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Former legation of Iran at the time of the Qajar dynasty in Washington, D.C.

A legation was a diplomatic representative office of lower rank than an embassy. Where an embassy was headed by an ambassador, a legation was headed by a minister. Ambassadors outranked ministers and had precedence at official events. Legations were originally the most common form of diplomatic mission, but they fell out of favor after World War II (1939-1945) and were upgraded to embassies.

Through the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, most diplomatic missions were legations. An ambassador was considered the personal representative of his monarch, so only a major power that was a monarchy would send an ambassador and establish an embassy.[1] A republic or a smaller monarchy would only send a minister and establish a legation. Diplomatic reciprocity meant that even a major monarchy would only establish a legation in a republic or a smaller monarchy.[2] For example, in Europe during the waning years of the Second French Empire (Emperor Napoleon IIII in the late 1860s, the brief North German Confederation to the east led by the Kingdom of Prussia had an embassy in Paris, while Bavaria in south Germany and the United States had only legations.[3]

The practice of establishing legations gradually fell from favor as the embassy became the standard form of diplomatic mission. The establishment of the French Third Republic in 1872 and the continued growth of the United States meant that two of the Great Powers of the world were now republics. The French Republic continued the previous French Empire's practice of sending and receiving ambassadors.[4] With the growth and stature of the United States in the world affairs in the late 19th century, overcoming its isolationist earlier tendencies in 1893, under 24th president Grover Cleveland, the United States followed the French precedent and began sending ambassadors, upgrading its various legations to embassies.[2] The last remaining American legations, were in eastern Europe in Bulgaria and Hungary, were eventually upgraded to embassies in 1966.[5]

The last legations in the world were the Baltic nations legations,[6][7] which were finally upgraded to embassies in 1991 after the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania along the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea) reestablished their previous independence (1918-1940) from the collapsing USSR with the dissolution of the Soviet Union which had illegally annexed them five decades earlier under dictator Joseph Stalin in 1940 over Western protests during World War II (1939-1945).

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  1. ^ "Ministers, Foreign". The popular encyclopedia; or, 'Conversations Lexicon'. Glasgow: W. G. Blackie. Those of the first class, to whom in France the title of ambassadeurs is restricted, are not merely the agents of their government, but represent their sovereign personally, and receive honours and enjoy privileges accordingly. They can be sent out only by such states as possess royal honours. 
  2. ^ a b Allen, Debra J. (2012). Historical Dictionary of U.S. Diplomacy from the Revolution to Secession. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. p. 84. ISBN 9780810878952. Basically, because of diplomatic protocol, a receiving state would not dispatch a representative with a higher rank than it has received, so when the U.S. sent ministers, it also received ministers, not ambassadors. ... The U.S. adjusted its ranking system in 1893 and began to send and receive ambassadors. 
  3. ^ Washburne, E. B. (1889). Recollections of a Minister to France, 1869–1877. New York: Scribner. 
  4. ^ Washburne, E. B. (1887). Recollections of a Minister to France, 1869–1877, Volume II. New York: Scribner. 
  5. ^ "Hungary – Countries – Office of the Historian". history.state.gov. Retrieved 2016-12-06. 
  6. ^ Kempster, Norman (31 October 1988). "Annexed Baltic States: Envoys Hold On to Lonely U.S. Postings". Los Angeles Times. 
  7. ^ U.S. Department of State (February 1990). Diplomatic List. U.S. Government Printing Office.