Huntington Wilson’s America: Digital Collection Sheds Light On Complex History
The Huntington Wilson Collection contains correspondence, notes, memoranda, diary entries, newspaper clippings and photographs from the diplomatic career and subsequent endeavors of Francis Mairs Huntington Wilson dating from 1897 to 1943. Huntington Wilson (1875-1946) served in the U.S. Embassy in Japan from 1897 to 1906, when he was appointed Third Assistant Secretary of State and reassigned to Washington D.C. In 1909, President Taft appointed him Assistant Secretary of State, a post he held for four years. The change in foreign policy with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1913 precipitated Huntington’s departure from the State Department. After leaving government service, Wilson traveled widely (especially in South America) and devoted much time to writing articles and books. He even wrote a semi-autobiographical satirical play called Stultitia: A Nightmare and an Awakening in Four Discussions (also known as “Save America”). Published anonymously in 1915, the play took a critical look at Congress’ role in foreign and defense policy.
Wilson worked as a columnist for the Philadelphia Public Ledger (published by Cyrus H. K. Curtis – the namesake of Ursinus’ Curtis dormitory) as an expert on foreign affairs. Many of his editorials and articles became the basis for his book, The Peril of Hifalutin’ (1918). He also wrote for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and managed the Philadelphia Commercial Museum from 1928 to 1932. At this time he published Money and the Price Level (1932). In the late 1930’s he worked extensively with the anti-isolationist “Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies” and the “Fight for Freedom” organization, both of which sought to sway the opinions of the United States public and politicians to involve the United States in World War II. His Memoirs of an Ex-Diplomat were published in 1945, shortly before his death.
After his appointment as Third Assistant Secretary of State in 1906, Wilson became chair of the Board of Examiners for the Consular Service. He, along with Wilbur J. Carr, overhauled the requirements for passing the written and oral exam, which would now address candidates’ mastery of a foreign language in addition to their “business ability … moral, mental, and physical qualifications, character … general education and good command of English.” Wilson was particularly impressed by one student candidate – Charles Lyon Chandler. Chandler was appointed as an interpreter in Japan and continued in the Foreign Service until 1914, having served in China, Uruguay, Argentina and Peru. He was the South American agent of the Southern Railroad system until 1918, where he conducted business tours of South America. Re-entering the Foreign Service in 1942 in Brazil, Chandler was considered an expert on Latin-American affairs and in 1946 was appointed as a visiting professor of political science at Ursinus College. For a detailed profile of Dr. Chandler, see the Spring 1947 issue of The Lantern.
Digitizing this collection has allowed librarians and students to spend more time with close analysis of each document, revealing themes that might not be obvious at first glance. In addition to expected foreign relations topics such as the Monroe Doctrine, Dollar Diplomacy and the Open Door Policy, one can also find important themes related to international trade, immigration and isolationism, the intersection of journalism and foreign policy and movements related to sexual hygiene and eugenics. Ursinus College student Briana Lambright ’24 worked on the papers related to Wilson’s early and later career, adding descriptive metadata to each digital document in the repository.
Bri shared her discoveries while working with the collection: “What I found of particular interest, both completely expected but also shocking, was how large a role themes such as racism, colonialism, and imperialism played in influencing Huntington-Wilson’s private and governmental affairs. His travel diaries, which record his trip throughout Latin America from 1914-1918, heavily feature these themes, even during times of documented relaxation. It became an expected process where Huntington would write in one paragraph detailing the lovely sights of Venezuela only to proceed to make particular note of various perceived problems he noted within the area’s indigenous populations. This is a phenomenon that can be noted throughout the collection, and truly highlights the culture and politics of the United States as it began its rise in global power. Huntington-Wilson is just one of many semi-influential actors from this period who highlights the themes seen throughout the early 20th century. This collection exists as a time capsule of the lived reality of those who built the foundations of our modern government and the legacy of global policies still being felt today.”
During the pandemic, Sean Mirski, a lawyer, foreign policy analyst and Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution, made use of the digitized materials in the collection for his forthcoming book: We May Dominate the World: Ambition, Anxiety, and the Rise of the American Colossus. Mirski states: “Archives are often the last category of sources to go online, which can be unfortunate because they can be simultaneously the most important and the most difficult to get physical access to. It’s also unfortunate that while some of the more prominent figures in American history have had their collections digitized, the collections of some lesser-known characters have been missed, even though these are the men and women who often shaped policy most directly and personally. Huntington Wilson himself is a good example. President Taft delegated much of the country’s foreign policy during his administration to the State Department, and Secretary of State Philander Knox in turn gave Assistant Secretary of State Huntington Wilson outsized responsibility for day-to-day affairs. Secretary Knox would not arrive at the Department until mid-morning, and he would then grab his clubs and leave shortly after lunch to go golfing, with which he (in)famously said he would not let ‘anything so unimportant as China interfere.’ While he was at the links, it was Huntington Wilson who was making the calls and decisions that drove much of the country’s foreign policy, for good or (as I argue in my book) for ill, and it is hard to find a document that went through the State Department during this era that did not have Huntington Wilson’s stamp on it.”
Scholarly Communications & Metadata Librarian