The Complete Works of Mark Twain

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Mark Twain > Diplomatic Pay And Clothes > Story

Diplomatic Pay And Clothes


VIENNA, January 5--I find in this morning's papers the statement that the
Government of the United States has paid to the two members of the Peace
Commission entitled to receive money for their services 100,000 dollars
each for their six weeks' work in Paris.

I hope that this is true. I will allow myself the satisfaction of
considering that it is true, and of treating it as a thing finished and

It is a precedent; and ought to be a welcome one to our country. A
precedent always has a chance to be valuable (as well as the other way);
and its best chance to be valuable (or the other way) is when it takes
such a striking form as to fix a whole nation's attention upon it. If it
come justified out of the discussion which will follow, it will find a
career ready and waiting for it.

We realise that the edifice of public justice is built of precedents,
from the ground upward; but we do not always realise that all the other
details of our civilisation are likewise built of precedents. The
changes also which they undergo are due to the intrusion of new
precedents, which hold their ground against opposition, and keep their
place. A precedent may die at birth, or it may live--it is mainly a
matter of luck. If it be imitated once, it has a chance; if twice a
better chance; if three times it is reaching a point where account must
be taken of it; if four, five, or six times, it has probably come to
stay--for a whole century, possibly. If a town start a new bow, or a new
dance, or a new temperance project, or a new kind of hat, and can get the
precedent adopted in the next town, the career of that precedent is
begun; and it will be unsafe to bet as to where the end of its journey is
going to be. It may not get this start at all, and may have no career;
but, if a crown prince introduce the precedent, it will attract vast
attention, and its chances for a career are so great as to amount almost
to a certainty.

For a long time we have been reaping damage from a couple of disastrous
precedents. One is the precedent of shabby pay to public servants
standing for the power and dignity of the Republic in foreign lands; the
other is a precedent condemning them to exhibit themselves officially in
clothes which are not only without grace or dignity, but are a pretty
loud and pious rebuke to the vain and frivolous costumes worn by the
other officials. To our day an American ambassador's official costume
remains under the reproach of these defects. At a public function in a
European court all foreign representatives except ours wear clothes which
in some way distinguish them from the unofficial throng, and mark them as
standing for their countries. But our representative appears in a plain
black swallow-tail, which stands for neither country, nor people. It has
no nationality. It is found in all countries; it is as international as
a night-shirt. It has no particular meaning; but our Government tries to
give it one; it tries to make it stand for Republican Simplicity, modesty
and unpretentiousness. Tries, and without doubt fails, for it is not
conceivable that this loud ostentation of simplicity deceives any one.
The statue that advertises its modesty with a fig-leaf really brings its
modesty under suspicion. Worn officially, our nonconforming swallow-tail
is a declaration of ungracious independence in the matter of manners, and
is uncourteous. It says to all around: 'In Rome we do not choose to do
as Rome does; we refuse to respect your tastes and your traditions; we
make no sacrifices to anyone's customs and prejudices; we yield no jot to
the courtesies of life; we prefer our manners, and intrude them here.'

That is not the true American spirit, and those clothes misrepresent us.
When a foreigner comes among us and trespasses against our customs and
our code of manners, we are offended, and justly so; but our Government
commands our ambassadors to wear abroad an official dress which is an
offence against foreign manners and customers; and the discredit of it
falls upon the nation.

We did not dress our public functionaries in undistinguished raiment
before Franklin's time; and the change would not have come if he had been
an obscurity. But he was such a colossal figure in the world that
whatever he did of an unusual nature attracted the world's attention,
and became a precedent. In the case of clothes, the next representative
after him, and the next, had to imitate it. After that, the thing was
custom; and custom is a petrifaction: nothing but dynamite can dislodge
it for a century. We imagine that our queer official costumery was
deliberately devised to symbolise our Republican Simplicity--a quality
which we have never possessed, and are too old to acquire now, if we had
any use for it or any leaning toward it. But it is not so; there was
nothing deliberate about it; it grew naturally and heedlessly out of the
precedent set by Franklin.

If it had been an intentional thing, and based upon a principle, it would
not have stopped where it did: we should have applied it further.
Instead of clothing our admirals and generals, for courts-martial and
other public functions, in superb dress uniforms blazing with colour and
gold, the Government would put them in swallow-tails and white cravats,
and make them look like ambassadors and lackeys. If I am wrong in making
Franklin the father of our curious official clothes, it is no matter--he
will be able to stand it.

It is my opinion--and I make no charge for the suggestion--that, whenever
we appoint an ambassador or a minister, we ought to confer upon him the
temporary rank of admiral or general, and allow him to wear the
corresponding uniform at public functions in foreign countries. I would
recommend this for the reason that it is not consonant with the dignity
of the United States of America that her representative should appear
upon occasions of state in a dress which makes him glaringly conspicuous;
and that is what his present undertaker-outfit does when it appears, with
its dismal smudge, in the midst of the butterfly splendours of a
Continental court. It is a most trying position for a shy man, a modest
man, a man accustomed to being like other people. He is the most
striking figure present; there is no hiding from the multitudinous eyes.
It would be funny, if it were not such a cruel spectacle, to see the
hunted creature in his solemn sables scuffling around in that sea of
vivid colour, like a mislaid Presbyterian in perdition. We are all aware
that our representative's dress should not compel too much attention; for
anybody but an Indian chief knows that that is a vulgarity. I am saying
these things in the interest of our national pride and dignity. Our
representative is the flag. He is the Republic. He is the United States
of America. And when these embodiments pass by, we do not want them
scoffed at; we desire that people shall be obliged to concede that they
are worthily clothed, and politely.

Our Government is oddly inconsistent in this matter of official dress.
When its representative is a civilian who has not been a solider, it
restricts him to the black swallow-tail and white tie; but if he is a
civilian who has been a solider, it allows him to wear the uniform of his
former rank as an official dress. When General Sickles was minister to
Spain, he always wore, when on official duty, the dress uniform of a
major-general. When General Grant visited foreign courts, he went
handsomely and properly ablaze in the uniform of a full general, and was
introduced by diplomatic survivals of his own Presidential
Administration. The latter, by official necessity, went in the meek and
lowly swallow-tail--a deliciously sarcastic contrast: the one dress
representing the honest and honourable dignity of the nation; the other,
the cheap hypocrisy of the Republican Simplicity tradition. In Paris our
present representative can perform his official functions reputably
clothed; for he was an officer in the Civil War. In London our late
ambassador was similarly situated; for he, also, was an officer in the
Civil War. But Mr. Choate must represent the Great Republic--even at
official breakfasts at seven in the morning--in that same old funny

Our Government's notions about proprieties of costume are indeed very,
very odd--as suggested by that last fact. The swallow-tail is recognised
the world over as not wearable in the daytime; it is a night-dress, and a
night-dress only--a night-shirt is not more so. Yet, when our
representative makes an official visit in the morning, he is obliged by
his Government to go in that night-dress. It makes the very cab-horses

The truth is, that for awhile during the present century, and up to
something short of forty years ago, we had a lucid interval, and dropped
the Republican Simplicity sham, and dressed our foreign representatives
in a handsome and becoming official costume. This was discarded by-and-
by, and the swallow-tail substituted. I believe it is not now known
which statesman brought about this change; but we all know that, stupid
as he was as to diplomatic proprieties in dress, he would not have sent
his daughter to a state ball in a corn-shucking costume, nor to a corn-
shucking in a state-ball costume, to be harshly criticised as an ill-
mannered offender against the proprieties of custom in both places. And
we know another thing, viz. that he himself would not have wounded the
tastes and feelings of a family of mourners by attending a funeral in
their house in a costume which was an offence against the dignities and
decorum prescribed by tradition and sanctified by custom. Yet that man
was so heedless as not to reflect that all the social customs of
civilised peoples are entitled to respectful observance, and that no man
with a right spirit of courtesy in him ever has any disposition to
transgress these customs.

There is still another argument for a rational diplomatic dress--a
business argument. We are a trading nation; and our representative is a
business agent. If he is respected, esteemed, and liked where he is
stationed, he can exercise an influence which can extend our trade and
forward our prosperity. A considerable number of his business activities
have their field in his social relations; and clothes which do not offend
against local manners and customers and prejudices are a valuable part of
his equipment in this matter--would be, if Franklin had died earlier.

I have not done with gratis suggestions yet. We made a great deal of
valuable advance when we instituted the office of ambassador. That lofty
rank endows its possessor with several times as much influence,
consideration, and effectiveness as the rank of minister bestows. For
the sake of the country's dignity and for the sake of her advantage
commercially, we should have ambassadors, not ministers, at the great
courts of the world.

But not at present salaries! No; if we are to maintain present salaries,
let us make no more ambassadors; and let us unmake those we have already
made. The great position, without the means of respectably maintaining
it--there could be no wisdom in that. A foreign representative, to be
valuable to his country, must be on good terms with the officials of the
capital and with the rest of the influential folk. He must mingle with
this society; he cannot sit at home--it is not business, it butters no
commercial parsnips. He must attend the dinners, banquets, suppers,
balls, receptions, and must return these hospitalities. He should return
as good as he gets, too, for the sake of the dignity of his country, and
for the sake of Business. Have we ever had a minister or an ambassador
who could do this on his salary? No--not once, from Franklin's time to
ours. Other countries understand the commercial value of properly lining
the pockets of their representatives; but apparently our Government has
not learned it. England is the most successful trader of the several
trading nations; and she takes good care of the watchmen who keep guard
in her commercial towers. It has been a long time, now, since we needed
to blush for our representatives abroad. It has become custom to send
our fittest. We send men of distinction, cultivation, character--our
ablest, our choicest, our best. Then we cripple their efficiency through
the meagreness of their pay. Here is a list of salaries for English and
American ministers and ambassadors:

City                             Salaries

                             American     English

Paris                         $17,500     $45,000
Berlin                         17,500        40,000
Vienna                         12,000        40,000
Constantinople                 10,000        40,000
St. Petersburg                17,500        39,000
Rome                         12,000        35,000
Washington                        --         32,500

Sir Julian Pauncefote, the English ambassador at Washington, has a very
fine house besides--at no damage to his salary.

English ambassadors pay no house rent; they live in palaces owned by
England. Our representatives pay house-rent out of their salaries. You
can judge by the above figures what kind of houses the United States of
America has been used to living in abroad, and what sort of return-
entertaining she has done. There is not a salary in our list which would
properly house the representative receiving it, and, in addition, pay
$3,000 toward his family's bacon and doughnuts--the strange but
economical and customary fare of the American ambassador's household,
except on Sundays, when petrified Boston crackers are added.

The ambassadors and ministers of foreign nations not only have generous
salaries, but their Governments provide them with money wherewith to pay
a considerable part of their hospitality bills. I believe our Government
pays no hospitality bills except those incurred by the navy. Through
this concession to the navy, that arm is able to do us credit in foreign
parts; and certainly that is well and politic. But why the Government
does not think it well and politic that our diplomats should be able to
do us like credit abroad is one of those mysterious inconsistencies which
have been puzzling me ever since I stopped trying to understand baseball
and took up statesmanship as a pastime.

To return to the matter of house-rent. Good houses, properly furnished,
in European capitals, are not to be had at small figures. Consequently,
our foreign representatives have been accustomed to live in garrets--
sometimes on the roof. Being poor men, it has been the best they could
do on the salary which the Government has paid them. How could they
adequately return the hospitalities shown them? It was impossible. It
would have exhausted the salary in three months. Still, it was their
official duty to entertain their influentials after some sort of fashion;
and they did the best they could with their limited purse. In return for
champagne they furnished lemonade; in return for game they furnished ham;
in return for whale they furnished sardines; in return for liquors they
furnished condensed milk; in return for the battalion of liveried and
powdered flunkeys they furnished the hired girl; in return for the fairy
wilderness of sumptuous decorations they draped the stove with the
American flag; in return for the orchestra they furnished zither and
ballads by the family; in return for the ball--but they didn't return the
ball, except in cases where the United States lived on the roof and had

Is this an exaggeration? It can hardly be called that. I saw nearly the
equivalent of it, a good many years ago. A minister was trying to create
influential friends for a project which might be worth ten millions a
year to the agriculturists of the Republic; and our Government had
furnished him ham and lemonade to persuade the opposition with. The
minister did not succeed. He might not have succeeded if his salary had
been what it ought to have been--$50,000 or $60,00 a year--but his
chances would have been very greatly improved. And in any case, he and
his dinners and his country would not have been joked about by the hard-
hearted and pitied by the compassionate.

Any experienced 'drummer' will testify that, when you want to do
business, there is no economy in ham and lemonade. The drummer takes his
country customer to the theatre, the opera, the circus; dines him, wines
him, entertains him all the day and all the night in luxurious style; and
plays upon his human nature in all seductive ways. For he knows, by old
experience, that this is the best way to get a profitable order out of
him. He has this reward. All Governments except our own play the same
policy, with the same end in view; and they, also, have their reward.
But ours refuses to do business by business ways, and sticks to ham and
lemonade. This is the most expensive diet known to the diplomatic
service of the world.

Ours is the only country of first importance that pays its foreign
representatives trifling salaries. If we were poor, we could not find
great fault with these economies, perhaps--at least one could find a sort
of plausible excuse for them. But we are not poor; and the excuse fails.
As shown above, some of our important diplomatic representatives receive
$12,000; others, $17,500. These salaries are all ham and lemonade, and
unworthy of the flag. When we have a rich ambassador in London or Paris,
he lives as the ambassador of a country like ours ought to live, and it
costs him $100,000 a year to do it. But why should we allow him to pay
that out of his private pocket? There is nothing fair about it; and the
Republic is no proper subject for any one's charity. In several cases
our salaries of $12,000 should be $50,000; and all of the salaries of
$17,500 ought to be $75,000 or $100,000, since we pay no representative's
house-rent. Our State Department realises the mistake which we are
making, and would like to rectify it, but it has not the power.

When a young girl reaches eighteen she is recognised as being a woman.
She adds six inches to her skirt, she unplaits her dangling braids and
balls her hair on top of her head, she stops sleeping with her little
sister and has a room to herself, and becomes in many ways a thundering
expense. But she is in society now; and papa has to stand it. There is
no avoiding it. Very well. The Great Republic lengthened her skirts
last year, balled up her hair, and entered the world's society. This
means that, if she would prosper and stand fair with society, she must
put aside some of her dearest and darlingest young ways and
superstitions, and do as society does. Of course, she can decline if she
wants to; but this would be unwise. She ought to realise, now that she
has 'come out,' that this is a right and proper time to change a part of
her style. She is in Rome; and it has long been granted that when one is
in Rome it is good policy to do as Rome does. To advantage Rome? No--to
advantage herself.

If our Government has really paid representatives of ours on the Paris
Commission $100,000 apiece for six weeks' work, I feel sure that it is
the best cash investment the nation has made in many years. For it seems
quite impossible that, with that precedent on the books, the Government
will be able to find excuses for continuing its diplomatic salaries at
the present mean figure.

P.S.--VIENNA, January 10.--I see, by this morning's telegraphic news,
that I am not to be the new ambassador here, after all. This--well, I
hardly know what to say. I--well, of course, I do not care anything
about it; but it is at least a surprise. I have for many months been
using my influence at Washington to get this diplomatic see expanded into
an ambassadorship, with the idea, of course th--But never mind. Let it
go. It is of no consequence. I say it calmly; for I am calm. But at
the same time--However, the subject has no interest for me, and never
had. I never really intended to take the place, anyway--I made up my
mind to it months and months ago, nearly a year. But now, while I am
calm, I would like to say this--that so long as I shall continue to
possess an American's proper pride in the honour and dignity of his
country, I will not take any ambassadorship in the gift of the flag at a
salary short of $75,000 a year. If I shall be charged with wanting to
live beyond my country's means, I cannot help it. A country which cannot
afford ambassador's wages should be ashamed to have ambassadors.

Think of a Seventeen-thousand-five-hundred-dollar ambassador!
Particularly for America. Why it is the most ludicrous spectacle, the
most inconsistent and incongruous spectable, contrivable by even the most
diseased imagination. It is a billionaire in a paper collar, a king in a
breechclout, an archangel in a tin halo. And, for pure sham and
hypocrisy, the salary is just the match of the ambassador's official
clothes--that boastful advertisement of a Republican Simplicity which
manifests itself at home in Fifty-thousand-dollar salaries to insurance
presidents and railway lawyers, and in domestic palaces whose fittings
and furnishings often transcend in costly display and splendour and
richness the fittings and furnishings of the palaces of the sceptred
masters of Europe; and which has invented and exported to the Old World
the palace-car, the sleeping-car, the tram-car, the electric trolley, the
best bicycles, the best motor-cars, the steam-heater, the best and
smartest systems of electric calls and telephonic aids to laziness and
comfort, the elevator, the private bath-room (hot and cold water on tap),
the palace-hotel, with its multifarious conveniences, comforts, shows,
and luxuries, the--oh, the list is interminable! In a word, Republican
Simplicity found Europe with one shirt on her back, so to speak, as far
as real luxuries, conveniences, and the comforts of life go, and has
clothed her to the chin with the latter. We are the lavishest and
showiest and most luxury-loving people on the earth; and at our masthead
we fly one true and honest symbol, the gaudiest flag the world has ever
seen. Oh, Republican Simplicity, there are many, many humbugs in the
world, but none to which you need take off your hat!

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Mark Twain. Copyright 2008,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.