Twelve generations after John Winthrop left England in 1630 to seek religious liberty in Massachusetts, his descendant Matthew Winthrop Barzun will soon return as U.S. ambassador.
Winthrop, the first governor of the Bay Colony, borrowed a phrase from the Sermon on the Mount to describe the promise of the New World and set a rhetorical style for presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan.
“We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill,” he told fellow Puritans on the voyage to Boston. “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
They “describe the hopes and expectations held by so many around the world for the U.S.-U.K. relationship,” he said.
President Obama last month nominated the 42-year-old Internet entrepreneur who helped bankroll both of his presidential campaigns. First. he appointed Mr. Barzun ambassador to Sweden, where he served from 2009 to 2011. Mr. Barzun’s wife, Brooke, is heiress to the Jack Daniels whiskey empire.
Mr. Barzun said during his confirmation hearing this week that he struggled to explain to the youngest of his three children the meaning of the “special relationship” between the two countries. The Senate confirmed him on Thursday.
“Words like ‘allies’ didn’t work,” he said. “‘Historic bilateral bonds’ were met with a blank stare. I thought for a while and then said, ‘We’re best friends.’ That worked.”
Mr. Barzun’s nomination surprised many diplomatic observers who expected Mr. Obama to chose Anna Wintour, the British-born editor of American Vogue fashion magazine.
A former aide to late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dismissed Mr. Barzun’s nomination as an “insult,” adding that Mr. Obama’s former fundraiser is unqualified to serve in America’s top diplomatic post.
“In many Western countries, this kind of appointment would be viewed as an unacceptable form of corruption,” Nile Gardiner wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.
“The appointment of Matthew Barzun and other major fundraisers to key diplomatic posts is an insult to the American people, as well as an insult to the countries to which they are being sent,” Mr. Gardiner, now at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, wrote after the White House announced the nomination. “America’s closest friend, Great Britain, deserves to have an ambassador of weight and gravitas.”
Most U.S. ambassadors to Britain have been political appointees of both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Raymond G.H. Seitz was the only career diplomat to serve as ambassador in London in modern history. He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
The position was held by five men who later would be elected president: John Adams, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan.
Foreign diplomats in London might be ambassadors to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but they are officially accredited to the Court of St. James.
No monarch has lived in St. James’ Palace since Queen Victoria moved the royal London residence to Buckingham Palace in 1837.
Today, no ambassador presents credentials at the Tudor castle built by Henry VIII. They go to Buckingham Palace to see Queen Elizabeth II.
But when she travels to her other castles in England or Scotland, the court travels with her.
So in a quirky British protocol that demanded a formal seat for the monarchy, the palace where no king or queen lives became the royal court of the realm.
• Embassy Row is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. James Morrison can be reached at email@example.com or @EmbassyRow.