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by Stanton Jue

Abraham Lincoln’s envoy to China played a most unusual role in the foreign relations of the United States by passionately advocating the principles of fairness, equality and reciprocity in U.S.-China relations, 1861-70. These principles were poignantly embedded in the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. However, there was no momentum, no traction. His achievements, hopes and pleas were quickly shattered by the xenophobic forces of the day. Clearly, Burlingame was a man ahead of his time.

Is it possible that an American diplomat was sent to China, then known as the Qing Empire, as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary and then upon completion of his tour returned to the United States as China’s roving envoy to Washington and European capitals? Yes, as rare as it was, Anson Burlingame was the diplomat who played that unusual dual role in the diplomatic history of the United States and China.

Anson Burlingame, appointed by Abraham Lincoln as the American envoy to China on June 14, 1861, returned to the United States as the envoy from China in November 1867. However, Burlingame was not the first American representative to China. That was Caleb Cushing, who served, 1843-44, in the wake of the first Opium War. Unlike Cushing, Burlingame had the more exalted title of envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary.

Who was Anson Burlingame?

Who was this American envoy and how did he play such a unique and unusual role in American diplomatic history? At a recent meeting of the Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired (DACOR) in Washington, I queried a number of retired diplomats including a few “old China hands”. Some had heard the name but did not know what Burlingame did or what he had accomplished. That spurred my interest and curiosity further.

In his early career, Anson Burlingame was a congressman from Massachusetts. He was also a Methodist lay leader of high moral standard and integrity, as exhibited by his stance on the controversial issue of slavery then debated around the country. A rousing orator, he delivered a scathing denunciation against Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina over slavery. The press, including The New York Times, described his performance as powerful and brilliant as one who could fire up a crowd like a revival evangelist like no other.

As a student at the University of Michigan’s Detroit campus, he already had a reputation for oratorical skill and power. After receiving a law degree from Harvard Law School under Justice Joseph Story in 1846, he practiced law in Boston for a brief period, won a wide reputation with his powerful and elegant speeches on behalf of the Free Soil Party and later the newly formed Republican Party in the Massachusetts legislature. He also was a man of broad vision, scope and versatility who could effectively speak out on the critical issues of the day before various audiences around the country.

His reputation attracted the attention of Abraham Lincoln, who less than three months after his inauguration offered Burlingame the job of representing the United States in Austria. But Burlingame was rejected by the Austrian authorities because of his views favoring Hungarian independence and the upgrade recognition of Sardinia. On June 14, 1861 Lincoln appointed him as envoy to China, then known as the Qing Empire.

Arriving in China

In 1861 there was no Foreign Service Institute in Washington to prepare Burlingame for the ambassadorial assignment. Without any previous knowledge about the country, he embarked immediately on an immersion course by traveling to cities and rural regions to learn more and better understand the Chinese people and their social and economic conditions. He proved to be a good student and quick learner, became quite well informed, and recognized China as a sovereign nation under enormous pressure exerted by western powers. He spoke up for the ordinary Chinese whose voices were rarely heard, and he articulated the issues of unfair treatment and injustice perpetrated by western powers in the years following the Opium War of 1839-42.

During that time the Chinese government suffered humiliation and defeat, first by the British and later by the French and others. China was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking, the major features of which were ceding the Hong Kong Island to Great Britain in perpetuity, opening of five sea ports (Canton, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai) for foreign trade and commerce, and paying heavy reparation for the destruction of opium by Chinese armed forces. In 1858 China again was forced by Britain, France and others to sign the Treaty of Tientsin, which opened additional port cities to foreign trade and commerce, legalized the import of opium, allowed missionaries to travel freely to parts of China, and paid indemnity to western powers .

Burlingame arrived in China at the time the Qing Empire was weak and experiencing a most difficult time with foreign powers aggressively seeking special privileges and access to commerce. One of the first Chinese officials Burlingame came in contact with was Prince Kung, regent and principal advisor to Emperor Tongzhi (1862-1875) and concurrently minister of Zongli Yamen, a temporary government agency set up to handle foreign affairs in Beijing. There was no Ministry of Foreign Affairs per se until 1901 when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was formally established. Prince Kung, born in 1820, was the sixth son of Emperor of Dao Guang (1821-1851) who was commonly known in Chinese as “Foreign Devil 6” in reference to his being the sixth son of the emperor who dealt with foreigners or “foreign devils”.

Because of Burlingame’s empathy for the Chinese people, he and Prince Kung quickly became friends. They frequently discussed and sometimes criticized foreign powers for treating China unfairly; some diplomats in Beijing even referred to him as a member of the Chinese team.

After a three-year assignment as the top American diplomat in Beijing, he returned to the United States on home leave in 1865-66. During this period he delivered numerous speeches in support of China’s causes around the country. In San Francisco he met an influential banker named William C. Ralston. Through him, Burlingame purchased a villa of some 1,100 acres in the Belmont area for his retirement home after leaving public service. But he never had a chance to live there, as he died in 1870 in St. Petersburg during negotiations with the Russians. Twenty three years after his death, influential leaders and wealthy residents in the Belmont region named the town site Burlingame in honor of this famous American diplomat. Today Burlingame city, with a population of approximately 28,000, is an upscale residential community in San Mateo County, only a few miles from San Francisco International Airport.

During home leave, Burlingame considered seriously re-entering domestic politics in the United States, but Secretary of State William H. Seward and others persuaded him to return to China to resume important negotiations that he had initiated.

Anson Burlingame, China’s Roving Envoy

In 1867, in considering Burlingame’s unique quality and ability, Prince Kung asked him if he would serve as China’s envoy to Washington and as roving envoy to major capitals of Europe for the purpose of renegotiating China’s treaties with foreign powers. Burlingame accepted the idea tentatively, pending approval from Washington and the complex vetting process both in Beijing and in Washington.

According to Chinese records, Prince Kung reported the conversation to the emperor, stating that China was facing the prospect of renegotiating the treaties with foreign governments and that Zongli Yamen (China’s agency to deal with foreign affairs) did not have suitable personnel either in language capability or experience for the task. On the other hand, Burlingame, a foreigner of high integrity and ability, could perform the task well for China. Kung also stated that during Burlingame’s time on home leave he had helped China resolve a number of difficult problems and settle disputes with foreign countries. In a farewell dinner Burlingame reportedly said he would like to continue to help settle disputes unfair to China in the future, if the Qing court asked him. On a number of occasions, Kung continued, Burlingame spoke passionately about China with sympathy and feeling. In Kung’s view, representing China by a foreigner who was honest and trustworthy should be seriously considered.

Following some deliberations after Prince Kung’s briefing, the emperor approved the appointment of Burlingame as China’s envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to the West. Burlingame then led a large Chinese delegation to Washington to enter into negotiations with Secretary of State William H. Seward in May and June 1868. While they both agreed with the principal features of the policy which the United States and western powers pursued toward the Qing Empire, Burlingame displayed extraordinary skills in drafting eight additional articles, which supplemented the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin to form the Burlingame Treaty, also known as the Seward-Burlingame Treaty. This new treaty accorded equality, fairness, and reciprocity to China and gave China the “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) status similar to privileges enjoyed by other friendly nations. The eight articles were signed in Washington and ratified by both governments, thus marking for the first time China’s agreement to enter the international community of nations on the basis of equality.

“Presentation of Hon. Anson Burlingame and the attaches of the Chinese embassy to the President Andrew Johnson at the Executive Mansion, Washington, DC, June 5th” (1868 image, courtesy of N.Y. Public Library Digital Gallery)

Briefly, the Burlingame Treaty-1868

· Recognized China’s right of eminent domain over all of her territory

· Gave China the right to appoint consuls at ports of the United States, who shall enjoy the same privileges and immunities as those of Great Britain and Russia.

· Provided the citizens of the United States in China of every religious persuasion and Chinese subjects in the U.S. shall enjoy the entire liberty of conscience and shall be exempt from disability or persecution on account of their religious faith or worship in either country.

· Granted certain privileges to citizens of either country residing in either country the privilege of naturalization, however, being specifically withheld.

In essence, the Burlingame Treaty encouraged the influx of Chinese immigrants as a source of cheap labor. However, there was strong resistance by people in California and other parts of the west coast. During this period of xenophobia and misinformation and misunderstanding, Congress attempted to abrogate the treaty by legislation, but President Rutherford Hayes vetoed the bill on the ground of separation of powers under the American constitutional system. Hayes directed James B. Angell to renegotiate the treaty in 1880. Several years later Angell was appointed American envoy to China. The treaty was amended but it did not prohibit Chinese immigration, while confirming the obligation of the United States to protect the rights of Chinese immigrants who were already in country. However, the treaty became naught when it was reversed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, thus setting a pattern of continuing discrimination against Chinese immigration until World War II when the Chinese Exclusion Act was abolished.

Burlingame’s Journey to Europe

With the mission to renegotiate China’s treaties with European powers, Burlingame and his large delegation of two Chinese ministers as deputies, six foreign affairs officers as attaches, and more than 20 supporting personnel first arrived in London in the latter part of 1868. When he discovered the Qing Empire had no national flag, he ingeniously made up one with the “dragon” design, a symbol of China on a background of yellow, an imperial color.

In London the delegation was cordially received, reaching a general agreement on principles, but not a treaty, with Lord Clarendon of the British Foreign Office regarding an approach to China. The delegation proceeded to the next stop on the itinerary, Paris, then Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Berlin. The final stop was the capital of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg. Burlingame’s Chinese delegation had been favorably received at each stop, and by Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg. The Russian winter weather proved too severe for Burlingame and he contracted pneumonia from which he died on February 23, 1870. He was not even 50 years old. Chih Kang, his senior deputy, assumed leadership and led the delegation to Brussels and Rome before returning to China in October 1870.

The Qing Empire showed high respect and warm gratitude for what Burlingame had done to increase China’s status in the international community in the nineteenth century. During his tenure as China’s envoy, Burlingame’s elegant speeches contributed much to awaken American interest in China and engender a more intelligent and matured appreciation of the Chinese people, its history, culture and values. In many ways he helped open Chinese ports favorable to American trade and commerce, which was also an important part of his mission when Abraham Lincoln appointed him to China. He performed his mission well for both the United States and China. The Chinese imperial court posthumously awarded him a civil service title of the First Rank and a pension of $10,000 and other privileges to his family. He was buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Burlingame’s colossal achievement in promoting equality and fair treatment of China, brief though it was, was not a fluke. Unfortunately, there was no momentum when xenophobia, ignorance, hate and fear dominated the political environment. So racial discrimination against Chinese immigration in America persisted for many years until China and the United States became allies during World War II, when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was finally abolished.End.

Stanton Jue
Stanton Jue

Stanton Jue is an FSO who retired after a career spanning 35 years with USIA and State. He has spent much of his career in East Asia and the Pacific, where his assignments included Phnom Penh, Taipei, Tokyo, Saigon, Seoul, Canberra, and Beijing, and a six-year assignment in Washington to help with the normalization of relations with China. He covers the rise of China and its broad global implications.

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