Little Known Facts About the Department of State: Diplomatic Couriers, Diplomatic and Consular Uniforms, Burning of Washington

Diplomatic Couriers

The earliest American diplomatic courier was Peter Parker, master of the brig Dispatch, who was commissioned by the Continental Congress on July 10, 1776, to deliver messages to Samuel Delap in Bordeaux. The letters, relating to obtaining military supplies from France, were weighted so that they could be thrown overboard in the event of capture.

The Department did not begin to hire couriers on a regular basis until World War I. Outgoing despatches would be entrusted to shipmasters, junior naval officers, or private citizens as necessary. "Bearers of despatches" were entitled to $6 per diem plus a travel allowance, payable by the Department upon completion of their mission. They also carried a special passport to certify their official character. One of the first such special couriers was a Post Office employee named Nat Crane, who left Savannah for London on May 24, 1819.

The Embassies in London and Paris became the first American diplomatic posts to hire full-time couriers in December 1914. At the end of the First World War, the American Commission to Negotiate Peace asked Major Amos J. Peaslee, who had organized a courier system for the Army, to perform a similar service for the Department. The Diplomatic Courier Service began operations in Paris on December 2, 1918, using military personnel. It was disbanded the next year when the Peace Commission concluded its activities, but 11 Marines and one civilian were then designated as couriers.

The Courier Service was disbanded again on July 30, 1933, as an economy measure. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered its reestablishment in 1934, while attending the London economic conference. The system was still based in Paris and had three regular couriers. By 1941 established service had been instituted to China, Japan, and the Americas. A regular system of worldwide schedules came into being after World War II. The emblem of the Diplomatic Courier Service is a golden eagle in flight. Its motto, "none is swifter than these," is taken from Herodotus' description of Persian couriers.

Diplomatic and Consular Uniforms

U.S. diplomats designed their own uniforms until 1817, when the State Department formally prescribed an official uniform for ministers based on one worn by U.S. delegates to the Conference of Ghent in 1814, which ended the War of 1812. In 1853, Secretary of State William L. Marcy issued a circular recommending that U.S. diplomats wear "the simple dress of an American citizen." But many foreign governments preferred that accredited diplomats wear a uniform at formal occasions. So the practice was left to the discretion and needs of the diplomat. In some cases, uniforms became quite elaborate. A consular uniform was prescribed in 1815, and a circular in 1838 reaffirmed that it should be worn for "visits of ceremony...and on all proper occasions." In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order directing that no person in the diplomatic or consular service should wear a uniform or official costume not previously authorized by Congress, something Congress never did. Uniforms are no longer worn by U.S. diplomats.

Burning of Washington

The home of the Department of State after 1801 was known merely as "the public building west of the President's house" and stood on the present site of the Old Executive Office Building at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. When British forces invaded Washington on August 24, 1814, this building was burned, along with the Capitol and the White House. While the Department's library was lost, Chief Clerk John Graham had already seen to the removal of many important records, including the originals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They were stored in a deserted gristmill on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, 2 miles above Georgetown, and were later moved to Leesburg, Virginia, until after the emergency.