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.


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