To Fix a National Character: The United States in the First Barbary War, 1800-1805

At long last, my first monograph is available for pre-order! You can buy it through Johns Hopkins UP (the publisher) or any number of other establishments that sell books.

It’s a book about the First Barbary War, and how the United States tried to use its conflicts with the Barbary states to enter the Mediterranean community. It’s about how defeating Tripoli was less important than making nice with the Europeans in the area. It’s about how the brand-new US Navy and the brand-new consular service worked in concert—or in contention—with each other, trying to achieve similar goals with very little coordination or common instruction from the federal government.

There are stories of battles and captures, of duels and backstabbing, of impossible missions and unlikely friendships. There are some characters you will love to hate. There are some characters whose reputation needs a little rehabilitation. Lots of characters don’t live up to their potential, but some do. There are sad stories of death and loss, and there are triumphant stories of success against the odds.

In the end, the First Barbary War was a deeply unsatisfying war for the American combatants. Very little was achieved on a national scale, though individuals in the war capitalized later on the lessons they learned. So this book focuses on the small stories that made up a small war.

If you like the navy, or early American history, or diplomacy, or maritime history, maybe you should buy this book. 🙂

If you would like me to come give a talk about my book, whether live, on a podcast, or through some other venue, please reach out as well!

Government Shutdowns as Class Activity

On two occasions this semester, faculty at my institution had to grapple with the possibility that if the government shut down, all civilian faculty would be furloughed for an indeterminate amount of time, while our students continued to come to class. So we had to create contingency plans for our students to mitigate learning loss as much as possible. Before the first shutdown threat, I created a meta-activity for my students in HH200: The Historian’s Craft, the first of our sequence of seminars for our history majors. I constructed an activity whereby over the course of 7 or 8 class days, they would research every single government shutdown that has happened in the United States and then write about each one. Then they would put their writeups and their collected metadata into a TimelineJS timeline and build themselves a digital project.

As it turned out, the government did not shut down either time the possibility loomed. But I decided that we were going to do the shutdown project anyway, under my supervision but otherwise just like they would have done during a shutdown: no out-of-class work, only working on it during our normal meeting time. I wanted to do this for a few pedagogical reasons:

  1. I wanted to see how they did research online. This has been an interest of mine for a while now, and I was curious to see if these history majors went about research differently from my freshmen. (Largely, they don’t.)
  2. I wanted to force them to think with specificity about causality, context, and contingency. I asked them to identify all the relevant Congresspeople, as well as the reasons for the shutdown and the way the shutdowns were ended. Many of them expressed repeated surprise about how the government works (or worked) and what kinds of things would hold up an entire government’s budget approval process. This project complicated their understanding of what a democratic government looks like and how it functions (or doesn’t function).
  3. I wanted to help them move from a specific event to a broader understanding of principles and themes. Each of them worked on one or two shutdowns, providing all the information I asked of them in a spreadsheet generated by one of the students. Once the spreadsheet was filled out, before we made the timeline, I asked them to look at all the information and identify trends or surprises. They did a really good job of coming up with continuities and contrasts across the entire 50-year swath of shutdowns.
  4. I wanted to see if they could follow directions and edit themselves. Once they had put all their information into the spreadsheet, we talked about how to regularize data (e.g., do you call Tip O’Neill “Tip O’Neill,” which is how everyone refers to him, or do you call him “Thomas O’Neill,” his actual name?). And we talked about why these kinds of questions are more than just a flip of a coin—choosing how to represent things is important. Additionally, TimelineJS is extremely user-friendly but you do have to follow the directions precisely in order for the timeline to populate.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. There are some inconsistencies, of course, but the students worked hard and came up with a fairly detailed timeline! Here’s the final result.

The Many Vicissitudes of Wadsworth and Co.

This semester the Naval History and Heritage Command made a site visit to USNA. In conjunction with that visit, I gave a talk at the USNA Museum about one of my favorite characters in my research on the First Barbary War: Henry Wadsworth. This post is a lightly edited version of that talk. I intend to return to Wadsworth and his family once the main book is finished, perhaps fleshing this piece out into a more scholarly article or more likely, a more creative storytelling project.


If you look just down the way from Preble Hall, in between Sampson Hall and the Officers’ Club, you’ll see a big monument. Around here we call that monument the Tripoli Monument, and it commemorates the noble dead of the First Barbary War. By no means does it have the names of all those who died during the war—in fact we’re going to talk about a few whose names are conspicuously absent. It only records the names of those who died in battle or in the service of their duties. The memorials tell us only one thing about the men whose names are there—that they died. I want to tell you about the life of one of those men. His name was Henry Wadsworth, and when he died, he might have been a midshipman—or he might have been a lieutenant—and I’m happy to talk later about how it’s possible that we don’t know.

Henry Wadsworth came from an illustrious family in Maine. His father Peleg was a general during the American Revolution, and he was a Congressman from the state of Massachusetts starting in 1793.[1] If the name Henry Wadsworth sounds familiar, it might be because his nephew—and namesake—was the famed American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And our Henry shared a bit of his nephew’s literary flair. Henry Wadsworth joined the navy in 1799, and he spent some time in the Caribbean serving under Captain James Sever. He was 17 years old when he was assigned to the USS Chesapeake, under Commodore Richard Valentine Morris, in 1802. The Chesapeake’s destination was the Mediterranean, and its mission was to fight against Tripoli.

This is where I want to pick up Wadsworth’s story. He began writing a journal/letterbook when he reached Gibraltar on June 15, 1802. I want to shout out Kate Hanson Plass, the archivist at the Longfellow House National Historic Site, who digitized the entire journal and letterbook just for me (from which almost all of the information in this talk is taken).

From 1802 to 1804, Wadsworth wrote letters back to his family with a tremendous amount of detail about his surroundings and his feelings about those surroundings. He also made several sketches and watercolor paintings in the journal. He recorded the battles and conflicts, as you might expect, but he didn’t keep close accounting of the ship’s location or the wind speeds or the depth of the ocean, as you would expect from the official journal of a midshipman. This journal and series of letters that he wrote back to his family were meant to connect him to the things he knew and held dear. They were, for him, lifelines to home. In their pages, we find a picture of an interconnected and sophisticated space in the Mediterranean, told through the eyes of an immature kid who doesn’t always see the complexities of his situation.

Today I want to talk to you about the many vicissitudes of Wadsworth and Company. There were many high points of his career in the navy. He was one of the few officers who served without interruption under two different commodores, and the ones he served under happen to be the polar opposite of each other. He enjoyed his time in the Mediterranean under both commodores, and his enchantment with certain aspects of his life comes through loud and clear. But there were also low points in his time in the Mediterranean—though he doesn’t always see them as low points. So I want to tell you about some of these highs and lows, and think about what we can learn both about the First Barbary War and the way Americans saw themselves in the world.

Let’s start with the vicissitudes of Wadsworth’s community. I’ll not go into detail about exactly what the community of an American squadron in the Mediterranean looks like. Wadsworth shipped out on the USS Chesapeake, the flagship of the second squadron bound for the Mediterranean. Though US naval ships had a tightly circumscribed and hierarchical community, the captain, Richard Valentine Morris, disrupted the community from the beginning. He brought his wife and his two-year-old son Gerard on board. Mrs. Morris was a subject of fascination for Wadsworth—he wrote about her several times, and he described her in glowing terms: “All the virtues which constitute the chief loveliness of your sex” (he’s writing to his sister) “are in her conspicuous”—her love of learning, her interest in domestic affairs. And yet he can’t help himself: “her person is not beautiful, or even handsome, but she looks very well in a veil.”

But the Commodoress, as Wadsworth called her, wasn’t the only woman on board, and here we come to one of the highlights of Wadsworth’s community: the birth of a child. On February 22, 1803, he wrote that “Mrs. Low (wife to James Low Captain of the Forecastle) bore a Son in the boatswain’s store room: on the 31st inst. The babe was baptiz’d in the Midshipmen’s apartment”—that’s where Wadsworth himself would have bunked. “The Contriver of this business was Melanchthon Taylor Woolsey a Mid: who stood Godfather on the occasion & provided a handsome collation of Wine & Fruit…the child’s name Melanchthon Woolsey Low; All was conducted with due decorum and decency, no doubt to the great satisfaction of the parents, as Mr. Woolsey’s attention to them must in some measure have ameliorated the unhappy situation of the Lady, who was so unfortunate as to conceive and bare, on the Salt Sea.”

The museum collections include a portrait of Melanchthon Brooks Woolsey, the son of our Melanchthon Woolsey. This Melanchthon Woolsey was also a naval officer, following in the footsteps of his father. Our Melanchthon was a midshipman on the Chesapeake who, I’m guessing, unexpectedly found himself throwing a christening party on board. While having women on board ship—and even giving birth on ship—wasn’t totally unheard of, this ship is the only one I know of in any of the squadrons where there were multiple women of all classes on board. Morris had to get special permission from the Secretary of the Navy to bring his wife on board, but we don’t know whether that was true for the carpenter, the boatswain, the corporal, and of course James Low, the captain of the forecastle, who also brought their wives on board.

The ship wasn’t the only community that Wadsworth was a part of. The Chesapeake was the flagship of a six-ship squadron, and Wadsworth kept tabs on the lows of the community as well as the highs. In the month of October 1802, he recorded five deaths in the squadron. Four were from accident—a boat from the USS Enterprize overturned and the four men in it were drowned near Livorno. The other death was from a duel: a lieutenant on board the Constellation killed the captain of the Constellation’s marines, Captain McKnight. Wadsworth has little to say about this death, but the captain of the Constellation, Alexander Murray, was more voluble about the hazards of dueling. “The unhappy catastrophy, of Capt McKnight, who was a very deserving Officer, tho rather irritable, induces me to wish that an article might be incerted in the regulations for the Navy, rendering every Officer liable to heavy penalties, & even to loss of his Commission, for giving or receiving a Challange, & also the seconds, for aiding & abetting in such unwarrantable acts, especially upon Foreign Service, I woud even extend it further, & make every Officer Amenable to such penalties, if they did not make their Commander acquainted with events of that serious nature, for had I have had the least hint of the meeting, I coud have prevented it, & saved a worthy Member to his family, & Country.”[2] Murray didn’t get his wish—duelling remained in the navy for half a century. Historian Charles Oscar Paullin puts the last duel of the navy in 1849; between 1799 and 1848, he says, “the mortality of naval officers resulting from duels was two-thirds that resulting from naval wars.”[3] And this duel in October 1802 was one of three that Wadsworth had a personal connection to.

I could go on for a while about the vicissitudes of Wadsworth’s community—including Wadsworth’s unflattering descriptions of his fellow midshipmen, his closest associates but certainly not his friends. But for Wadsworth, this tour in the Mediterranean was about more than just his closest community. He wanted to see the sights, to feel like a part of something bigger, both temporal and geographical. Every time he had the chance, he went out to tour the country wherever his ship was docked. He quoted extensively from guidebooks he read, and he invoked ancient stories of the history of the places he went.

Wadsworth was a very educated young man, and he seems to have wished to bring his education to bear on his naval career. For instance, when the Chesapeake passed within view of Carthage, he lamented that he could not take a boat to shore and explore the ruins. He noted that some of the crew from the USS Enterprize had done just that, but they had almost been captured and held to ransom, so it was deemed unsafe for any other Americans. Perhaps it was the crew of the Enterprize or a similar excursion who brought back the jar helpfully labeled “Ruins of Carthage” that resides in the museum’s collections. I’m sure Wadsworth was jealous that he wasn’t the one to acquire those ruins.

The young midshipman did not miss his chance to take other souvenirs, however. On many occasions, he visited religious sites with his friend Lt. Crane. In Pisa and in Palermo, he decided to take souvenirs of his visit. In Pisa, he describes how he took “the hand and arm as high as the elbow of some old man,” while Lt. Crane took “a thumb” and a third man “two fingers more.” It’s not clear to me whether these were actual body parts or pieces of statuary. But in Palermo it was definitely body parts. The two young men visited the catacombs of a Capuchin monastery where the burial practices were unique, to say the least. In this monastery, which you can still see today, bodies weren’t buried—they were suspended from hooks unwrapped or embalmed in any way, and then the bodies essentially mummified. Many of them didn’t totally mummify, so the bodies rotted on the hooks. Each body was accompanied by a card with the deceased’s name.

Wadsworth and Crane decided they wanted to have pieces of these bodies. Wadsworth “endeavor’d to break off the fingers of Countess Daina, but her Ladyship was too damn’d tough.” Lt. Crane was more successful; he “bore off a toe of Michael Angelo, who died in 1693.” Wadsworth did get his souvenir eventually: he took a paper from the hand of a dead friar, “tearing apart his hand, which I hope may be no detriment to his entering the Gate.”

It is doubtful that Wadsworth and Crane took the least bit of thought about whether what they were doing was legal. Certainly it wasn’t thoughtful, and I can imagine that the locals weren’t that happy about Americans coming in and defacing their dead loved ones. But it wasn’t strictly illegal. Anglo-American law, insofar as it spoke to the idea of body-part thievery at all, maintained that there is no property in a body, and thus stealing body parts was of no consequence. (The development of body-part-theft law is how we arrive at recent roadblocks over the repatriation of Native remains, by the way.)[4]

But I’m talking to you about contrasts, and I wouldn’t want you to think that Wadsworth only took things and left nothing behind. He visited Rome in May 1803, where he visited a place he called St. Paul’s Cathedral (which my NHHC colleague Travis Moger notes is not likely its actual name).  Near the cathedral, Wadsworth discovered a statue of the saint, which he said was covered in names. He “penciled [his] own on a book held open in his right arm” and left.

Only once does Wadsworth think twice about defacing the things he sees. In the same visit to Pisa where he took the arm of the old man, he saw that the walls of the cathedral were covered in graffiti. He even recognized some of the names: Gustavus Adolphus, Hyde Parker. He pulled out his pencil to inscribe his own name on the wall when he noticed that next to one name someone had written “he’s a damn’d rascal.” In between two other names, someone had drawn a line and written “two fools.” He decided that, “for fear someone would pay me a compliment likewise, I threw aside the foolish ambition of writing my name among Kings and Admirals, quietly pocketing my pencil.”

These examples serve to demonstrate Wadsworth’s immaturity, but they also show us how much he wanted to set his own experience into larger contexts. He wanted to matter, and he wanted the United States to matter. This is, in part, why he judged his shipmates so harshly—he didn’t think they reflected adequate glory on the United States Navy. He also took affront when the British didn’t observe any niceties surrounding George Washington’s birthday. Wadsworth saw the new United States as worthy of notice.

But he didn’t always have the maturity to understand the politics of his circumstances. He tended to make snap judgments about events that didn’t account for the complexities of the Mediterranean community, and he was also too naïve to see when his personal beliefs didn’t align with the needs or motives of the larger mission. Wadsworth was uniquely situated to perceive how the war got fought—under Morris, he spent time in Morocco, Tunis, and Algiers while Morris tried to keep the peace with those three states. Under the next commodore, Edward Preble, he spent most of his time off Tripoli bombarding the port.

In these two commodores, Wadsworth got to see the greatest contrast: Morris, who tried to take a more politically savvy approach to fighting the war, which wasn’t politically acceptable back in Washington, and Preble, whose grasp of politics and diplomacy was thin at best and downright counterproductive at worst. Of the two, Wadsworth got on better with Morris, with whom he seems to have had a close personal relationship. He wrote that Morris furthered his career by protecting him from political intrigue. When the Secretary of the Navy floated the possibility that Wadsworth might go to another ship, the commodore told him “you had better stay with me: for as your Father is a Noted Federal Character, & as Political Principles have some influence, perhaps you might be with a commander of opposite sentiments & who would not do you Justice—so that you might hang astern even after you deserv’d promotion.” And so Wadsworth stayed with Morris even after the commodore transferred ships from the Chesapeake to the New York. This was a highlight for Wadsworth.

The low point of Wadsworth’s political understanding—and the point that most clearly demonstrates his naïveté—came just a few months later, in September 1803, when Richard Somers, commander of the Nautilus, found the New York in Malaga. He brought with him news that Richard Valentine Morris had been recalled to the United States in disgrace. He would face a court-martial for his inattentiveness to the duty of his orders—fighting against Tripoli.

Given the huge number of days Wadsworth had spent touring Italy and other places in the Mediterranean, he must have realized that the commodore had not applied himself to the defeat of Tripoli as aggressively as he might have. And yet Wadsworth alleged that this recall had political motives: “We learned! Strange to tell! That the Commodore is order’d home; still more strange!! That he is unpopular with the People & with the Government.” He was incensed that the Secretary of the Navy had sent orders to Captain John Rodgers as though he were the commodore, ordering him to take charge of the squadron until the relief squadron arrived. Wadsworth blamed Morris’s fall from grace on the officers who had served under him, whom he described as “discontented.” He wrote in fury, “Were I commodore & used thus, I’d raise such a dust about the Navy Office that one could not see the Capitol from the President’s House.”

Wadsworth was probably the only one who thought Morris’s recall was unwarranted jealousy or malcontent. The Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of State had received many letters from captains and consuls about the difficulty of working with Morris. Morris himself had not kept the Secretary of the Navy updated on his whereabouts and his motivations. This fact told against him at his court martial. But Wadsworth didn’t see it.

This wasn’t the first time that Wadsworth’s unquestioning loyalty to a commanding officer had put him in the distinct minority when the officer had been censured. His first billet had been with Captain James Sever, who was removed from the Navy under the Peace Establishment Act after he became increasingly irascible and erratic. Wadsworth saw the erratic behavior and yet, he wrote in defense of Morris, “This was the way Capt Sever was treated i.e. sacrificed to the murmurings of inferior Officers & the multitude,” though he did concede “I believe the fault in some degree lay at his door.” Nonetheless, Wadsworth wrote, Sever “is my favorite and has my esteem.” Perhaps with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, Wadsworth would have been able to see that the fault lay in some degree at Morris’s door too. However he felt about Morris’s recall, Wadsworth seamlessly integrated into the crew of Edward Preble’s Constitution when the new squadron arrived.

The final vicissitude I want to tell you about is the contrast between the highs and lows of Henry Wadsworth’s connection to his home. More than most, Wadsworth had a wide and devoted cadre of letter writers who sent him letters frequently. His father, his siblings, even his more extended family wrote him often—though not often enough for his taste. In return, the journal and letters he wrote were obviously intended for dissemination amongst the family. He wrote of things that he thought specific members of the family would be interested in; his casual references to literature and art imply that the recipient of the letters would be familiar with the works he referenced. One of the low points of his journal is his notation about the death of his sister Eliza, who was frequently the person he had addressed his letters to.

Wadsworth also had a network of friends—and lady friends—that he referred to often. Though he obviously enjoyed his time in the Mediterranean, his thoughts were never far from home. But he didn’t want to come home in disgrace, as his commander had done. He wanted to return having done something noble and courageous. On January 10, 1804, he wrote angrily of the celebrations in Tripoli after the capture of the USS Philadelphia, “for these three days of pleasure, we have in reserve for you three months, weeping and wailing at the end of which thou shalt mourn thy paltry city a heap of ruins & thank the clemency of Christians, who have left one stone upon another in thy detested nest.” This is the kind of hyperbole Wadsworth was fond of, but he then adds a personal touch, linking his desire for honor and his desire for home: “God preserve my life till this is accomplished, until with exulting heart I tread the land of liberty among my friends.”

To be honest, he kinda ruins the moment by continuing, “Untill I press to my throbbing bosom, the lovely, the enchanting Miss”…and then he seems not to be able to remember her name, because all he adds in pencil is “the most adorable & divine creature to be seen, Heavenly Angel.” Apparently he had a lot of ladies to choose from back home.

The letterbook ends on July 16, 1804. By this time, Wadsworth had been seconded to the USS Scourge, a prize that had been brought into the squadron. He had seemingly received a promotion to first lieutenant at the time. During the month of August, Preble bombarded the port of Tripoli nearly every day, and on many days, sent out gunboats to fight against the Tripolitan gunboats. Wadsworth commanded one of these gunboats. It was likely during these gunboat battles that MIDN Frederick Cornelius DeKrafft acquired the sword that now resides in the USNA Museum collections, though he doesn’t mention in at all in his own journal.

But the bombardment wasn’t working quickly enough for Preble. After weeks of bombarding and fruitless gunboat battles, he decided to try a more aggressive strategy—sending a fireship into the port of Tripoli. On September 2, 1804, Nathaniel Haraden, the master of the Constitution, wrote, “Lieutenant Wadsworth and Mr. Israel midshipman, six seamen from the Constitution & four from the Nautilus went on board the Intrepid which is now completed as an Infernal.” It was commanded by Richard Somers, and its goal was to destroy the 16 Tripolitan boats that lay next to the battery, as well as the battery itself. Wadsworth volunteered for this mission. So did Midshipman Joseph Israel, whom Wadsworth had served with before (and had written a very unflattering vignette of).

Purser John Darby of the USS John Adams described the Intrepid’s mission on September 3: “at 8 the Ketch Intrepid got under way and was sent into Tripoli as a fire ship. Commanded by Capt. Summers, – he had. Our Green Cutter to make their escape from her. At 3/4 past 9 she blew up in which unfortunately perished Capt. Summers. Mr Wadsworth. Mr Israel, Midshipmen, & 10 Men it is supposed that she took fire in the Magazine sooner than was intended or that they were attempted to be boarded by the Tripolitans and blew her up sooner than suffer her & themselves to fall into the hands of the Tripoleens. … – the loss of those brave Officers and men are much to be regreted by their country & friends Capt Summers was as brave & enterpriseing an Officer as ever steped the Deck of a ship possesing every Virtue that the human hart is susceptable of. Mr Wadsworth & Mr Israel. I am told were very promising young men (midshipmen) who was held high in the opinion of the commodore & bid fare to be an honor to their country in the line of their profession.”[5]

Thus ended the life of a young officer who, more than anything, wanted to be remembered. He wrote public letters to his family. He wrote his name on monuments and took souvenirs. But he also attached himself to men who proved unable to shore up their own legacy, much less his. And despite his fondest wish to come home having done something glorious, he was one of the very few officers over the course of the entire war who didn’t make it home.

And yet, we do remember him. Three years after his death, his sister gave birth to a boy whom she named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his memory. And today, out behind Preble Hall, stands a memorial that’s far more permanent than a pencil scrawl on a Roman monument, with the name Wadsworth on every side. So maybe in the end, he got what he wanted.


[1] A total of ten kids in the Wadsworth family, including Alexander Scammell Wadsworth, who also was a naval officer and married John Rodgers’s wife’s sister in 1824.

[2] U.S. Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, 6 vols. (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1939), 2:311.

[3] Charles Oscar Paullin, Dueling in the Old Navy (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1909).

[4] Susan C. Lawrence, “Beyond the Grave –The Use and Meaning of Human Body Parts: A Historical Introduction,” in Stored Tissue Samples: Ethical, Legal, and Public Policy Implications (University of Iowa Press, 1998), .

[5] BW4:506.

Where Do Circulars Go?

The circular is a staple of State Department communications in the nineteenth century–a document written with the intention of its being circulated to many different people in a region. (Spare a thought for the poor clerk who had to write out each copy of the circular!) Since multiple copies of circulars were created, they often show up in multiple people’s papers or official correspondence with the State Department. It can sometimes be fun to see whether the clerk got a little sloppy with their copying by comparing multiple versions of the same document.

Circulars allowed consuls and other officials to communicate pressing information such as declarations of war; changes in treaty status; new alliances or agreements; and many other things.

Circular from William Eaton, July 23, 1801.National Archives and Records Administration. Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Tripoli, Libya, 1796-1885.

For instance, in this circular, William Eaton, consul at Tunis, announces the blockade of the port of Tripoli to his Mediterranean comrades. Notice the range of locations this one document encompasses: it’s about affairs in Tripoli, written by the consul at Tunis, on the stationery of the consulate at Leghorn (Livorno). This copy of the document is located in the National Archives, in a collection of consular dispatches from Tripoli, so we can logically conclude that this copy is actually the one belonging to James Leander Cathcart, the erstwhile consul at Tripoli. We can also guess this based on the fact that he or his clerk wrote the dispatch number at the top of this document. (Notice the two different handwritings between the document on the left and the one on the right–I happen to know that the one on the left is Cathcart.)

We may even be able to go so far as to say that the Leghorn stationery indicates that Cathcart superintended the writing of this circular. He fled to Leghorn after being evicted from Tripoli, and it’s very possible that Eaton visited him there and they cooked up this circular together. (A copy of this document, not on the consular stationery, also appears in Cathcart’s letterbook which is held in the Library of Congress, bolstering the case for coordination.)

We can make some guesses about where circulars go based on where they end up in the archives. But those records are spotty at best. Consuls might not have even kept circulars they received, and if they did, they may not have sent them back to the State Department, presuming that the original author would send a copy there.

We can’t assume that a consul always sends circulars to the same places, of course. It could be that a circular only pertains to part of that consul’s knowledge network, so he doesn’t send it where he knows it’s irrelevant. But by and large, I suspect that if a consul took the trouble to draft a circular, he sent to as many people as he could think of. I’ve always wished we could know more about those networks.

And that’s why I was so delighted to run across a source that can help us with this question, at least for one particular consul: James Simpson. He was the consul in Tangier before and during the First Barbary War. Of the four Barbary consuls, he wrote the fewest circulars–but he did historians of the future a huge service because on one of his circulars, he included a list of where it was sent.

In this circular, Simpson relays the surprising news that the Emperor of Morocco has declared war, and thus Simpson has been forced to vacate Tangier. On the back side of the circular, he includes a list of posts to which he sent the circular.

At first glance, the list doesn’t seem too surprising. There were a few places on here that I couldn’t quite decipher–shout-out to my colleagues BJ and Ryan for their help in handwriting analysis! And there’s one that I can read but I don’t know where it is: St. Michaels. In the absence of other clues, I concluded that St. Michaels might be Mont St. Michel in Normandy, France. If you know of a St. Michaels in Europe or the Mediterranean that you think it might be, please give me a holler!

Once I had the names deciphered, I plotted them on a map. A few interesting things emerged.

First, Simspon sent this circular to only the western Mediterranean, but he knew of ports in the more eastern Mediterranean that would have been interested in his news. His list doesn't even include ports such as Syracuse or Valletta, Malta, which he would certainly have known about because the American navy had been going in and out of those ports for a year now. He also doesn't include places like Rome or Venice or Constantinople. This is surprising because Simpson's presence in Tangier was a safeguard for American vessels traveling through the straits of Gibraltar, which they all had to do eventually no matter how far into the Mediterranean they went. So I would have thought he would send the circular to every Mediterranean port. But he didn't. I don't know why.

Second, I realized as Ryan and BJ and I were talking about this data that a few of the places on Simpson's list had no American consular presence. (They're the red dots on the map.) So a consular circular didn't necessarily only go to other American consuls. The places he sent the circular to mostly make sense--e.g., he sent one to Stockholm, Sweden, a nation with which the American navy had been cooperating for most of the war. And he sent one to Port Mahon, which was a major stopover port for vessels in the Mediterranean. (I'm sure there's an interesting story about why the United States doesn't have a consul there; sometime maybe I'll try to find out.) But there are dozens of other places Simpson could have sent the circular to that didn't have U.S. consular representation--and that fact makes me think that he had some kind of other connection to these ports. Someone he knew in those places needed this information.

And third, it's interesting to see, written out, the multiplier effect. Simpson specifically asks the consuls in London, Dublin, and Lisbon to send the circular through their own networks, rather than doing it himself. The United States had no consular representation in Portugal except for in Lisbon, so again here he's asking that they break out of the American consular networks to spread the news. On the map, I marked in yellow the other U.S. consulates in England and Ireland that might have received the circular based on his request, but again, we have to assume that they spread it not only amongst American consuls but much more broadly.

So, can we ever build a full network of consular communication? No, definitely not. But this one small circular from James Simpson gives us an interesting window into his world and his knowledge networks that may tell us a little bit more about the diplomatic and consular processes more broadly.

Farewell to Consolation Prize

This afternoon, we held a party at RRCHNM to celebrate the past of Consolation Prize and the future of R2 Studios. I wrote out a little speech which sums up a lot of how I feel about the show and what it has meant, so I thought I’d post it here.


Thank you all for coming to our R2 Studios open house and celebration of our OG show, Consolation Prize. As many of you know, Consolation Prize was launched in September 2020, during the first full semester of the pandemic. The Center had made a podcast many years ago called Digital Campus, doing podcasting before podcasting was cool. I remember listening to Digital Campus on a few road trips. But it had been a while since the center had been in the business of podcasting. An external partner reached out about the possibility of doing something with us, and we had the idea to make a podcast. That project eventually didn’t pan out because we were concerned that the Center’s lack of experience with podcasting would make our grant application non-competitive. How do you get the podcasting experience necessary to be competitive? Well, you make a podcast! So Mills very graciously gave me the green light—and the time of a number of people at the Center—to pilot a brand-new podcast, different from anything we’d done before. That podcast was Consolation Prize.

Consolation Prize had an ambitious goal—to be a highly produced, deeply researched narrative podcast…a thing that no one at the center had the least bit of experience with. It also had a very niche premise: that consuls, low-level diplomatic officials, were important enough to the history of the United States that they were worth making a whole show about.

Even though I read everything I could get my hands on about making a podcast, we still went into this with a lot of room to learn. Very, very few other shows exist that do what we wanted to do, and sound like we wanted to sound. So we were kind of flying blind on some things. We got some really helpful advice from a consultant after the first few episodes, which led to our now-maybe-familiar description: “Consolation Prize is a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls.”

Over the past two seasons, a lot of things have changed and improved. For one thing, we got a real studio space, which I’d invite you to check out after the speechifying. We also got a lot more comfortable with sound and story. We learned how to find interesting stories, how to ask better questions, how to articulate our ideas in a more focused way. Over two seasons, Consolation Prize went to six continents and three centuries. We did legal history, religious history, art history, economic history, military history, gender history, and of course, diplomatic history. I also counted up the number of different voices you hear over our 33 episodes, and it’s over 100, between me, our team, our expert guests, and our voice actors. Getting to talk to so many amazing historians was definitely a highlight for me. And yeah, I definitely called in a LOT of favors to get voice actors on a shoestring budget. So shout-out to many of you in this room whose voices have been heard on Consolation Prize, whether you agreed to do it eagerly or with a significant amount of arm twisting.

I’m really proud of our core team, made up of me, Deepthi Murali, a postdoc, Megan Brett, a graduate student turned graduated student, Kris Stinson, a PhD student, Jeanette Patrick, a classified staff member, Andrew Cote, a former adjunct, and our two great interns, Brenna Reilley, an undergraduate intern on Season 1, and Frankie Bjork, a graduate intern on Season 2. Consolation Prize has truly been a team effort from Day 1, and I’m so proud of that.

But all good things must come to an end. This is my last month at GMU, so continuing the show would be complicated. But I had already decided that the show needed to come to an end. It’s time for the studio and the Center to move on to bigger and better projects, which will hopefully build on the lessons we’ve learned from Consolation Prize. It has truly been my privilege to be the showrunner for Consolation Prize, and the head of studio for R2 Studios, and I’m delighted to be leaving the studio in such capable hands.

Searching for Irena Wiley

In our March 29 episode, Consolation Prize featured the work and life of Irena Wiley, a talented artist who took her art all around the world with her husband, U.S. diplomat John Cooper Wiley. In the episode, we noted that Irena Wiley traveled with the USO in the Pacific after her husband’s death. In her visits, she drew portraits of wounded and sick servicemen in the U.S. forces. She then gave these portraits away to the servicemen to send back to their families. She deliberately chose not to keep notes on whose portraits she drew, or even to keep preliminary sketches of them, so there are no records of who she created portraits for.

Irena Wiley in Vietnam. Photo owned by Gold Leaf Studios.

We would like to find these portraits and hear the stories of the servicemen Irena Wiley encountered on her trips with the USO. We don’t know a whole lot about where she went, but here’s what we do know.

1968

We believe Irena Wiley traveled in Vietnam, Guam, the Philippines, and Japan on a tour in 1968, but we don’t have any hard evidence at this time.

1969

  • Wiley was in the Da Nang area from August 1-7, 1969. Her presence is recorded in the III Marine Amphibious Force Command Chronology. We assume this was only one stop on a much longer tour.

1970

Wiley was in these locations at some point before July 1970:

  • Bachelor Officer Quarters, Saigon
  • Pleiku, 4th Infantry Division
  • DMZ: Quang Tri
  • Phu Bai: 3rd Combined Action Group Headquarters
  • Cam Ranh Bay
  • Clark Air Base (Philippines)
  • Okinawa

These locations were recorded in a Vogue article about her travels. No dates were given in the article. This is almost certainly a non-exhaustive list.

If you know anything about Irena Wiley, or you have a relation who may have encountered her, please reach out! You can reach the show at consolationprizepod@gmail.com, or you can find the show on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or you can even leave a voicemail at our website, consolationprize.rrchnm.org.

Please share this widely. I appreciate so much any info you can share.

When to Kill Your Darlings

When we started Consolation Prize, it was an experiment. We didn’t know what the dickens we were doing. But it was a sort of test balloon, to see if we could make audio stories about history. Without being overly conceited, I think I can say that from a technical and storytelling perspective, we succeeded. We got better and better over the course of the season, and we found more and more interesting stories to tell. In Season 2, we’ve come out swinging with some of our best episodes yet.

Now, I’d stack Consolation Prize up against some of the best history podcasts out there in terms of its story and sound. I think it sounds way better than many. I think we tell more interesting stories, in a more ethical and compelling way, than many.

We got a great write-up in The Public Historian and on World History Commons. We were short-listed for an award.

We proved that we could make a good show, so now we have another show in the studio, The Green Tunnel, which is doing really well. We have a number of other shows in development, all based on the success of Consolation Prize.

And yet.

Very few people listen to Consolation Prize.

So few, in fact, that it’s really hard to justify continuing to make it.

In my job as head of R2 Studios, I’m the one who decides what shows we make. Along with the mission of democratizing access to information (the Center’s mission), the studio exists as a way to raise money to make our work sustainable outside the grant-making apparatus that we’ve depended on for 27 years. So the shows we create need to be, to put it crassly, money makers.

Podcasts make money in a couple of ways:

  • Advertising sales. We aren’t prioritizing ads at the studio right now for a lot of reasons, but we know that we could go that way in the future.
  • Memberships. We are running a Patreon-like system through GMU’s fundraising platform, where people can give money once or more than once. Many podcasts use this approach with a lot of success.

The brutal reality is that Consolation Prize doesn’t have enough listeners to even be attractive to advertisers, by a long shot. And so far we’ve had only three people become members (THANK YOU SO MUCH, the three of you: you know who you are).

We’re getting just over 100 listens on Day 1, and only a slow trickle on days subsequent. We’ve been going for over a year and we’re not even close to 10,000 downloads.

Metrics are only one way of measuring a podcast’s success. From one perspective, they’re the least compelling way, in fact. But the bottom line is that more listeners = more members. And more members = a more stable bottom line. So everything that happens in R2 Studios has to confront that reality.

So even though I love Consolation Prize more than almost anything I’ve ever worked on, I have to decide now: is this project worth my time and effort, and more importantly, is it worth my team’s time and effort?

And the answer is: no.

Our listenership has grown a little bit in Season 2, which is fantastic. But it hasn’t grown exponentially, which is what we’d need in order to justify our continued existence.

We’ve estimated that it takes about 30-40 hours to create our 30-40 minute episodes, which we release every 3 weeks (give or take). That’s a lot of time for me and my team to make something that no one listens to.

For academics, of course, this idea that you only make things that a lot of people will use is rather foreign. We all write books and articles and such without much expectation that we’ll get past a single printing. We do the work for the work’s sake. (This is a simplification, obviously.)

And some podcasts are like that too—many podcasters make their podcasts just because they want to. I’m not saying that podcasts aren’t worth doing unless you get a big audience.

But for this podcast, in this space, it can’t just be about doing it for its own sake. If the podcast isn’t contributing to the democratizing mission of the center (by being heard) or its fiscal goals, then it’s time for it to go.

This knowledge occupies my thoughts a lot these days. At the end of this season, unless something drastic changes, Consolation Prize will be over. (That’s the end of the academic year; don’t worry, we’ve got great stuff planned for next semester.) That makes me so very sad.

Of course, our back catalog will be available in perpetuity, so if you want to listen in the future, you will still be able to.

What won’t get made

At the risk of being macabre, I want to list out some of the ideas that the team has come up with over the past 18 months that we won’t be making.

  • Horace Lee Washington, Alexandretta, Syria, 1890s, who assisted a number of Armenians in getting out of the country ahead of the Ottoman genocide
  • James Church McCook, Dawson, Yukon Territory, 1880s/1890s: what happens when a consul gets caught up in a gold rush?
  • John Singleton Mosby, Hong Kong: An ex-Confederate (and one of Fairfax’s favorite sons) who repudiated the Confederacy and received an appointment as consul
  • Horace Conger, Hong Kong, an African-American politician who went to the mattresses for Abraham Lincoln and in return received a consulship
  • Bret Harte, Krefeld, Germany, 1878: After Mark Twain tried to block Harte from getting a consular appointment, he got one anyway and happened to be in Germany just after German unification.
  • Luigi Palma di Cesnola, Cyprus, who shares the distinction with numerous other consuls of being an archaeologist and a consul simultaneously; in his case, he excavated the Tomb of the Kings on Cyprus.
  • The many depictions of consuls in pop culture, from Giancarlo Menotti’s The Consul, an opera, to silent films from the 1910s, and many others
  • Archibald GrimkĂ©: His half-sisters Sarah and Angelina are more famous, but Archibald was a Black newspaperman and politician who was vital to the founding of the NAACP but also served as the consul to the Dominican Republic in the 1890s.

Tear her tattered ensign down

(Do I think that Consolation Prize is like unto the USS Constitution? No, no, I do not. But I’m a naval historian. I have to throw one naval history allusion in here.)

I didn’t want to write this post. Over the past month, I’ve written four different versions of it saved as drafts, none of which (obviously) ever saw the light of day. It feels really terrible. I regard Consolation Prize as some of the best work I’ve ever done and so it really really sucks to pull the plug on it. Though we’ve made some mistakes along the way, I feel like I’ve done everything I could to make it succeed. I talk about the show so much online that I’m sure everyone is sick to death of it.

But it’s not about me. It’s about honoring these stories, and the experts who help us tell them, and my team. We’ve all worked so hard. So I don’t see Consolation Prize itself as a failure—far from it. And that’s why it sucks so much to let it go, and why it feels like a failure to have to.

There is a way that we can keep the show going. It’s simple. If we see a drastic increase in listeners, we’ll keep making it. That’s all there is to it.

Just like the USS Constitution was saved by the people when it was destined for the scrap heap, Consolation Prize can also be saved. So, if you want us to tell more consular stories, you know what to do.

Tell your friends. ALL of them.

End-of-Year Episode Roundup

Last year I talked about the podcasts I loved in 2020. This year, I wanted to call out specific episodes I’ve listened to that have impacted me in some way. These are in no particular order, except for the #1 episode that has had the most impact on my life this year. I’ll put that at the bottom.

I listen to a lot of podcasts (I recently learned that my listening habits would put me in the category of “super listener”), and it’s been a really long year, so I probably listened to some equally good ones early in the year that I’m not recalling right this second.

These podcast episodes aren’t “the best” episodes I heard this year, necessarily; they’re ones that I connected to on some kind of personal level. I’ll explain how I connected for each episode.

“The Things We Do to Women,” The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (Christianity Today)

I grew up in a part of evangelicalism that disdained folks like Mark Driscoll and his brash and arrogant form of pastoring, but this episode about how he talked about women and sexuality still hit me really hard. It wasn’t hard to draw a straight line from the way that he talked about these topics and how I was taught them. Of all the ways that Mark Driscoll harmed his congregation, the things discussed in this episode are, to me, the most egregious, and very similar teachings have had real negative effects in my own life. [Content warning: sexuality, crudeness]

“Neglect of Duty,” On Our Watch (NPR/KQED)

This whole series was gutwrenching, but this episode was, in my opinion, the most emotionally powerful. Many of the episodes in the series are about how police overstep their bounds, but this episode is about how one particular California police department shirked their duty to keep kids safe. It’s well-reported and beautifully designed. It will likely make you angry.

“Susan David: Toxic Positivity,” Everything Happens (Kate Bowler)

Recently I’ve been getting very frustrated at how many people say things like “Are you ready for this super hard thing? Yes or yes?” or “I just want my kids to know that if you work hard enough, or you believe in yourself enough, you can do anything.” That’s just nonsense. So when this episode crossed my feed, I was ready to be Amen-ing all over the place about how terrible toxic positivity was. Instead, I found myself doing a little bit of Amen-ing, and a lot of thinking about how I force myself and, more importantly, my kids to always have a good attitude–to not allow us our full range of emotions. I came away from the episode with a true desire to notice and understand and allow us all to have moments where we’re just not happy, or not feeling positive about our lives. Do I still make my daughter empty the dishwasher? Yes, yes I do. But now I try to check the impulse to say, “And you better have a good attitude about it.” It’s a long process, but this episode helped me to think about my own buy-in to toxic positivity and how to change it.

“What We’ve Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate,” This American Life

The very first part of this episode had me weeping copious tears in my car on the way to school. I think it’s going to be a long time before we understand all the ways covid-19 has changed education, but the costs are more than just physical.

On the flip side, this episode moved through some more compelling stories and ended up a joyous and hilarious note of how Amelia Bedelia might have dealt with work-from-home, which reminded me that even in a moment of tremendous anxiety, sorrow, and loss, we can still sit back sometimes and just laugh at the absurdity of it all.

“From Pigs and Chickens to OP-60: The Naval Career of Peter M. Swartz,” Preble Hall

This one makes my list this year because it is literally the very first thing I have ever listened to/read/watched that made me interested in the Vietnam War. Peter Swartz is such a lovely person, and he is such a great storyteller who made me actually want to know more about Vietnam, which has never happened before. I’ve thought about this episode a lot since it aired.

“Drone Wars,” Throughline

Since I teach military history classes, I’m always looking for good sources about the history of the military, and this episode did such a good job of dealing with not only the history of the technology of drones, but also the ways in which people have dealt with using them. I’ll likely be assigning this in both my digital history and military history classes, because it really gets at some of the big questions of both disciplines: what are the ethical ramifications of development in technology?

The Number One Most Impactful Episode of 2021

I listen to a LOT of podcasts, so it’s pretty unlikely that any one episode will have a serious impact on my life. But this year, there was one. It is…

“The Clinch,” 99% Invisible

This is an exploration of the covers of romance novels. That probably doesn’t sound that interesting. But I had never read a “secular” romance novel before I listened to this episode, I don’t think. I grew up in a very conservative environment so all the romance novels were Christian romances, and they were not great. (Even those novels had their version of the clinch, though!)

Since that episode dropped in June 2021, I have read, according to my library history, at least 165 romance novels. I have read all of the library holdings for authors such as Mary Balogh, who I now love. I now read some or even all of a romance novel nearly every day as a way to unwind. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this episode helped me get back into reading for fun, something I hadn’t done in quite a while.

So I’d have to say that this episode was the one thing I listened to this year that affected my life the most—and definitely for the better.

If you listen to the episode, you’ll know all the different iterations of the clinch, so I have to say, I like the newer graphic covers better than the traditional clinch.