William Palfrey was the epitome of a patriot-diplomat. He had served as John Hancock’s chief clerk, and when American forces captured the British shipNancy and its prized cargo of weapons during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington himself charged Palfrey with off-loading its contents. Washington then appointed Palfrey as paymaster-general of the continental army.
In 1780, Congress appointed Palfrey America’s first consul, our government’s first formal representative to another state, and in December of that year Palfrey set sail from Pennsylvania on the Shillala bound for Bordeaux. Yet, after a stop in Delaware, the 16-gun ship was never heard from again. America’s lone consul had been lost at sea.
Fast forward to August 2013. Intercepted messages from al-Qaeda operatives hinting at attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts lead the Obama Administration totemporarily close 22 U.S. embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa. Former U.S. ambassador Chris Hill called the move “unprecedented.” Twelve tanks formed a ring around the U.S. embassy in Yemen.This article was originally published in The Atlantic.