Joseph Fenwick – First consular post in US History

Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

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. Carolina gold rice, sea island cotton, and raw indigo dye were highly valued products traded in major European markets. The profits were used to buy manufactured goods and finished products in 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. It was logical that America’s first Consulate would be established in a port as necessary to 18th and 19th century Europe as the port of Charleston was to the new American Republic. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

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. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

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 also is 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. 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. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

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

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. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

When John Mason joined the firm during the ratification of the Constitution, the firm’s name was changed 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 even admits that this was done not to create money for Fenwick but to avoid 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. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

Capturing Americans

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. Fenwick was ousted as Consul when ten seamen told authorities that Fenwick partially owned one of the ships that took 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. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

Fenwick returned to America and maintained his reputation. In the end, public opinion was primarily divided along party lines, with Democrats sympathizing with Joseph and Republicans sympathizing with him. Despite this, Fenwick spent the rest of his life attempting to reclaim the roughly $10,000 he was owed for his service to the U.S. Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux.

The Passport

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

A small-sized U.S. passport in French, thin folio (19 x 30 cm) issued to John Bodkin, age 38, signatures of Fenwick and Bodkin. Nothing of the back. A fantastic and early document not only of American/French history but issued by the First Consul in Bordeaux – Joseph Fenwick at the First Consulate in American history!

Joseph Fenwick Consul Bordeaux

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