Opinion

Tom Dillard: Arkansans abroad succeeded quietly and failed loudly as diplomats

The war in Ukraine is bloody testimony to the need for conducting international relations by peaceful means. Arkansas has produced a number of diplomats, some being political appointees while others were State Department professionals. While it is impossible to discuss every diplomat with an Arkansas connection, some stand out for their accomplishments, while others are notable for their failures.

The first Arkansan to serve in an important post was Ambrose Sevier, a U.S. senator from Arkansas who resigned his seat in March 1848 to accept President James K. Polk's appointment to a diplomatic mission charged with implementing a peace treaty following the Mexican War. Sevier, after whom Sevier County was named, became ill after his arrival in Mexico and soon resigned. He died on the last day of 1848 and is buried at Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.

Sevier was a Jacksonian Democrat, and like President Andrew Jackson, he believed it was the "manifest destiny" of the United States to expand westward. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sevier was a major force in taking Oregon from the British. Highly regarded, intelligent, and determined, Sevier became a major player in American foreign relations during his 12 years in the Senate.

Sevier's successor in the Senate was Solon Borland, and he too made a foray into diplomacy, though it ended in disaster. A well-trained physician, he should have stayed with medicine, but his personality better suited him for the rough-and-tumble politics of antebellum Arkansas.

Within a year of moving to Little Rock from Memphis to take over a Democratic newspaper in 1843, Borland's undisciplined and bellicose nature resulted in his assaulting a rival, the editor of the then-Whig Arkansas Gazette.

Unlike Sevier, Borland could not get along with his fellow senators, perhaps due to what historian James M. Woods has described as "his acerbic and often arrogant personality." Fortunately, Borland's tenure in the Senate was brief, for he resigned in 1853 to become "Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Central America," and the first minister to Nicaragua.

Borland's appointment would not have been well received in Managua or elsewhere in Central America. A defender of slavery, he was already on record as hoping that additional slave states could be created by expanding into Central America and the Caribbean. In one speech, Borland said it was his "greatest ambition to see the State of Nicaragua forming a bright star in the flag of the United States."

Borland had been in Nicaragua only a short time before managing to cause an international incident by objecting to the longtime British influence in Central America. When Washington reprimanded its Envoy Extraordinary, Borland promptly quit. But, being Borland, he could not make a graceful exit.

While steaming toward the coast to depart, he became involved in an altercation between the steamer captain, an American, and a local boat owner. Borland would not allow the arrest of the captain, which caused a commotion, and someone in the crowd threw a bottle which hit Borland in the face, causing a slight injury.

Borland immediately reported the event to Washington, and the U.S. Navy bombarded the Nicaraguan coastal town of Greytown, leveling it much like we see in reports from the Ukraine. Historians recognize this tragic event as the first example of "Gunboat Diplomacy" in American history, precipitated by an Arkansas politician who was tragically miscast as a diplomat.

Few Arkansas politicians were promoted to diplomatic positions during the Civil War or the following 20 years of Republican ascendancy. That changed following the election of Democratic President Grover Cleveland in 1884.

Cleveland named Hugh Dinsmore of Fayetteville as minister to Korea in 1887, a purely political appointment. Fortunately, Dinsmore bore no resemblance to Borland and turned out to be a competent diplomat.

Dinsmore made quite a positive impression in Korea, perhaps in part because he looked like a diplomat. Described as "a fancy dresser" by one historian, Dinsmore was said to patronize "the best tailors in New York and was always expensively dressed in the latest fashion."

One contemporary recalled that on formal occasions Dinsmore "always wore a black cape instead of a coat or jacket, and ... his distinguished appearance and gallant manners were probably the equal of any courtier in the grand salon of Louis XIV of France ..."

Korea was a quiet outpost, but apparently Dinsmore found ways to keep busy. He helped the king establish a security system to better protect the royal treasury, which ingratiated him with the royal family.

Dinsmore resigned his diplomatic appointment in 1890, and two years later defeated U.S. Rep. Sam Peel, whom he had unsuccessfully challenged in 1884.

The most prominent Arkansas political leader to accept a diplomatic appointment was probably U.S. Rep. Clifton R. Breckinridge. In 1894, he was defeated for re-election, and President Grover Cleveland named him minister to Russia.

Breckinridge had no experience in foreign affairs, yet turned out to be a natural diplomat. Historian James F. Willis has written that Breckinridge "... never adjusted to the autocratic tone and character of government, diplomacy, and society in St. Petersburg, but he was no backwoods diplomat. Rather, he was one of the ablest American diplomats of his era."

Breckinridge detected a growing divergence in American-Russian interests, especially in Asia. Russia, the minister concluded, was expansionistic with eyes on both the tottering Ottoman Empire in Turkey and China, which was being forcibly carved up into spheres of European dominance. He reluctantly concluded that Russia and America had little in common, stating "... our country has ceased to be either warmly or seriously taken into account by Russia."

Not all Arkansas politicians accepting diplomatic appointments were Democrats. Mifflin W. Gibbs, the first Black municipal judge in America upon his election as Little Rock police judge in 1872, was appointed consul to Tamatave, Madagascar, by President William McKinley in 1897. The post was something of a backwater, and Gibbs resigned in 1901, returning to Little Rock, where he established a bank.

Reconstruction Republican Gov. Powell Clayton was rewarded for 40 years of party leadership in 1897 with his appointment as minister to Mexico. He was a successful but not outstanding envoy. He did, however, manage to control the Arkansas Republican Party from Mexico City, acting through his surrogate Harmon L. Remmel. Clayton resigned as minister in 1905 and settled in Washington.

While politicians still receive important diplomatic posts, most are appointed from professional diplomats who have years of experience in the State Department. I am currently researching the roles played by Arkansans in the diplomatic corps -- an investigation already full of surprises.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist. Email him at [email protected].

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