The Banality of the State

Simeon A. Simeonov

Consulship has always been something of an arcanum, attracting a specific type of person interested in living abroad, fulfilling an idiosyncratic set of functions, and risking a plunge into utter oblivion. “They want to send me abroad, as a Consul or a Minister,” Mark Twain complained in a letter to Jane Clemens. “I said I didn’t want any of the pie. God knows I am mean enough and lazy enough, now without being a foreign consul.”[1]

We can hardly blame Twain for his predisposition. News of corrupt, indigent, scheming, or outright lazy consuls filled the U.S. press throughout the nineteenth century. If one based his or her own perception of what the institution was on these newspaper reports—as antebellum Americans often did—one might think that consulship was all about wasting public money in all sorts of frauds, plots, or public banquets. Rarely did the newspapers of the period report on consuls’ mundane work in facilitating licit commerce, assisting Americans in foreign lands, helping them obtain passports, or issuing their marriage or death certificates.

Daguerreotype of Nathaniel Hawthorne by John Adams Whipple, 1848.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The work of the consul could be very tedious and monotonous indeed, driving those U.S. citizens with creative talents into sheer despair and exasperation. From his consular station in Liverpool, no other than Nathaniel Hawthorne reported, “I don’t know what Sophia [Hawthorne’s wife] may have said about my conduct in the Consulate. I only know that I have done no good; none whatever.”[2] Hawthorne doubtlessly exaggerated, for just months prior, he had assisted U.S. sailors in obtaining safe passage home. Hawthorne’s and Twain’s perception of the consulate as a dead end in their artistic careers also belied the fact that this institution enabled U.S. citizens to pursue educational travel, artistic acquisition—and sometimes the outright plunder of antiquities—at some of the major centers of European art and culture.[3]

Not content with simply taking Twain’s, Hawthorne’s and their antebellum contemporaries’ hostility toward consulship at face value, my research investigates the way in which consuls—the representatives of one state within the boundaries of another—helped shape the modern world. How were these obscure state agents in faraway locales able to negotiate the exercise of foreign jurisdiction within the boundaries of the nation‒state, an entity that ostensibly enjoyed a monopoly on power over its territory?[4] Consuls’ everyday work simply belied the fiction of the state as a monolithic territorial entity. From their standardization of the passport to their integration of reciprocal commercial agreements; from their reports on foreign geographies to their observation of troop movements and naval strength; from their negotiation of tariffs to their legal intercessions on behalf of impressed, imprisoned, or enslaved nationals; consuls transcended the limits of the nation‒state and helped cohere a modern system of Atlantic governance. The routine work of consuls, far from the uneventful and dull chore it represented to Twain and Hawthorne, was in fact an engine of everyday bureaucratic negotiation between old imperial powers, aspiring Atlantic nation‒states, and their respective subjects and citizens.

To show just how important consuls were to the shaping of modern citizenship, sovereignty, and international law, my project moves back and forth across the Atlantic as it explores the transformations in consular practices wrought by revolutionary and counter-revolutionary processes in places such as the United States, the Caribbean, Spanish America, Brazil, the West African coast, and the European Atlantic powers. It is through their ordinary work at the “capillaries” of empire and the nation‒state that consuls helped entangle these disparate geographies.[5] As I argue in my recent JER article, conceiving of consuls in this way enables us to see how these officials integrated the world of empire-building and “high” diplomacy with that of distressed migrants and travelers in search of justice, subsistence, or entrepreneurial opportunities.

Writing an Atlantic history of modern consulship is no easy task, and to do this, my research blends insights from new diplomatic history, the study of slavery and capitalism, the development of the early American state, and the history of empire into an approach I call “new institutional”—or trans-institutional—history. Adopting this methodology allows me to analyze the consular institution holistically, as one among many components gradually coalescing into a state apparatus and an interstate infrastructure. This method also enables me to embed the consuls—almost exclusively elite white men—within a larger sociopolitical and cultural context, tracing the lives of individuals who engaged and disengaged the consular institution in their quests for capital and citizenship rights and in their pursuit of freedom in a world dominated by the presence and specter of empire.

Excavating thousands of similar stories across four continents enables me to recover a peculiar pragmatic aesthetics to the consular state Hawthorne and Twain so passionately detested. This everyday state within another state was undoubtedly somewhat of an oddity in an age of nationalism and laissez-faire. Its imminent obsolescence was perhaps what captivated most: How could the medieval concept of an independent merchant court—or was it a guild?[6]—coexist with a modern bureaucratic state, much less evolve into the first global bureaucracy? Yet this is precisely what happened over the course of merely half a century, and, if we are to take seriously the question of how our states became global, it is about time to understand why.


[1] Mark Twain to Jane Clemens, Feb. 6, 1868, in Letters of Mark Twain: With a Biographical Sketch and Commentary, ed. Albert B. Paine (London, 1920), 102.

[2] Cf. Bill Ellis, “Hawthorne’s Last Day at the Consulate: ‘To Think of Doing Good,’” Studies in the American Renaissance (1991), 245‒56.

[3] Cf. Amanda Claybaugh, “The Consular Service and US Literature: Nathaniel Hawthorne Abroad,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 42, no. 2 (2009), 284‒89.

[4] For this influential definition of the state, see Max Weber, Essays in Sociology, ed. Hans Heinrich Gerth and Charles Wright Mills (New York, 1946), 78.

[5] On “capillary power,” see Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended,” in Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975‒76, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana (New York, 2003), 27, 29.

[6] For a similar contention, see Fidel J. Tavárez, “Colonial Economic Improvement: How Spain Created New Consulados to Preserve and Develop Its American Empire, 1778–1795,” Hispanic American Historical Review 98, no. 4 (2018), 605–34.

3 March 2020

About the Author

Simeon A. Simeonov is a Ph.D. Candidate at Brown University.

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