The years 1838-1841 found John Howard Payne in Washington, D.C., his pen busied with work for magazines such as the Democratic Review, which in that period published the works of William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to name but a few.
Of special note during this period is Payne’s reporting on the trial of Archilla Smith in April 1841 in the New York Journal of Commerce. Smith was a signer of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota who left Georgia for Oklahoma Territory in 1837. Smith, accused of the murder of John MacIntosh, was tried in December 1840 at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in the newly-established Cherokee court system. Payne’s account is reprinted in “Indian Justice: A Cherokee Murder Trial at Tahlequah in 1840,” available through the University of Oklahoma Press.
In 1840, the nation elected president “Old Tippecanoe,” William Henry Harrison, former first governor of Indiana Territory and hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe against the forces of the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. Harrison is usually remembered as the shortest serving president, having died after only 31 days in office to be succeeded by Vice President John Tyler. This unusual circumstance launched Payne’s diplomatic career.
When Tyler ascended to the presidency in April 1841, Payne became acquainted with both the president and members of his cabinet. Payne’s charms as a frequent and welcome guest of the White House led to cabinet members lobbying the actor to apply to President Tyler for an appointment to a consulship. Payne submitted his application, seconded by Senators Daniel Webster and William L. Marcy, and on Aug. 23, 1842, President Tyler appointed the actor and writer as consul to Tunis, Tunisia, a north African country on the Mediterranean.
Payne left for Tunis in February 1843. Payne recounted his journey to the far desert land in detail in a letter to his sister Elizabeth, reprinted in full in Gabriel Harrison’s “John Howard Payne: Dramatist, Poet, Actor and Author of Home, Sweet Home!” Among the sights on Payne’s journey were the ruins of ancient Carthage and the island described in the Roman poet Virgil’s “Aeneid.”
Payne experienced what is now called culture shock as he was carried through the bustling streets of Tunis to the consular’s residence, and was aghast at the conditions of the residence itself. Iron bars covered the windows, the walls were drab and, after being given a bundle of papers and letters to go over by the interim consular, Payne discovered his bed was a hard, wool mattress placed on a wooden plank built two feet off the ground. He slept fitfully the first night, fretting about the possibility that a scorpion would find its way into his bed.
Tunisia was then ruled by the Bey of Tunis, “Bey” being a term of Ottoman Turkish origin meaning “chieftain,” under the Husainid dynasty. The Husainids were established in 1705 and would remain in power until 1957, when Tunisia won its independence from France and the Republic of Tunisia was established. On his second morning in Tunis, Payne was escorted to the Palace of the Bey, hauntingly described in his letter to Elizabeth: “We enter the gate-way. Sentries and guards salute. Grim throngs, some standing and some reclining, fill long dark passages, on either side of which are low rooms. ... Persons with anxious and busy faces pass to and fro, some in humble garb, some richly clad, and wearing diamond orders. One of the apartments forms the hall of justice, where a move of the Bey’s hand may be to his subjects either All the world can give or Death. ... We enter a long drawing-room, carpeted, a range of numerous windows on one side. ... At the corner of the left-hand extremity, fronting me as I entered, sat a person in a tall red cap. At his left stood, with similar caps, two others, ... All had long, double-breasted blue frock-coats, closed from the top, descending to the heels, the yellow buttons stamped with the crescent and the star ... We are at our destination ... it was the Bey who sat before us.” Payne exchanged greetings of peace with the Bey, and his role of United States Consul to Tunis was settled. During his time as consul, Payne would meet regularly with the Bey and engage in the cultural activities of his office, including making firsthand observations of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar during which Muslims partake in fasting and prayer. Payne provides a mesmerizing account of the Beiram, the great feast night following Ramadan.
Upon Payne’s arrival at Tunis, he found the operations of the consul office neglected and in shambles. He immediately set about getting the office functioning and renovating the dilapidated consul’s residence, a process that would continue throughout his first tenure as consul, which lasted less than three years. Payne had also taken it upon himself to prepare a history of Tunis. Frustratingly, when Payne had whipped the office into shape, he was recalled by President-elect James Knox Polk in favor of an associate of Polk’s. Payne quietly accepted this turn of fortune, and, instead of beating a retreat from adventure, spent upwards of a year traveling Europe, spending time in Italy, France and England, according to Brainard’s biography, before returning to New York.
In autumn 1849, Payne returned to Washington, D.C., to try his hand at regaining his appointment to Tunis. Former President John Tyler, however, told Payne and his advocates that it would be best to bide until President Polk left office. Payne would not regain his consulship until a woman unnamed by either Harrison or Brainard made a direct appeal to President Millard Fillmore. Payne returned to Tunis in May 1851 and set about finishing the work he’d started during his first tenure. He would suffer a long illness in his second year back, passing away on April 9, 1852.
Yet there is more to the story. Thirty years on, John Howard Payne would take center stage in one last adventure.