Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 10

Chapter 10. Records of the Foreign Affairs Committee

Table of Contents

Records of the House Foreign Affairs Committee 1822-1968 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committees discussed in this chapter:
Jurisdiction and History

10.1 The Committee on Foreign Affairs gained status as a standing committee of the House of Representatives in 1822, but its antecedents date as far back as 1775 when the Continental Congress established a committee to correspond with friends abroad. In 1777 that committee changed its name from Committee of Secret Correspondence to Committee for Foreign Affairs. Although in 1781 the Continental Congress established a Department of Foreign Affairs, the legislature retained real power over foreign relations until the inauguration of the new Federal Government. Under the Constitution the preponderance of control over foreign affairs shifted to the executive branch. Within the legislative branch the Senate's responsibilities both for treaty ratification and for confirmation of presidentially nominated diplomatic agents gave it a measure of pre-eminence in matters of foreign policy.

10.2 As early as 1815 Representative Richard H. Wilde proposed that the House establish a standing committee on foreign affairs. The idea was rejected at that time, but in 1822 the House established the Committee on Foreign Affairs, with jurisdiction over "matters which concern the relations of the United States with foreign nations.''1

10.3 The committee's basic jurisdiction remained unchanged until 1885 when the committee gained power to report germane appropriations measures, a power it lost to the Appropriations Committee in 1920. Today the Appropriations Committee is but one of no less than 18 committees with whom the Foreign Affairs Committee shares jurisdiction regarding international concerns. Nonetheless, the Foreign Affairs Committee maintains primacy in the House in foreign affairs, largely through its power to authorize foreign economic and military assistance.

10.4 For the 90th Congress the committee's jurisdiction covered:

    (a) Relations of the United States with foreign nations generally. (b) Acquisition of land and buildings for embassies and legations in foreign countries. (c) Establishment of boundary lines between the United States and foreign nations. (d) Foreign loans. (e) International conferences and congresses. (f) Intervention abroad and declarations of war. (g) Measures to foster commercial intercourse with foreign nations and to safeguard American business interests abroad. (i) Neutrality. (j) Protection of American citizens abroad and expatriation. (k) The American National Red Cross. (l) United Nations Organization and international financial and monetary organizations.2
In the past the committee's jurisdiction included declarations of peace (e.g., termination of the state of war with Germany following World War I) and the creation of United States courts in foreign countries. The committee shared jurisdiction with both the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization for matters relating to restrictions against Chinese immigration. The committee exercised preliminary jurisdiction for measures relating to a Central American interoceanic canal.

10.5 In 1976 the Foreign Affairs Committee, then known as the Committee on International Relations, published an eight-volume Historical Series of transcripts of selected executive session hearings, 1943-50 [Y4.In8/16:62/v. 1-81]. An additional ten volumes for the period 1951-56 were published in 1980; three more, 1957-60, appeared in 1987 [Y4.F76/1:H62/v. 9-21].

10.6 The two most comprehensive published secondary works relating to the Committee are Albert C. F. Westphal's The House Committee on Foreign Affairs (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942) and Holbert N. Carroll's The House of Representatives and Foreign Policy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958; revised edition, Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1966).

10.7 The records of the committee are described below in three chronological periods. The first begins with the earliest records in the National Archives for the select committees that preceded the standing committee (11th Congress, 1810) and continues through those for the 54th Congress (1897). The second essentially covers the years from the Spanish-American War through the end of World War II, the 55th through the 79th Congresses (1897-1946). The third covers the period from the 80th Congress through the 90th Congresses (1947-1968).

Records of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Predecessor Select Committees, 11th-54th Congresses (1810-1897)*


Record TypeVolumeDates (Congresses)
Minute Books16 volumes1841-47 (27th-29th), 1861-97 (37th-54th)
Docket Books23 volumes1825-47 (19th-29th), 1851-97 (32d-54th)
Petitions and Memorials20 feet1809-13 (11th-12th), 1815-21 (14th-16th), 1823-97 (18th-54th)
Committee Papers14 feet1811-15 (12th-13th), 1818-51 (15th-31st), 1853-97 (33rd-54th)
TOTAL34 feet and 39 volumes (3 ft.) 
Records Summary Table

*see also tables for 55th-90th Congresses after paras. 10.41 and 10.57. Description of committee records 1897-1968.

10.8 The earliest minutes are contained in three combination minute/docket volumes for the 27th, 28th and 29th Congresses (1841-47). The minutes portion of the volume for the 27th Congress includes a partial account of Thomas W. Gilmer's unsuccessful attempt to unseat John Quincy Adams as committee chair. Some of the entries in this volume are in Adams' handwriting. For the combination minute/docket books the docket entries will often appear on a left-hand page, while minutes, which bear no direct relationship to the docket entries, are found on the corresponding right-hand page. It is not unusual to find minute entries giving little more than the date of the meeting, the names of those present, and a one-sentence account of what transpired. Other entries provide additional information as to text of resolutions, substitute measures, and yea-nay committee divisions.

10.9 Separate volumes of minutes begin with the 37th Congress, 2d session (1861). The most comprehensive set of minutes are those for the 51st Congress, as recorded by the committee clerk, James G. Blaine, Jr. For this volume the clerk wrote in red in the left margin of each page the subject matter under discussion. On the final page of the volume there is an entry stating that on February 25, 1891, papers of the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the 36th and the 38th through the 50th Congress were delivered to the file room. The clerk added the comment: "The papers were in some cases not the complete papers of the Session.''

10.10 The earliest committee docket is in a bound volume containing entries from the 19th through the 26th Congresses (1825-41). Through the 21st Congress entries are arranged alphabetically for the petition, resolution, or bill in question. For the 22nd through the 26th Congresses entries are recorded in chronological order. Dockets for subsequent Congresses are arranged chronologically by date of receipt. Typically a docket entry will give the date of introduction, the name of the Congressman introducing the measure, the measure's subject matter, and "remarks,'' which may describe the disposition of the document. As with the minutes, the docket entries for the 51st Congress are the most detailed.

10.11 An unusual type of docket book is an Abstract of References for the 43rd-45th Congresses (1873-1879). This volume is arranged by congressional session and thereunder by name of committee member. Individual entries for each member are arranged in chronological order. Information given includes docket number, nature of reference, date of report, nature of report, and action of the committee.

10.12 For the 11th-23rd Congresses (1810-1835) the National Archives holds relatively few petitions and memorials, barely 10 inches total. Petitions and memorials, in part, determined the committee's agenda. These files vary in format. Some include a single letter from an individual describing a grievance and asking redress. Others contain petitions with thousands of signatures. A file may also contain support documentation such as letters from other persons favoring a position, newspaper clippings, copies of congressional bills or reports, or other printed matter, but such files occur infrequently. Typically a petition will have an endorsement on its reverse side briefly listing the author, subject, Congressman introducing it, and the date it was referred to the committee. Sometimes a particular petition file will have a corresponding file in committee papers for a subsequent Congress.

10.13 Claims petitions can be found for most Congresses. Most common were claims submitted by employees of the consular or diplomatic services who sought additional pay for services rendered or who asked for reimbursement for personal funds expended. A second group of claimants was American merchants who had suffered the loss of sailing vessels and/or cargoes at the hands of foreign governments or pirates in foreign lands. It was not unusual for claims from a particular individual or heirs to be resubmitted from one Congress to another. Occasionally claims from foreigners were handled by the committee, including one from heirs of the ex-Bashaw of Tripoli which discussed assistance given Americans during the Barbary wars (37A-G4.4).

10.14 Petitions for changes in the consular or diplomatic services--often grouped within the claims category--frequently came from State Department employees, the very men who would benefit most from changes that would increase the salary of a particular consular post or upgrade the level of consular or diplomatic representation in a foreign city. From some of these petitions, such as that of a former consul in Oldenburg (35A-G6.1), much can be learned about the anticipations of new appointees, the realities they faced, and the importance of their posts. On occasion, religious or ethnic concerns manifest themselves, as was the case of Jewish petitioners in 1874 who wanted the consulship at Bucharest, one of whose main functions was to challenge persecutions against the local Jewish population, to be made a salaried position (43A-H6.2). During the early 1890's, petitions began appearing from groups such as the St. Paul, MN, Chamber of Commerce (53A-H11.5) and the National Association of Manufacturers (54A-H11.6) urging the appointment of appropriately trained men to the consular service.

10.15 Merchants, at least in the pre-Civil War years, wrote a significant share of the petitions and memorials referred to the committee. Some of these petitions discussed the state of affairs in various areas of the world. Others recorded complaints, as did one denouncing the Danish government's quarantine preventing American vessels from the West Indies from trading at Elsinore and other Baltic ports (24A-G6.3). One petition identified ports in British North America that were "free ports'' and explained what that meant (25A-G6.8).

10.16 In the post-Civil War years other economic groups pressed their cases. The Board of Trade of Philadelphia endorsed American participation in the 1867 Paris Exposition (39A-Hl10.1). Cyrus W. Field called for the incorporation of the Pacific Submarine Telegraph Company (41A-H4.2). Agricultural interests objected to the closure of European markets to leaf tobacco (46A-H9.1) and to pork products (48A-H9.4).

10.17 Resolutions from State legislatures constitute an insignificant proportion of the total number of petitions and memorials, but they do illustrate the subjects on which the committee was asked to act. No State sent more than did Maine, whose concerns included international trade (25A-G6.8), timber duties (28A-G7.10), boundary matters (46A-H9.2), and treaty-sanctioned fishing rights (46A-H9.2). Immediately prior to the War of 1812 the legislatures of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and the Mississippi Territory sent resolutions supporting measures to defend the honor of the United States (12A-F5.1). Alabama requested the annexation of Texas (27A-G7.3). Missouri asked for treaty negotiations which would lead to the recovery of slaves who had found refuge in Canada (29A-G5.4). Indiana made clear its opposition to the proposed annexation of Santo Domingo (41A-H4.2). Oregon asked for the incorporation of the Maritime Canal Company of Nicaragua (47A-H9.3). The Washington Territory prayed for an end to Chinese immigration (49A-H9.1). Colorado called for the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands (52A-H7.1).

10.18 During the 19th century the three subjects that prompted the greatest number of petitions to the committee were those involving the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War (25A-G6.1, 26A-G6.3, 27A-G7.3, 28A-G7.5, 29A-G5.3, 30A-G6.2), restrictions on Chinese immigration (41A-H4.2, 42A-H5.1, 44A-H5.3, 48A-H9.3, 49A-H9.1, 50A-H10.2, 51A-H8.1, 52A-H7.4, 53A-H11.3), and Cuban independence (41A-H4.1, 42A-H5.3, 43A-H6.2, 54A-H11.2). On controversial issues such as these, the petitions, both pro and con, are interfiled. The single petition with the greatest number of signers was from New Yorkers favoring the selection of their city for the 1892 World's Fair (51A-H8.5).

10.19 While the majority of petitions on such subjects as suppression of the international slave trade (25A-G6.7), American recognition of Haiti (25A-G6.7) and of Liberia (31A-G6.3) do not indicate the race of the petitioners, other petitions clearly were submitted by blacks. These include one from "free people of colour'' in New York in 1838 who sought protection of their rights in traveling between the South Carolina/Georgia area and Cuba (25A-G6.8). Another, from the 1880's, was from seven blacks in Arkansas who asked for assistance to emigrate to Liberia (49A-H9.3). Emigration assistance also was requested by whites who sought help in moving to Oregon (22A-G7.1). Beginning in the early 1880's the committee received petitions asking that immigrants who were likely to become public charges be returned to Europe (46A-H9.2).

10.20 Petitioners were concerned with the rights of Americans abroad, including the enjoyment of public worship (32A-G7.7). Some petitions called for the release of particular Americans held as prisoners in foreign lands (27A-G7.2). The protection of naturalized American citizens in areas ruled by Great Britain inspired a petition drive which collected several thousand signatures (40A-H6.1). In later years petitions shifted to calls for a "Permanent Treaty of Arbitration'' with Great Britain. One of these was signed by Frances E. Willard and other members of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (53A-H11.2).

10.21 Irish-Americans petitioned for amnesty for political prisoners confined in English prisons (54A-H11.6). Jewish-Americans from Philadelphia, PA, protested against anti-Semitic measures in Russia (47A-H9.5). Citizens from Hartford, CT, urged that pressure be brought on Turkey to prevent the repetition of crimes against Armenians (53A-H11.5).

10.22 As early as 1838, ministers from Massachusetts declared that the time had come for the establishment of a convention or Congress of Nations to settle principles of international law and to organize a High Court of Nations for the adjudication of international disputes (25A-G6.5), a subject on which the committee received additional petitions in succeeding Congresses.

10.23 Committee papers include some petitions and memorials, as well as presidential messages, transmittal letters from the President and the Secretary of State, resolutions, manuscripts of documents later printed as committee reports, supplemental correspondence, printer's copies of bills, and copies of printed bills, documents and reports (sometimes with annotations). Committee reports and documents are available as a part of the Congressional Serial Set. These are listed in T. H. McKee's 15-page index of reports of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1822-1887, which is bound with indexes for other House committees in the 1887 volume Compilation of Indexes to House Reports (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1887).

10.24 The contents of the committee papers files are not standardized. Often an endorsement on a document will include the docket number recorded in the docket volume. Until the 39th Congress (1865-1867) committee papers rarely averaged more than 2 or 3 inches per Congress. Administrative records (40A-F9.1, 42A-F10.1, 43A-F11.4, 48A-F13.1, 52A-F18.1 and 54A-F16.1) sometimes include listings of committee members, docket entry sheets, letters relating to committee business, manuscript copies of resolutions, and printed bills and resolutions.

10.25 As with the petitions and memorials category, claims comprise a significant share of committee papers. The papers for the 36th Congress (1859-1861) include 15 claims (36A-D10.1). Of these, 11 involved service by members of the diplomatic or consular services, 2 involved ship owners who had suffered losses in foreign lands, and 2 were from citizens for losses suffered in Mexico and in Nicaragua.

10.26 The typical claim submitted by consular and diplomatic personnel sought reimbursement for the temporary performance of duties as a higher graded official, a practice explained by the Secretary of State Louis McLane in 1834 (23A-D7.3). Sometimes particular claims would be considered in subsequent Congresses, as was the salary claim by Alexander Scott for his service in 1812-1813 as U.S. diplomatic agent to Venezuela (20A-D9.1, 21A-D10.1, 23A-D7.1, 24A-D8.1, 25A-D10.1, and 26A-D9.1).

10.27 French spoliation claims resulted from losses sustained by American merchants from French armed vessels during the 1790's and very early 1800's (14A-F5.l, 16A-D10.1, 17A-C11.1, 18A-C6.2, 19A-D8.1, 20A-D9.1, 23A-D7.1, 25A-D10.2, 28A-D12.1, 36A-D10.1, etc.). As late as 1885 the subject remained one of discussion between the Secretary of State and the committee chairman (48A-F13.8).

10.28 Nineteenth century claims against Spain concerned various matters relating to Cuba (17A-C11.2, 18A-F6.2, 19A-D8.1, 33A-D6.3,). Claims against Great Britain included not only those covered by the Treaty of Ghent (18A-C6.2), but also those stemming from damages American ships suffered during the Civil War from British-built Confederate warships, including the Alabama (40A-F9.9, 41A-F10.1). Americans also submitted claims against other foreign governments including Portugal (20A-D9.1), Russia (20A-D9.2), Haiti (21A-D10.1), Denmark (24A-D88.1), Venezuela (44A-F16.12), New Zealand (46A-F15.5), Brazil (48A-F13.4) and Argentina (48A-F13.5).

10.29 The committee was also involved with claims by foreigners against the United States. These included compensation to the owners of the Amistad, a Spanish slave ship (28A-D12.2), the recovery for damages to the owners of a Norwegian ship for discriminatory treatment during the Union's Civil War blockade of Charleston harbor (37A-E6.7) and objections from citizens of Switzerland against American import duties on watches (39A-F9.12)

10.30 The committee exercised jurisdiction over questions concerning gifts and decorations given to officeholders by foreign rulers. Background information on past practices can be found in Secretary of State Louis McLane's circular of 1834 (23A-D7.3). Particular files include those for awards from Russia (37A-E6.8), France (39A-F9.10), Portugal (41A-F10.14), Turkey (44A-F16.11), and Argentina, Canada, Germany, and Russia (54A-F6.5). Documents regarding horses presented by the rulers of Turkey and Morocco also are among the committee papers (21A-D10.2, 23A-D7.2, 23A-D7.3).

10.31 Prior to the 1850's the committee devoted relatively little attention to a comprehensive overview of the workings of the diplomatic and consular services. The committee papers do include some multi-year reviews of State Department expenditures, such as a compilation of expenses relating to foreign intercourse, 1821-1833 (23A-D7.3). In the manuscript copy of a report on the diplomatic and consular systems there is a review of operations for the years 1841-1853 (33A-D6.4).

10.32 Although comprehensive legislation on the foreign services was enacted in the mid-1850's, the committee continued to consider modifications and changes for posts abroad. For example, an examination of committee papers for the 42nd Congress (1871-1873) reveals the following consular-related topics (42A-F10.4): agents for consular inspections; the proposed abolition of the consulate at Yedo, Japan; the proposed upgrading of the consulate at Manchester, England; the possibility of changing the consulate at Bombay, India from a fees-compensated position to a salaried position; an account of the way the consul at Belfast, Ireland got his job; a printer's copy of a Senate bill from the 41th Congress listing all U.S. consular positions around the world with corresponding salary levels; and a document from the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai on the regulation of the consular system in China.

10.33 Information on consular matters in a particular country is scattered throughout the committee papers. For example, references to China can be found in files on activities in 1854 on behalf of shipwrecked Americans (33A-D6.5), consular salaries (39A-F9.4), consular courts (34A-D7.2, 42A-F10.4, 43A-F11.6), charges made in 1876 against the former Consul General at Shanghai (44A-F16.2), the need for additional personnel in 1880 (46A-F15.5), and the importance of the consulate at Shanghai, 1886 (49A-F15.3).

10.34 Committee papers contain information on the responsibility the House shared with the Senate for approving funds for the implementation of treaties. Thus there are letters in the committee papers concerning appropriations to pay Russia for the purchase of Alaska in 1867 (40A-F9.15). Also, the Secretary of State occasionally notified the committee of the necessity of appropriations to meet the expenses of such organizations as the Tribunal of Arbitration established under the 1871 Treaty of Washington (42A-F10.6) or the need for legislation for the payment of claims, such as those under the convention of 1868 between the United States and Mexico (45A-F15.5).

10.35 Committee papers shed light on the workings of Congress concerning matters relating to Texas independence, relations with Mexico, and the Mexican War, 1836-48 (24A-D8.2, 25A-D10.3, 26A-D9.2, 27A-D8.3, 28A-D12.2, 29A-D7.3). Nicholas P. Trist's unpublished 1848 letters on his peace negotiations with Mexico in 1848 are not among the records of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, but they can be found elsewhere in the House records (30A-K1). Other matters affecting Mexico included loans and internal political developments (39A-F9.12), the boundary line (49A-F15.11, 50A-F15.5), commercial relations (41A-F10.4), Indian attacks across the border into Texas (42A-F10.7), and the failure of a colonization scheme involving black Americans (54A-F16.7).

10.36 Committee papers relating to the 1819 treaty between Spain and the United States for the purchase of Florida are concerned chiefly with the payment of claims from inhabitants of East Florida for losses of slaves caused by American forces in 1812 and 1814 (19A-D8.4, 20A-D9.1, 43A-F11.8, 49A-F15.2). Another Spanish-related concern had to do with affairs in Cuba. A manuscript copy of an 1859 report on unadjusted differences with Spain discussed the future of Cuba (35A-D7.5). A decade later, in a transmittal letter which accompanied various documents on Cuba, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish gave his view on the role of Congress vis-a-vis the President in the conduct of foreign affairs (40A-F9.8). Additional information on Cuba was collected by the committee from 1875 to 1895 (44A-F16.3, 48A-F13.15, 54A-F16.4).

10.37 Relations with other countries in the Caribbean area were of special concern to the committee as well. Relations with Santo Domingo, 1868-71, are documented in the committee papers (40A-F9.13, 41A-F10.6, 41A-F10.10). Files relating to Haiti focused on the question of American recognition (24A-D10.4, 28A-D12.2) and on internal conditions (40A-F9.10). Papers on Nicaragua dealt with the capture of William Walker in 1857 (35A-D7.3) and an interoceanic canal, 1879-87 (46A-F15.4, 47A-F12.5, 48A-F13.2, 49A-F15.6). In addition, the committee examined the matter of trade with the British West Indies (27A-D8.2).

10.38 Just as the committee papers have information on America's neighbors to the south, they also contain information on Canada and/or British North America. Matters concerning the American border with Canada and/or the St. Lawrence River are considered in a number of files (19A-D8.3, 31A-D7.3, 38A-E7.1, 39A-F9.1, 43A-F11.10, 54A-F16.6). Other files concern American fishing rights in North American waters (49A-F15.10), trade (25A-D10.4, 52A-F18.6), and construction of war vessels on the Great Lakes (54A-F16.3).

10.39 Committee papers relating to islands in the Pacific, especially Hawaii (47A-F12.4, 53A-F16.2) and Samoa (50A-F15.l), emphasize American commercial interests. While the committee played a secondary role to the Education and Labor Committee in the enactment of legislation restricting Chinese immigration to the United States, papers of the Foreign Affairs Committee reflect an interest in the subject vis-a-vis treaty commitments with China (43A-F11.3, 48A-F13.17, 49A-F15.7). Other Far Eastern concerns were relations with Japan, including Japanese Indemnity Fund matters (41A-F10.5, 45A-F15.4, 46A-F15.3, 48A-F13.9, 49A-F15.8), and Korea (49A-F15.9), as well as additional topics relating to China (36A-D10.1, 40A-F9.7, 49A-F15.7).

10.40 As for Europe, the committee papers relating to American relations with Great Britain predominate (including 29A-D7.2, 39A-F9.7, 40A-F9.4, 42A-F10.6, 43A-F13.14, 44A-F16.5, 48A-F13.14), but relations with France are also well represented (including 36A-D10.3, 41A-F10.17, 48A-F13). Among the committee papers is a bill for the establishment of a permanent court of arbitration for the United States, Great Britain and France (50A-F15.4). In the latter part of the 19th century committee papers include items on American participation in international trade expositions in Great Britain (49A-F15.1), France (39A-F9.9, 40A-F9.15, 45A-F15.3, 50A-F15.6), Austria (42A-F10.2), Hungary (48A-F13.7), Spain (52A-F18.2), as well as in Australia (46A-F15.1, 50A-F15.6, 51A-F15.7).

10.41 Charges of banishments of criminals to the United States involved both Hannover (39A-F9.2) and Great Britain (50A-F15.2). Another prison-related concern of the committee had to do with Americans, including those of Irish background, incarcerated in foreign lands, (27A-D8.3, 43A-F11.1, 54A-F16.7). The committee's concern was not limited to fair treatment for Americans, since Russia's treatment of Jews (51A-F15.9) and Turkey's treatment of Armenians (54A-F16.2) also received special attention.

Table of Contents


1. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 17th Cong., 1st sess., Mar. 13, 1822, p. 351. Back

2. U.S. Congress, House, Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives of the United States, Ninetieth Congress, H. Doc. 529, 89th Cong., 2d sess., 1967, pp. 336-337. Back

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.