A Brief Introduction to the US Consular Service

The US Consular Service (USCS) was one of three major divisions within the Department of State. The central office staff, including the secretary of state, worked from Washington, collecting information from the field and attempting to garner domestic support for presidential foreign policy. The diplomatic corps dealt with the “high politics” of negotiation and representation; its members were posted to capital cities. Consular officials facilitated trade and protected the lives and property of US citizens abroad; their tasks were myriad, and they carried them out wherever there was need, often in port cities. When the USCS was at its peak size in 1895, there were approximately 90 people working at the State Department in Washington, including messengers and custodial staff; there were just over 40 diplomatic posts, and just under 800 consular posts. In 1924, the diplomatic corps and consular service were combined into the US Foreign Service (USFS), and various consular duties were distributed across various career tracks within the USFS. The US government began closing consular posts and offering those services out of their growing number of embassies abroad. Today, there are approximately 310 Foreign Service posts.

Consular officials did all sorts of things. Not only did they facilitate trade, but they negotiated for improved trade agreements, answered a wide variety of queries about the host country for people back in the United States and vice versa, represented the US government at various social and ceremonial functions, aided destitute, ill, and orphaned Americans abroad, handled a variety of estate and inheritance issues, interrogated witnesses for American courts, searched for fugitives from the law, helped smooth over disputes between American tourists and local businessmen, evacuated US citizens and other neutrals during crises, protected naturalized US citizens from compulsory military service in their country of birth, represented US citizens’ legal interests in host-country court proceedings, worked to reunite deserted women and children with husbands and fathers who had begun new lives and families in the United States, and helped to screen potential immigrants. US consuls all over the world engaged in similar activities, and at some posts did even more. In China, consuls operated the extraterritorial legal system, and in imperial settings, they were often deeply involved in politics, especially in times of crisis and revolution. There could only be one legation or embassy per country—indeed, per empire—but there were rarely limits on the number of consular posts in a given country, and so consuls were the ones on the ground in the colonies. They could be directly involved in local politics and served as the channel of communication between officials in Washington and insurrectionists, as they did in the Haitian and Cuban revolutions, for example; arguably, they had much greater influence and importance than their colleagues in the diplomatic corps, who were limited to a removed presence in Paris and Madrid. All consular activities required significant diplomatic skill, and in many cases they also required the consul to determine whether an individual was really a citizen and therefore entitled to consular protection, since passports were rarely required for foreign travel. The stakes in these cases were often very high—if not for the United States as a whole, then for the individuals involved in any given situation.