I SUPPOSE a man can hardly be American Minister in London without contracting something of the aristocratic feeling. The disease is in the air. Everything fosters the delusion that he belongs to the oligarchy. His precedence is defined; he has his place in every pageant or parade; he is called "His Excellency;" his carriage need not stand in the rank at balls, but drives magnificently by all the lesser nobility, who fall back to let him pass. He even enters the ambassadors' door at court. The sturdiest republican soon gets used to the deference, and comes to think it appropriate as well as agreeable. I heard one of our ministers say he would rather be an English duke than anything else on earth, and another declare that England is the only country in which a gentleman should either live or die. They flatter themselves that their tendencies and tastes are English, but it is aristocratic English only; none of them want to belong to the middle class. Whenever they can, they claim connection with the aristocracy, happy if they can trace a pedigree to some ignoble offshoot of a noble house, which repudiates as often as it admits the consanguinity; or prouder of a descent from a country squire who had a coat of arms than to bear American names that genius has made illustrious.

'Tis strange the effect the contact has. There have been American Ministers at London as punctilious, as exacting, as regardless of courtesy when mere etiquette was in question, as any of their colleagues in the corps. I have known them wear knee-breeches at church when every one else was in plain clothes, and insist on their precedence with all the pertinacity of peeresses or parvenus. There was once a question of the rank of the daughters of diplomatists. Several of the ambassadors and envoys were widowers, and in society their unmarried daughters had long been allowed the precedence accorded to wives. But at last the wives demurred, and the mighty matter was referred to the sovereign. Before the decision came I heard an American Minister say to his wife: "If those girls attempt to pass before you, I order you to push them back." The Queen, however, spoke in time, and there was no necessity for so high-handed a vindication of democratic claims. The daughters of a diplomatist, it was decreed, possess no rank at court. If they have a mother, they follow her; if not, they must attend some other diplomatic matron, of whose suite or family they are supposed, for the occasion, to form a part.

All daughters but her own, indeed, receive rigorous measure from the Queen ; and against diplomatic daughters she seems to bear almost a special grudge, refusing them the privileges accorded to daughters whose rank is derived from birth. Perhaps this springs from the English sentiment that official rank is insignificant. Diplomatic precedence is, in royal eyes, the mere fringe of office; not, like inherited precedence, a permanent superiority the essential and integral appurtenance of rank that is not acquired. English diplomatists themselves lose all their official precedence the moment they set foot in England. Sir Edward Thornton, when he went to court, after representing Her Majesty for years in Washington, was only a knight of recent creation. He did not even belong to the aristocracy, and took his place far down the line a very worthy person who had risen from the middle class.

Some years ago an American Minister had several daughters living with him, one of whom was a widow. This lady was invited to one court ball with her father and his family, but for the second she received no card. The minister, supposing the omission accidental, sent to the Lord Chamberlain to have it rectified. But the court functionaries explained that the exclusion was designed. One invitation had been sent to the lady out of compliment to her father, but she must not expect to be admitted every time. Having married, she had left her father's family, in the estimation of the Queen. For all these rules are the express determination of the sovereign the fruit of calm, ripe judgment and profound deliberation on her part.

The American envoys are usually very much disgusted because they are not ambassadors, for many privileges are accorded to these highest potentates of diplomacy that are not conceded to mere ministers. It is ambassadors only who can claim the title of Excellency ; to others it is given by courtesy alone. Ambassadors only have a right to demand an interview with the sovereign; and on the few occasions when the Queen still entertains in person and in state, at royal weddings or ceremonial funerals, her diplomatic invitations are restricted to ambassadors and to the representatives of such sovereigns as are connections of her family. This, of course, always excludes the American Minister, who sometimes never goes to Windsor except to present his credentials and his recall. But, more humiliating still, a minister may wait an hour at the Foreign Office for an interview with the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and at the end of the hour see an ambassador arrive and go in before him. The, representatives of the great republic feel that these tilings should not be ; that the dignity of the United States requires that its diplomatic servants should have equal standing with those of any other power. And it is hard to say that they are wrong. If we maintain a representative at a court where these rules prevail, we should for our own sake insure him proper consideration. The Minister of the United States should not be thrust back because of lower rank by the representative of any petty State that happens to keep an ambassador.

But the ministers sometimes show more feeling on this subject than comports with the station that they fill. One of them begged a British Secretary for Foreign Affairs to address our Government, and request the elevation of the American legation into an embassy. He was so pertinacious in his applications that the Englishman complained of them in society ; a fact that did not add to the dignity which the envoy w r as so anxious to maintain.

I have said that the ministers become punctilious. One of them was dining at an American house, and as he took his hostess down to dinner she asked him if he would consent to sit on her left at table, so that she might arrange her guests, only eight or ten in number, more agreeably. But the inflexible republican replied : "Do you know that I outrank a duke?" a supererogatory illustration, for their were no dukes at dinner. So the poor little lady's table was disarranged, but the American Minister maintained his place. The worst of it was, he was wrong in his etiquette. By express determination of Her Majesty, foreign envoys follow dukes. But our countryman was new at his post, and doubtless learned his lesson better afterward. If he didn't, the dukes soon told him.

A minister, indeed, must often shudder when he remembers the blunders he has made. One of our representatives on the Continent who later thought himself an authority on ceremonies, in the early days of his exaltation kindly left a card on the King, whereupon His Majesty remarked that he had been told Americans were sometimes unmindful of forms, but this one had paid him an honor he had never before received.

But not every American representative is so absorbed in the sense of his own consequence as to forget or neglect politeness for punctilio. While General Schenck was Minister to England, Mr. Reverdy Johnson, who had held the same position not very long before, was visiting London, and both gentlemen dined with me on the same evening. Before we went in to dinner, General Schenck particularly requested that I would give Mr. Johnson precedence. His predecessor was old, and had, of course, been used to taking the first place, and the General wished to show him deference. This graceful act was prompted by sheer good breeding, not indifference ; for I had expected to invite a Cardinal for the same evening, and inquired of General Schenck about the precedence. He said that, as American Minister, he could not waive his rank in favor of a prelate who, though a prince in the Church of Koine, had no recognized place according to English rules.

Mr. Pierrepont, also, always waived his rank in favor of General Grant, and this was not entirely a work of supererogation. Many Englishmen otherwise would have placed the actual representative of the United States before the ex-President. At a dinner at Kensington Palace, where Lord Lome was host, he inquired of Mr. Pierrepont, before the guests were arranged, whether he waived his rank in favor of General Grant.

For in the country to which he is accredited, a diplomatic representative takes precedence even of a member of the Government that he serves. Mr. Motley told me that, when he was minister at Yienna, before the days of the German empire, he once had Bismarck and the Prussian ambassador both at dinner. Bismarck was chief of the Foreign Office in Berlin at the time, and the question of precedence was raised, but settled in favor of the ambassador, and Bismarck followed his own subordinate.

All is not happiness at foreign courts. The ministers' families have their own difficulties. They always want to snub the wives of the Secretaries of legation, and the Secretaries' wives, being good Americans, won't stand the snubbing. I recollect one 'who offered to matronize the daughter of a widowed minister, and the shock which the proposal created was not surprising to one familiar with the workings of the feminine mind. I think myself the offer was mere bravado. The same lady has since been a minister's wife herself, and I doubt not she made her Secretaries' wives know their place. There are no sticklers for subordination like servants who have passed through the degrees, and no such disciplinarians in the army as officers who have risen from the ranks.

Secretaries of legation, indeed, are a frequent source of trouble. The ministers have not their choice of them, as a rule. They must take whomsoever the Washington officials send. One veteran in etiquette had a Western editor inflicted on him, who went to court without a waistcoat, and, of course, was turned away. And the minister was a Bostonian!

There are other trials still for the luckless representative. I have already described the struggles of Americans determined to go to court. But some of our compatriots are not content with palatial hospitalities ; they want invitations to private houses, too, and expect their minister to provide them. One gentleman, not altogether unknown on this side of the Atlantic, after reading the list of private parties printed every Monday in the Morning Post to refresh the memory of the aristocrats, cut out the catalogue and enclosed it to the minister, and requested "tickets" for the entire schedule.

But the worst troubles of the ministers are about their clothes. Some years ago, Congress established a rule that the diplomatic representatives of the United States should wear no uniform whatever not prescribed by law. Up to that time, our ministers abroad had worn a suitable enough sort of dress which made them look somewhat like other people at court ; not conspicuous by plainness, nor ostentatious from ornament. There was no authority for the custom, but none against it, until some rampant republican declared it unworthy of a State without a King to deck its ministers in foreign frippery, and the law prohibiting diplomatic uniforms was passed.

The envoy at the Court of St. James was informed of the rule, and he, in his turn, notified the English Secretary for Foreign Affairs. An elaborate correspondence thereupon ensued, which was submitted to the Queen herself, and a compromise was finally agreed upon, to the effect that at levees the United States Minister and the members of his legation would be received in ordinary evening dress, but at drawing-rooms and at court balls and concerts they were to wear knee-breeches and swords. This was approved by the Secretary of State for the time being, and has since been the rule, but it is in positive violation of the law. The ministers, however, dislike very much to go without a uniform. They are conspicuous in their plain clothes, and are, in fact, the only people but the court newsman without a court dress, and they conform to the violation unscrupulously. Some years ago, one of them had a right to wear a military uniform, and he has been the envy of all his successors since.

The Queen, nevertheless, was entirely in the wrong in deciding upon the dress of a foreign envoy. She receives the Turkish Ambassador in his trousers and fez, because this is the costume in which he presents himself to his own sovereign, and she has no right to make the American Minister show his legs. If the United States Government should peremptorily forbid its representatives to appear at balls and concerts unless in the dress they wear at the levees of the President, Her Majesty would be obliged to yield. The ambassador who carried his whole retinue to court, in spite of the rules, succeeded ; and whenever our ministers show similar pluck, they will win a similar victory.

It is true there seems as much reason why a uniform should be worn by officers in the diplomatic service as by those in the army and navy. All alike may be called upon to represent their country abroad. But having taken a national stand, it is not becoming to recede from it. The simplicity of the rule is not only significant of republican feeling, but in accordance with all modern tendencies. Foreigners have become familiar with the fashion, and many approve it. While Mr. Pierrepont was Minister at London he attended an opening of Parliament in plain clothes, and the London press declared that the simple dignity of his appearance contrasted favorably with the gorgeous array of barbaric envoys and European ambassadors. The Japanese and some of the South American legations have already adopted the simpler mode, and when President Grevy, of the French republic, first received the diplomatic corps they presented themselves in frock coats and trousers, out of deference to the democratic idea. On the whole, it might be well for the State Department to insist that its subordinates should obey the law. [As Written]

Aristocracy In England by Adam Badeau - New York Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square 1886, Copyright, 1885, 1886 div

AVictorian.Com © 1997-Present