were unwilling to communicate them to him.
In some countries, notably in England, a large part of the most valuable material for diplomatic history is carried off by the foreign secretaries as they leave office. This material consists of the confidential letters from the ministers who are representing the country abroad. These letters are regarded in Great Britain as the private property of the foreign secretary. They contain often more valuable information than the formal dispatches. Being carried away, they are sometimes lost. Sometimes they appear in the publication of family papers of the secretaries, divorced from the documents which should explain or modify them. It may be a question whether in that country and in ours some provision should not be made for preserving in the archives even these personal letters to the secretaries, or such parts of them as concern public business, so that the Government may have all the facts within reach and may permit them to be used by the historian when the proper time comes for a full diplomatic history.
Several nations have published or have permitted the publication of their treaties. In addition to Barbeyrac’s Collection of Ancient Treaties, and the vast Corps Diplomatique Universel of Dumont, we have the Acta Foedera Publica of Rymer, the Regesta Diplomatica of Georgisch, the Codex Italiæ Diplomaticus of Lunig, the collections of Abreu for Spain, the Codex Diplomaticus of Leibnitz, the great Recueils of Modern Treaties by Dr. Martens and his successors, the British Treaties of Hertslet, the Collection of the United States, the South American Treaties, edited by Calvo, and other collections. We have also Koch and Schoell’s History of Treaties. But of diplomatic histories, which give us full accounts of the origin and details and results of negotiations, and make known to us the personality and the influence and merits of the men who conducted them, and enable us to understand the living forces which accomplished the results attained, of these we have but few. The French, with the renowned works of Flassan and Garden and Lefebvre, have outstripped all other nations.
Flassan, in speaking of such works as the Histoire des Traités by St. Preux, Mably’s Du Public de l’Europe, and Koch’s Abregé des Traités, well says: “In speaking of events they have said nothing of persons, although these lend great interest to a diplomatic work. It is not sufficient to give the principal articles of a treaty of peace and to add a sketch of the events which have preceded it. One should as far as possible make us acquainted with the negotiator, indicate the forces brought into play on either side, the principal debates in the conferences, the obstacles overcome, and sum up in impartial conclusions the results of the treaty or of the action of the cabinet which they are discussing.”
Mr. Trescot in his two little volumes on the earlier chapters in our diplomatic history; Mr. Lyman in his more extensive work; Mr. Schuyler in his monograph on certain chapters in our history; the former president of the American Historical Association, Mr. John Jay, in his chapter in Winsor’s History on the Negotiation of the Treaty of Independence, and Mr. Henry Adams in his Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, have well supplemented Hildreth and Bancroft, and Mr. Rhodes in his recent work has given long-neglected recognition to the services of Secretary Marcy. But a fall and connected history of American diplomacy, in the light of present knowledge, is still a desideratum.
It has seemed to me eminently appropriate to discuss this theme now in this age of arbitration, and here where the world is holding its great industrial congress of peace. It is meet that we should emphasize the importance of pacific negotiations as the desirable method of settling international difficulties by giving the deserved place to the histories of diplomatic labors and by asking that historians should place on the heads of great diplomatists the laurels which they merit, and of which they have too long been robbed, and should give them as honorable a position upon their pages as they assign to great admirals and great captains. Let history do what she can to: perpetuate the fraternal relations of nations by glorifying the council chamber and the arbitrator at least as much as the field of battle and the warrior.
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