A City of Firsts: Tracing the History of the Consular Corps Association of Philadelphia

By Krista Bard and Charles Becker

 Conrad_Alexandre_Gérard_portraitAs the epicenter of the American Revolution and the young nation’s capital, a major port and commercial hub, Philadelphia quickly won the moniker of “the city of firsts.”1

Almost every essential institution of modern America emerged here, ranging literally from A to Z – the first army to the first zoo.  In the 18th century, the city already boasted the first bank, daily newspaper, hospital, insurance company, law firm, medical school, patent, public library, post office, steamboat, stock exchange, trade show, turnpike, and the first foreign consul appointed to the United States.

It was only fitting that foreign emissaries were sent to the nation’s capital, and in March of 1778, it was France who sent Conrad Alexandre Gérard as the first Minister Plenipotentiary and General Consul, stationed in Philadelphia.  Before his arrival, Gérard had already conducted negotiations with American representatives Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, resulting in the signing of the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States on February 6, 1778.  Gérard sailed to America aboard the Comte d’Estaing’s flagship of the seventeen-ship battle fleet transporting four thousand French troops to support the Patriots.2

Gérard’s mission in Philadelphia was to nurture a more favorable sentiment towards France, his efforts including oral addresses to Congress, gift presentations, and developing relationships with writers, most notably Thomas Paine.  During his residence in America, he received the degree of LL.D. from Yale, and upon his return to France was made a Councilor of State.

In 1791, records show that several European countries had a consular or diplomatic presence in Philadelphia: France, Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, the United Netherlands, Sweden,3and the Republic of Genoa (which in 1861 would become part of the Kingdom of Italy).4

As the first foreign consuls to the newly formed nation were sent to Philadelphia, the decision to send the first US consuls and diplomats abroad was made here as well.  While the United States consular service was officially established by an Act of April 14, 1792, by that date George Washington had already appointed and dispatched seventeen consuls and five vice consuls.5

At that time, no formal consular association had been formed.  During the first years of the American republic, associations of any kind were met with distrust and resistance by the general public.  Fraternal organizations, such as the Freemasons and other informal clubs, like Benjamin Franklin’s famous Junto, did begin to appear; however, on the rare occasions when they sought to formalize their status – as did a group of Connecticut physicians who tried to form a medical society – their efforts were firmly rejected.  The crux of the issue was an ideological tension “posed by the Constitution, with its simultaneous commitments to majoritarian decision making and to inviolable individual rights.”6

As ambivalent as Americans initially were about voluntary associations, political and economic conditions compelled people to embrace them, with citizens coalescing openly in the pursuit of common ideas and causes.  By the 1830s, when French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States, public sentiment had shifted, and he wrote, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions” had formed associations in the pursuit of democratic goals like fraternity, liberty, and the right to self-rule – for “if it is proposed to inculcate some truth or foster some feeling by the encouragement of great example, they form a society.”7 The conditions ripe for a consular association were beginning to emerge.

Through the 19th century, foreign consular delegations sent to and from the United States steadily grew, with a preponderance of representation concentrated in port cities, given that the primary historic role of consuls was to promote commerce and trade.  The U.S. formalized its diplomatic and consular system by an Act on March 1, 1855, with parallel developments occurring worldwide.  As today, consuls were either foreign nationals or American citizens.  For example, beginning in 1820, the Kingdom of Sardinia had a consular office in Philadelphia.  When the new Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861, Philadelphia merchant Alonso Viti was asked to serve as Consul, and then in 1876 Count Geoffredo Galli was sent from Italy to serve as Consul.  Varying by country, some consuls received a salary, but many consuls often received their compensation in the form of fees received for the services they performed as merchants, lawyers, or shipping or notarial agents.8

Consular relations in Philadelphia followed this trend as well.  Though the capital had moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800, the city of Philadelphia, with its sea as well as inland transportation routes and nearby rich natural resources, emerged as a center of heavy industry and manufacturing in the 19th century.

With the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first World’s Fair to be held in the United States, Philadelphia won global acclaim as both a cosmopolitan and commercial hub.  Displays from 37 nations in over 250 pavilions 9 exhibited the industrial and technological progress of the age, like the first typewriter and Bell’s telephone.  Rosters of invitations include numerous foreign dignitaries and diplomats.  As noted in the city directory that year, there were 23 countries with consular representation.  A highlight of the event was President Ulysses S. Grant welcoming Emperor of Brazil Dom Pedro II to view the Corliss Steam Engine; Brazilian Consul Edward S. Sayres was present to receive them.

“For the first time, the Philadelphia world’s fair brought large numbers of foreign visitors to the United States for a single purpose, and they returned to their homes to make American efficiency and American machinery bywords for excellence.”10  This resurging international interest in the city corresponded with the growth of consular representation, and the creation of the consular corps itself.  After the enormous success of the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia’s character crystallized, witnessing an era of ensuing economic prosperity and social stability, and the concomitant creation of a multitude of associations, institutions and clubs.11

The first recorded mention of a “Consular Association” appears in the Public Ledger Almanac of 1888, published in Philadelphia in 1887 by George W. Childs.  The President of the Consular Association is noted as Edward Shippen, and the Secretary and Treasurer as Charles W. Matthews, with 30 member countries represented: “Argentina, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Brazil, Chili, Corea, Denmark, Ecuador, France, German Empire, Great Britain, Greece, Hayti, Honduras, Italy, Liberia, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Spain, St. Domingo, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela.”12

Consular Association President Edward Shippen (1821-1904) was a prominent Philadelphia attorney and served as the Consul to the Argentine Republic, Ecuador, and Chile.  Shippen was president of the Chilean Exposition at the Centennial Exhibition; a founder of the teachers’ institute and benevolent association; president of the board of public education; guardian of Japanese students while in the U.S. by appointment of the Mikado; and president of the art club.  For his aid to the Italian community, Shippen received the order of Cavaliere della Corona d’Italia.13

Consular Association Secretary and Treasurer Charles W. Matthews (1836-1891) was the son of a prominent Philadelphia physician, and served in the Civil War with distinction under General Negley.  Matthews began his business career with the mercantile firm of John B. Myers, and eventually started his own business as a successful iron broker.  Matthews was the Uruguayan Consul, a member of the Loyal Legion, Grand Army of the Republic, United Service Club, Union League and Free Masons.14

By 1897, the Congressional Record shows a total of 598 foreign consuls in the United States, representing 40 countries, stationed in a total of 101 cities.  The largest numbers of consuls were predictably appointed to serve in major metropolitan areas, and a primary constellation emerged, with Philadelphia now joined by New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston.  That same year, the Congressional Record also shows that 885 U.S. Consuls had been dispatched around the world, serving in 74 countries.15

Through the 20th century, the Philadelphia Consular Association incorporated structural changes as required by the evolving U.S. Tax Code, and it currently holds 501(c)3 status as a not-for-profit charitable organization.

Today, in the Consular Corps Association of Philadelphia, about thirty countries are officially represented.  Four members — Italy, Panama, Mexico, and Israel — have career diplomat Consuls, the remainingmembers being Honorary Consuls.

For example:

  • The Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region is one of nine Consulates that the Israeli government maintains in the United States, aside from its Embassy in Washington, D.C. Our office is in Philadelphia but covers all of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. The Consulate General is staffed by two career diplomats: a Consul General and Deputy Consul General, and by local American and Israeli staff consisting of five directors (academic affairs, arts and culture, community affairs, economic affairs and government and media affairs) and other staff dealing with social media, administration, security and consular affairs. The Consulate General works to foster friendship and stronger relations between Israel and the communities of our region.
  • Italy is very committed to the Philadelphia region, and it is the only European Union State that has constantly maintained a General Consul in Philadelphia since 1791. With a major presence in Philadelphia, the Italian Consulate has 7 States under its jurisdiction, with more than 3 million people of Italian ancestry. It has  a staff of 15 between Officers and employees, 4 Honorary Consuls (based in Baltimore, MD, Charlotte, NC, Norfolk, VA, and Pittsburgh, PA) reporting to the Consul General in Philadelphia that also oversees 7 Consular correspondents.
    Edward Shippen

The mission of the Association as a whole is to support its members in accomplishing their work: to facilitate educational, cultural, scientific and economic exchanges; to coordinate dignitary visits; and to assist foreign citizens.

The group meets regularly with federal, state and local elected officials as well as with other organizations addressing issues and events n the global arena, including: the airport, the port, academic think tanks, immigration and border protection, disease control, foreign direct investment, tourism, Twitter diplomacy, major conventions such as BIO International, and the World Meeting of Families and Papal Visit.

The individual projects of the corps members vary greatly.  For specific projects, please contact the respective consuls and consulates noted on the Consular Corps website www.consularcorpsofphiladelphia.org.

In his report for the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Dr. Kevin Stringer portends that “consular diplomacy is taking on an ever increasing importance in the globalized world and economy, and it may emerge as the more significant component of diplomatic power when compared to traditional diplomacy.”16  Worldwide, governments are recognizing that “Honorary Consuls are remarkably effective in advancing the country’s interests, at virtually no cost to the appointing country.”17  Appreciating this, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is pro-actively working in conjunction with the Consular Corps Association of Philadelphia to expand the Corps.  The Corps’ recent “How to Become an Honorary Consul” seminar with Global Philadelphia Association drew accolades, and there are over a dozen more countries now in various stages of establishing new consular appointments.

Footnotes

1 Morgan, G. 1926. The City of Firsts. Philadelphia: The Historical Publication Society.Print.
2 Meng, John J. 1939. Despatches and Instructions of Conrad Alexandre Gerard. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. [online]
3 Biddle, C. 1791. The Philadelphia Directory (2nd edition). Philadelphia: James & Johnson. [online] This first city directory lists 21 “Ministerial and Consular Appointments to the United States” representing six foreign nations: France, Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, the United Netherlands, and Sweden.
4 The Republic of Genoa appointed its Consul in October 1791, after the publication date of that year’s first city directory. U.S. Department of State.  Countries. Republic of Genoa. Office of the Historian. [online]
5 “Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State (Record Group 84)” National Archives [online].
6 Hall, P.D. 2006. “A Historical Overview of Philanthropy, Voluntary Associations, and the Nonprofit Organizations in the United States, 1600-2000.” [online]
7 Briscoe, S. 2007. “de Toqueville’s America: Revisited” Associations Now. American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). [online]
8 Curtis, W.E. 1892. The United States and Foreign Powers. Meadville, PA: Flood and Vincent. Print. p.27
9 Nagashybayeva, G. 2010.“1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia” Library of Congress. [online]
10 Barra Foundation. 1982. Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company. Print. p.469
11 Barra Foundation, op. cit. p.474
12 Childs, G.W. 1887. Public Ledger Almanac 1888. Philadelphia: Wescott & Thomson. [online]
13 Herringshaw, T.W. 1914. Herringshaw’s National Library of American Biography. Chicago: American Publishers Association. p.195 [online]
14 Williams, D. 1891. “Obituary: Charles W. Matthews” The Iron Age. Vol. 47, pp. 221 [online]
15 Coolidge, L.A. 1897. Official Congressional Directory. Wasington: Government Printing Office. pp. 265-301 [online]
16 Stringer, K.D. 2007. “Think Global, Act Local: Honorary Consuls in a Transforming Diplomatic World.” Discussion Papers in Diplomacy. The Clingendael Institute. [online] pp.1
17 Rana, K.S. The Contemporary Embassy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. Print. p.102

Works Cited

Barra Foundation. 1982. Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company. Print. pp.469-474

Biddle, C. 1791. The Philadelphia Directory (2nd edition). Philadelphia: James & Johnson. [online] Accessed via: https://archive.org/stream/philadelphiadire1791phil#page/n9/mode/2up [Date accessed Jul 31, 2014]

Briscoe, S. 2007. “de Toqueville’s America: Revisited” Associations Now. American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). accessed online via: <http://www.asaecenter.org/Resources/ANowDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=27937> [Date Accessed Jul 23 2014]

Childs, G.W. 1887. Public Ledger Almanac 1888. Philadelphia: Wescott & Thomson. [online]  Accessed online via: http://books.google.com/books?id=jF4TAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA69&lpg=PA69&dq=public+ledger+almanac+philadelphia+1887&source=bl&ots=tgh6A7PF_Q&sig=Uc4F0NKTjBCokXBsGohMviVbquQ&hl=en&sa=X&ei=GcrbU_y2MNi3yATinoH4DQ&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=public%20ledger%20almanac%20philadelphia%201887&f=false [Date Accessed Jul 31, 2014]

Coolidge, L.A. 1897. Official Congressional Directory. Wasington: Government Printing Office. pp. 265-301 [online] Accessed via: http://books.google.com/books?id=nyVHAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA287&dq=edward+shippen+consul+philadelphia&hl=en&sa=X&ei=8KLBU5fBIdCgyASv1oKwDg&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false [Date Accessed Jul 31, 2014]

Curtis, W.E. 1892. The United States and Foreign Powers. Meadville, PA: Flood and Vincent. Print. p.27

Hall, P.D. 2006. “A Historical Overview of Philanthropy, Voluntary Associations, and the Nonprofit Organizations in the United States, 1600-2000.” [Date Accessed Jul 23 2014] Accessed online via: <http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/phall/Powell%20Essay-Final%20-%20rev.pdf>

Herringshaw, T.W. 1914. Herringshaw’s National Library of American Biography. Chicago: American Publishers Association. p.195 Accessed online via: http://books.google.com/books?id=gMTTAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA195&dq=obituary+edward+shippen+esq+argentine,+chile+and+ecuador+consul&hl=en&sa=X&ei=uvXBU8GUCZG0yAS1moH4Dw&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=obituary%20edward%20shippen%20esq%20argentine%2C%20chile%20and%20ecuador%20consul&f=false  [Date accessed Jul 31 2014]

Meng, John J. 1939. Despatches and Instructions of Conrad Alexandre Gerard. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. [online] Accessed via: <https://archive.org/details/despatchesinstru00fran> [Date Accessed: Jul 31, 2014]

Morgan, G. 1926. The City of Firsts. Philadelphia: The Historical Publication Society. Print.

Nagashybayeva, G. 2010.“1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia” Library of Congress. [Date Accessed: Jul 23 2014] accessed online via: http://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2010/05/1876-centennial-exhibition-philadelphia/

Rana, K.S. The Contemporary Embassy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. Print. p.102

“Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State (Record Group 84)” National Archives. n.d. [online]. Archives.org [Date accessed Jul 23 2014] Accessed via:  <http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/084.html>
“Republic of Genoa* – Countries – Office of the Historian.” Republic of Genoa* – Countries – Office of the Historian. Web. [Date Accessed Dec 1 2014] accessed online via: <https://history.state.gov/countries/genoa>.

Stringer, K.D. 2007. “Think Global, Act Local: Honorary Consuls in a Transforming Diplomatic World.” Discussion Papers in Diplomacy. The Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’. pp.1 [Date Accessed Jul 23 2014] Accessed online via: <http://www.clingendael.nl/publication/think-global-act-local-honorary-consuls-transforming-diplomatic-world>

Williams, D. 1891. “Obituary: Charles W. Matthews” The Iron Age. Vol. 47, p. 221 [online] http://books.google.com/books?id=AaI-AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA221&lpg=PA221&dq=charles+w.+matthews+consul+uruguay+obituary&source=bl&ots=VslQicZ6MY&sig=Hy_39RI3rt8G6cemm7aPQ4wLO5c&hl=en&sa=X&ei=FP7BU-WLK5KTyATu2oDABA&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=charles%20w.%20matthews%20consul%20uruguay%20obituary&f=false

Authors:
Krista Bard is Honorary Consul of the Republic of Lithuania, former President of the Consular Corps Association of Philadelphia, a business consultant specializing in cross-border transactions, and an artist.
Charles Becker is an international relations major at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and scholar-in-residence with the Consular Corps of Philadelphia.