Joseph Fenwick – 1st consular post in US History

Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

France, Bordeaux, American Consulate

La Maison Fenwick, the first and oldest American Consulate in history, has occupied this site since 1790 in Bordeaux.

Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

The building long ago took the name of the American occupant and chief tenant in 1790, Joseph Fenwick. He became the First U.S. Consul and was from a family with Maryland and South Carolina connections. The plaque, in French and English, reads… Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux.

“Here lived Joseph Fenwick, who became the first American Consul in Bordeaux in 1790. Mayor Jacques Chaban-Delmas unveiled this plaque on November 26, 1990, commemorates the Bicentennial of the U.S. Consulate in Bordeaux, the oldest American Consulate in the world.”

Charleston merchants were very familiar with Bordeaux in 1790. It had been one of the significant points of entry for South Carolina commodities for decades. Major European markets highly valued trading Carolina gold rice, sea island cotton, and raw indigo dye as valuable products.

The profits were used to buy manufactured goods and finished products for the latest resale in Charleston and other American markets. International trade requires regular and reliable contacts to maintain the confidence between sellers and buyers and maintain the reputation of the goods traded. America’s first Consulate logically established itself in a port essential to 18th and 19th century Europe, such as Charleston. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

Bordeaux during the French Revolution

Unlike Paris in 1790, Bordeaux was still a stable and conservative business environment as the French Revolution began. The turmoil in Paris and the value of keeping trade opportunities open underscored the importance of a permanent representative to oversee American interests at a chief point of entry into the country.

Bordeaux would eventually experience the violence of the Red Terror, but its trade relations with other important ports worldwide survived, largely undisturbed, well into the 20th century. The fame of Bordeaux wine and the world demand for it to match probably helped keep those trade routes the preferred ones for many foreign brokers, factors, and merchant ship captains.

The U.S. consular’s offices in Bordeaux

would be the first of many such consulates to be established by the U.S. in places other than national capitals. The importance of this one is that it was the first. It is also the one that has remained open longer than any other. Just as importantly, the Hotel de Fenwick, Joseph Fenwick’s former residence and offices still in use, is a reminder of the historical relationship that has always existed between the U.S. and France…even when our governments have been less than agreeable.

Note: According to a reference on the website, the history of this American Consulate has been on hold since 1976. The story of this and other U.S. Consular offices are recounted in Consular Tales, an online record. The reference states: Consular Tales was inspired by the closing of the American Consulate General in Bordeaux as a budgetary decision by the Clinton Administration in 1996. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

President George Washington opened our oldest American Consulate General in 1790. The mission was only closed briefly twice in its long history, when war between France and the United States seemed possible at the end of the eighteenth century and during the Second World War, during the Nazi Occupation.

The first consular post in U.S. history was established in France in 1778

The first U.S. consular post was established in Bordeaux, France, in March 1778. At that time, Consular Agent* John Bondfield (a Canadian who had joined the American cause) held the post. One year later, in 1779, Benjamin Franklin established the American mission in Paris. *a consular officer of the lowest rank, often a designated foreign national, stationed at a place where no full consular service is established.

No American consuls began their service until 1781 Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

William Palfrey of Massachusetts was the first U.S. consul, appointed Nov 1780, but he was lost at sea on the way to his post. His name is the first on the memorial plaque in the lobby of the Department of State that honors U.S. diplomats who lost their lives under heroic or tragic circumstances. Thomas Barclay of Pennsylvania was appointed Consul in France on October 2, 1781, replacing William Palfrey.

Joseph Fenwick Accidentally Captures an American Vessel

When a ship owned by Fenwick captured an American warship, he found himself in hot trouble. Following the Revolutionary War, Joseph and James Fenwick established a trading enterprise. Even though they were both from Maryland’s prominent Fenwick family, Joseph went to France to run their European branch. They were a huge hit, even getting French wine for none other than George Washington.

During the ratification of the Constitution, John Mason’s joining prompted a change in the firm’s name to Fenwick, Mason, & Company. Although John’s father, George Mason, disappointed Washington by opposing ratification, Mason wrote on Joseph Fenwick’s behalf when the latter became president. Fenwick seemed to be the right man to represent Bordeaux when the new administration wanted to designate Consuls.

Mason openly acknowledges that he did this not to generate money for Fenwick but to evade paying French taxes. Joseph Fenwick became the First Consul to Bordeaux after obtaining additional backing from George Plater and a change of heart from Thomas Jefferson.

Capturing Americans Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

Joseph got himself into some problems after eight years as Consul. Privateers on both sides were taking ships when the Quasi-War with France erupted. Authorities ousted Fenwick as Consul when ten seamen reported that he partially owned a ship involved in capturing an American vessel.

It’s worth noting that he claimed he had no idea his merchant ship had become a pirate, although he should have known what his Captain was up to. When newspapers began publishing claims that Joseph continued to function in his diplomatic post after his departure, Joseph defended his actions.

Fenwick returned to America and maintained his reputation. In the end, public opinion split along party lines. Democrats sided with Joseph; Republicans sympathized with him. Despite this, Fenwick spent his life trying to reclaim the $10,000 owed for his U.S. service.

The Passport Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux
Passport No.2, American Consulate, Bordeaux, March 12, 1798

A small-sized U.S. passport in French, measuring 19 x 30 cm, was issued to 38-year-old John Bodkin. It bears signatures of Fenwick and Bodkin. Nothing of the back. Bordeaux’s First Consul Joseph Fenwick issued this fantastic early document, a fantastic piece of American/French history.

Robert Livingston 1804 Passport

FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

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