This evening Diplomats and Consular Officers, Retired or “DACOR” honors one particular consul, Peter Strickland, appointed by President Chester Arthur in 1883. He served in one post for 23 years, and retired in 1905, under President Teddy Roosevelt.
At the outset of my research before writing the first biography of Strickland, I had the notion that he might have set some record being a consul for over 23 years in one post. These days such longevity would be unconceivable. Far from it. The Office of the Historian of the State Dept set me straight: Horatio Jones Sprague served as consul to Gibraltar from 1848 until 1901: 53 years.
The US consular Service was established in 1792, as a branch of the State Dept, to promote American commerce and protect American interests abroad. 91 years later, the Connecticut Yankee and sea captain Peter Strickland opened the first US consulate in French West Africa, in the French colony of Senegal, on the island of Goree.
Geographically, Strickland was in Africa, administratively he was in France. His hierarchical boss might have been the American Minister to France at the time, Levi Parsons Morton.
Strickland mistakenly sent his first dispatch to Paris, and then read the 600 pages of the consular regulations more attentively and ascertained that he should send them to the Assistant Secretary of State.
Strickland wrote a total of 272 dispatches to Washington. They are all available at the National Archives and you can order them on microfilm as I did 6 years ago when I was working for USAID in El Salvador and began my research for this book.
While Strickland is important as one of our early consuls, I consider him equally important as a sea captain and a merchant, and finally as a diarist. He crossed the Atlantic over one hundred times in charge of a sailing vessel. In his initial trip to Senegal in 1864, he loaded his vessel with leaf tobacco from Tennessee and Kentucky and with wood products from New England. He brought back to Boston in the leaky hold of those same vessels peanuts and animal hides. The hides were used to manufacture shoes for Union soldiers near the end of the Civil War.
At age 19, Strickland started a daily journal. His last entry was at age 83. Please raise your hand if you know of someone else who kept a diary for 64 years.
Although I have enjoyed reading many biographies, I truly had no idea how to set about writing one. In this room a few years ago some kind soul told me for the first time about the “Washington Biography Group.”
Not a reading or book club, this is a support group, some of whose members are here tonight. The director of the Portrait Gallery Marc Pachter has led this group since its founding 20 years ago. He graciously invites three categories of people to monthly meetings held in a Russian dacha on the grounds of the Washington International School:
1. People who are writing biographies
2. People who like to talk about writing biographies
3. People who consider themselves in danger of becoming the subject of a biography.
Some of the group have had problems dealing with heirs of their subject regarding access to personal letters. In the Strickland case there are no family heirs. Although Peter Strickland and his wife Mary Louise had four children, none married and the line died out. While that situation may have eased future access to documents, it also meant that there was no known repository of a lot of Strickland memorabilia, like the stuffed crocodile, six ostrich eggs, and half ton of decorative objects he brought back from Africa.
I want to read you one brief diary entry from 1864. Strickland was 27 years old.
One month ago today I left my home in New London to go I then knew not whither but I now find it was for Africa. It does not seem so long but time in certain circumstances flies very quickly. To look ahead, a lifetime seems a long period and in some cases it may no doubt seem long. But if I am permitted to live to old age, and look back on my lifetime as I do now and in the same light I shall no doubt think it has been short. I shall think how “like a hurried dream” it has all been.
I hope you will enjoy hearing and reading about Peter Strickland’s hurried dream.”