Prologue Magazine

Letters from the Middle Kingdom

The Origins of America's China Policy

Winter 2002, Vol. 34, No. 4

By David Gedalecia

©2002 by David Gedalecia

John Shillaber's signature
(General Records of the Department of State, RG 59)

The era of the early American China trade from the arrival of the first American ship, the Empress of China, in 1784 to the beginning of the Opium War between Britain and China in 1839 marked the heyday of tall trading ships and a time of daring and mystery for those who plied the route to the "Far East" around Cape Horn and across the Pacific.1 The British were in the vanguard of the China trade and monopolized it under the aegis of the East India Company. But private trade in opium, and the ensuing shift in the balance of trade in favor of Britain, brought about a transition to laissez-faire commerce outside of the single-port trade at Canton (Guangzhou) mandated by the Chinese government. The pernicious influence of opium in Chinese society and the increasing outflow of silver alarmed the Qing dynasty, which halted the trade at Canton and confiscated British opium stores. The honeymoon period of the early China trade was about to devolve upon a period of war and unequal treaties imposed on China by the West.

For the United States, a "minor league" competitor of the British, the early period of the China trade was characterized politically by an informal kind of proto-diplomacy associated with American consuls in Asia and elsewhere, who mostly functioned to support commerce. For some, the Far East represented an extension of the Far West as Americans expanded across the continent. There was both promise and danger in such ventures into terra incognita. In 1834 American consul John Shillaber wrote two letters to the President and the secretary of state, describing the ominous situation in China and urging an active American role in the rapidly changing political and economic climate. It is these letters that shall be analyzed here.

No matter what the aspirations were for an American role in East Asia, the most salient aspect of Sino-American relations before 1839 was the essential noninvolvement of the U.S. government in supervising the developing commercial scene. Even though America's China trade after 1815 became consolidated and stabilized,2 it was still difficult to institute a comprehensive diplomatic policy at Canton that would transcend the half-century-old informal consular system, where consuls acted on their own authority in support of the trading community. The outdated system continued to be trammeled by both the inaccessibility of Chinese and the diffidence of American central authorities.

The American consuls were really chief merchant-agents, receiving but an administrative pittance (apart from "insider trading" information on port commerce) and issuing reports to the Department of State on their circumscribed duties in safeguarding American property and estates and caring for sailors and residents.3 The U.S. government, while underwriting such functions, did nothing to guarantee legal protection for American citizens or to accord judicial authority to the Canton consuls.4 In a notable case of 1821, Francis Terranova, an Italian sailor on the Emily, an American ship, accidentally killed a Chinese woman. The Chinese authorities demanded jurisdiction, and the Americans turned Terranova over to them. Ultimately he was executed. Such conciliation in the face of intractable, and mostly surrogate, Chinese authority characterized American policy in East Asia in the early decades of the nineteenth century.5

America's "hands-off" policy in support of commercial interests was faced with a fluid trading situation. American and British private traders had done much to contribute to the demise of the East India Company's commercial monopoly in 1834. Between 1812 and 1830, the British became increasingly concerned over the expansion and consolidation of American commerce in China. They were concerned with the successful "carrying trade" in British manufactures, especially the American marketing of Indian opium beginning about 1830.6 The consignment trade tapered off after the abolition of the company monopoly in 1834, and it is arguable whether or not the decline was politically crucial in reducing American involvement in the forthcoming opium crisis between Britain and China.7

The two decades following 1821 saw a transition from a policy of American submission to Chinese authority and protection, which was a pragmatically useful contrast with more truculent British policy, to one of national consciousness among the American traders in China.8 To be sure, this growing consciousness was always tempered by the realization that the hong (hang) merchants (licensed by the Chinese government), even when mostly insolvent, still controlled the purse strings in a basically congenial trading climate. In fact, many American merchants opposed the establishment of official diplomatic relations, which was eventually stipulated in the Sino-American Treaty of Wangxia (1844), because they enjoyed being free of American governmental supervision, albeit without official legal protection.9

Though still competitive, British and American interests were becoming closer in the period between 1813 and 1830, especially after the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, which ended the War of 1812 and resulted in a diplomatic victory for the United States. The confluence of interests was also demonstrated in the Jacksonian "reciprocity of 1830," which established reciprocal trading privileges for the British in the West Indies and the Americans in British colonies.10 Neither can one ignore the American tendency to follow British initiatives at this time. There were ongoing tensions between Chinese and British governmental authorities in the wake of the dissolution of the company monopoly and the abortive Napier mission of 1834 (in which the British envoy, William Napier, pushed the Chinese too hard on the issue of trade extensions and parity and was rebuffed).11 Anglo-American reciprocity had the effect of drawing, or perhaps enticing, the United States into the breach.

Even in the early 1830s, President Andrew Jackson and Secretary of State Edward Livingston had made their own initiatives toward strengthening the American consular role in China, with respect to remuneration and the coordination of commercial and naval interests, as part of the American interest in expanding competitively in the Pacific region and East Asia.12 For them, a new era had dawned, even though the focus was on commercial expansion in China rather than on an attempt to establish political relations with the middle kingdom, which had not the slightest inclination to deal with any Western nation from a position of parity.

Jackson and Livingston were both greatly influenced by the "activist" reports of Edmund Roberts, the American consul in Demerara (British Guiana; today, Guyana), and by John Shillaber, the American consul in Batavia (today, Jakarta).13 In 1832 Secretary of the Navy Levi Woodbury (formerly senator from New Hampshire), a leading proponent of increased naval power in China,14 used his influence to have President Jackson appoint his friend Roberts, rather than Shillaber, as a special envoy to look into treaty possibilities. Since there were no formal diplomatic relationships with countries in the region, the U.S. government often relied on those most experienced in trade relations - the consuls - to seize opportunities for commercial and diplomatic contacts. Roberts proceeded to negotiate treaties in Siam (today, Thailand) on March 30, 1833, and in Muscat (today, Oman) on September 21, 1833. He was soundly rebuffed, however, in Cochin-China (southern Vietnam), where he refused to perform the kowtow (koutou),15 and, not surprisingly, at Canton in 1832, two years before the 1834 Napier mission.16

Shillaber, a Massachusetts native, served as the American consul in Batavia between 1825 and 1832, officially resigning from that post in 1835 while in China.17 In 1826, in Batavia, he tried unsuccessfully to secure the authority to sign American treaties with Siam and other kingdoms in the East Indies, like Sumatra, where, in 1830, the native population attacked American shipping. In 1831 (while on leave), at the request of the Department of State, he prepared treaty outlines dealing with Japan, expressing hopeful opinions about the future of U.S.-Japan relations.18 In 1832 Roberts was awarded the commission that Shillaber still expected to receive to negotiate treaties.19 Then in 1833 he wrote to Secretary Woodbury stating the need for a naval force in Chinese and Philippine waters to counteract the coastal piracy of the infamous Ladrones.20

Even with his diplomatic activities, Shillaber was discouraged at being passed over for the assignment to Siam secured by Roberts, and so in 1834 he attempted to gain the even more prestigious consular post at Canton. In his letters to President Jackson and to Secretary of State Livingston, describing the post-monopoly, pre-treaty political and commercial situation, Shillaber attempted to define himself as a "China expert" and diplomatic pundit.

The detailed correspondence from Shillaber, preserved in his own hand among the U.S. consular despatches in the National Archives in Washington, is remarkably prescient with respect to the inevitability of Sino-British hostilities and the need to define a more assertive American position in China.21 He recommended that American consuls have official power to represent the government before the Chinese authorities, protect the property and rights of American citizens, make vigorous efforts to open more ports to trade, and maintain an armed naval presence in East Asian waters. Significantly, however, Shillaber felt that American policy should have another purpose, namely, to show the Chinese that Americans were a breed apart, different from other Westerners, especially the British, who came to do business, assume control, and wreak havoc in China.

Two related questions emerge from an examination of Shillaber's correspondence with Jackson and Livingston. First, should one regard the U.S. role in China before the mid-nineteenth century as more derivative of British policy and opinion than of independent American initiative? And, second, was it really possible to accomplish what Shillaber suggests for the future regarding a unique American China policy without becoming more like the British?

Shillaber's Letter to President Andrew Jackson

On April 20, 1834, while in Canton, John Shillaber, who was at the time the American consul in Batavia, wrote a letter to President Andrew Jackson. His purpose was to persuade the President that he was qualified to be the American consul in China and to request that he be appointed to that position. By 1832 American trade had begun to decline sharply at Batavia once Singapore had become a successful trading center in Southeast Asia,22 so it is no wonder that Shillaber wanted to be located at Canton, where there was more promise for American commerce. He felt that he had a good chance to secure this appointment because the consul at the time, John H. Grosvenor, who served in the post haphazardly between 1827 and 1835, had not been on the scene for some time. He also felt that he had something important to say about the American position in East Asia, and thus it was with great self-confidence, and even a touch of chutzpah, that Shillaber made the request and expressed his opinions to the President himself.

Shillaber begins his letter by asking to exchange consular positions, Canton for Batavia, should his views be in accord with those of the President, and then goes on to describe the political and commercial situations in China that may have a bearing on the interests of Americans at Canton:

I use the term political with reference to positions that Americans may be drawn into, or forced to take by acts of British subjects, and the measures of the British Commissioners about to be placed by the British Government in China, to look to the interests of trade, rights, etc. [and] to punish aggressions upon or wrongs done to the natives of China, by subjects of the King of Great Britain.23

Shillaber speaks of measures that Britain will likely take to protect trade in the wake of the demise of the East India Company monopoly on trade in China in 1833. With laissez-faire becoming the rule, it would be the governments, through their appointed commissioners, that would take charge of such political functions that the factories in Canton had provided.24 Shillaber feels that it will be difficult for the United States not to fall in line with British policy and is concerned that crimes committed by British subjects against the Chinese will reflect badly on Americans.

Shillaber emphasizes that the laws of England will apply to British subjects in China, which is an argument in favor of extraterritoriality. As he says:

I infer it is the determination of that Government [England] never again to give up to the Chinese authorities one of its subjects for trial or punishment. This position of affairs must soon lead to collision between the two parties and eventually bring some important questions to an issue; for I deem it morally certain that conflicts between the crews of British vessels, and the Chinese at Whampoa, cannot be prevented . . . and may not sailors belonging to American vessels join heedlessly by the English in affrays, and thus implicate the Nation, its trade and citizens resident in China.25

He goes on to point out that "national honor" and "national feelings"26 would soon prevail in issues dividing China and Britain and that in the event of conflict, the latter would be victorious. Moreover, since the Chinese "view all foreigners as Barbarians - the Americans may be viewed and treated as Englishmen in case of restrictions, quarrels and subsequent hostilities."27

In short, great changes were afoot in the wake of the demise of the company monopoly, and the new national responsibilities assumed by the British would surely affect American interests. As he points out:

American interests would probably be more or less served by a Consul with some peculiar powers and instructions to meet the expected changes and exigencies . . . and with official Powers from the American government to present himself to the Chinese authorities, as its representative, and for the care and protection of American citizens and their rights and property, and show that they are distinct from others who trade to this country. . . . And further . . . it would tend to prevent success to any insidious designs of another party to involve the Americans, as party on their own side, against the Chinese.28

Shillaber is concerned here with "keeping up with the Joneses," especially in a situation where the British might gain an advantage in trade with the Chinese or where trade might be stopped for all foreigners due to disputes between the British and the Chinese. But he also wished to establish a different identity for Americans in China that would distinguish them from the British and make every effort to keep the United States out of the entangling alliances against which George Washington had warned in his Farewell Address in 1796.29

But how could American interests be safeguarded in future military confrontations between the British and the Chinese? Shillaber felt that the United States should have naval vessels in the area to exercise control over American sailors and assist the American consul in enforcing U.S. laws and maintaining neutrality in disputes between China and Great Britain.30 Here it should be noted that Shillaber's observations in his letter to President Jackson were in agreement with Secretary of State Livingston's 1833 "Report on the Consular Establishment of the United States." Livingston's report emphasized the need to upgrade the consular establishment by increasing remuneration in order to attract "men of talent, education, and respectability of character; commanding the respect of the functionaries of the ports in which they reside; doing honor to the national character; and devoting their whole time to the duties of office."31

And even though Shillaber realized that the Chinese government would not officially recognize an American consul, his ability to enforce laws would be weakened, or become dependent on, other governments, without a naval presence in the region.32 Thus he goes beyond another aim of Livingston's plan, namely, to coordinate commercial and naval interests, in speaking of an "armed national vessel" and "men of war" and in his belief that naval officers in such national vessels are best suited to negotiate with the Chinese and other governments in East Asia.33 Shillaber's aggressive aims echo the ideas expressed in his letter to Secretary of the Navy Woodbury in 1833, which argued for an American naval presence in Chinese waters.

The reason why Shillaber saw a need for naval force in the area had to do with his belief that the British would try to expand the Canton system, which supposedly confined all trade to that single port but which was observed in the breach, further northward in such ports as Foochow (Fuzhou), Ningbo (Ning-bo), and Shanghai. Shillaber indicates that in their endeavor to expand the China trade, the British wished especially to introduce goods into the waiting market that he and they believed existed in those northern ports and surrounding areas. Moreover, they wanted to do so without being subjected to the additional charges of getting goods to these places via Canton.34 He lavishes praise on northern Chinese for their frugality and industriousness and especially their lack of xenophobia, as compared with, in his view, the Cantonese. He also predicts that the British will ultimately be successful in pursuing the expansion of trade. Of course, he would also like some of the trade to be carried in American vessels.35

An interesting point that Shillaber takes up toward the end of his letter to Jackson follows from his belief that hostilities between Britain and China were imminent:

I believe events will grow out of the changes in the position of English affairs in China, that will lead to their taking possession of and fortifying one or more Islands upon this coast for concentrating trade there.36

Of course, territorial possession came to pass as a result of the Opium War in 1839. The conflict was a mismatched confrontation in which the Qing dynasty, fearing collapse, signed the first of the "unequal treaties" with the West, the Sino-British Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1842, ending the war but ceding Hong Kong to Britain, opening up five ports to trade, fixing tariffs, and saddling the Chinese government with a twenty-one-million-dollar indemnity. Moreover, the war and treaty initiated the treaty port era, with its increasing pressure and demands on Chinese sovereignty, and ended the informal era of early Sino-Western relations.

In sum, Shillaber's letter to President Jackson reflects a mood of impending crisis in Sino-Western relations and a need for the United States independently to defend and pursue its commercial interests in China through political and military means. His activist suggestions certainly transcended the Washingtonian desire to keep foreign relations on a strictly commercial level. Shillaber believed that the China trade was valuable for the United States, even though he probably knew that the growth of the domestic market was far more important and expanding much more rapidly than the market in China. Moreover, he must have been aware that in these years before the Opium War, Americans were no longer the prime movers in the Turkish opium traffic and were still barred from carrying opium between India and China, though they could market it in Canton and did so profitably.37 But he was, after all, angling for a prestigious position, and this made him a captive to the dreams of many an "old China hand" about the future significance of the China market. Thus he felt that it would be well nigh impossible for Americans to be involved in that market on a nonpolitical basis.

Shillaber's Letter to Secretary Edward Livingston

On September 25, 1834, John Shillaber followed up his April 20 letter to Jackson and others he had written to Secretary of State Edward Livingston in March and April of 1834 by again corresponding with the secretary.38 In this September letter, he begins by reiterating the likelihood that with the dissolution of the East India Company monopoly, the responsibility of supercargoes (the chief merchant officers on trading voyages) to represent British interests would fall on superintendents appointed by the Crown. He felt that events had not only borne out his predictions but that down the road there were likely to be even more dramatic twists and turns in China policy.39

The next several pages of Shillaber's letter to Livingston describe in detail the 1834 Napier mission, often referred to as the "Napier fizzle," which had fizzled out only two weeks before Shillaber put pen to paper.40 Napier's crypto-diplomatic mission completely misread the Chinese unwillingness to engage in state-to-state relations. His insistence on higher-level diplomacy pushed the Chinese officials and hong merchants into stopping trade at Canton for over a week in early August 1834 and even led to desultory armed confrontation, which, had it not been for Napier's illness and death, might have precipitated the kind of volatile conflict that emerged five years later in the Opium War. On a personal level, Shillaber had a connection with the Napier mission. In 1833, about half a year before Napier's arrival at Canton, his sister, Caroline Shillaber, who lived in Macao, married the ophthalmologist Thomas Colledge, who was Lord Napier's personal surgeon and who attempted to negotiate between the Chinese and Napier during the crisis.41

Shillaber felt that the episode showed how militarily weak the Chinese really were: If Napier had wanted, he could have forced an opening in the Chinese defenses, reached Canton ("they were distant only 9 or 10 miles"42), and compelled the officials there to communicate with him directly. So, he asks, why didn't "His Britannic Majesty" do so? Shillaber surmises that it was because the naval commanders were not under Napier's direct control.43 British hesitancy in this instance spotlights the issue raised in Shillaber's letter to Jackson concerning the limited authority that consuls had, a point also emphasized by Livingston in his desire to accord more authority to them.

In searching for reasons why the Napier mission had failed so miserably, Shillaber concludes that Napier did not think that he was violating Chinese rules in following the Crown's instructions to reside in Canton and deal directly with Chinese officials. In bypassing the hong merchants, through whom contacts were customarily established, and seeking to communicate with the provincial officials, Napier was trying to defend the dignity of his mission. For their part, the Chinese inferred that since former members of the East India Company were part of Napier's mission, it was really just a trading situation that should be handled in the usual manner. As Shillaber says, referring to the arrogance of the Chinese provincial authorities toward even their Chinese subordinates: "From this fact it may be inferred, with what contempt the Governor of Canton, and other high officers of state have and would treat a demand from barbarian traders, to a direct interchange of correspondence."44 Diplomatic parity was out of the question. Through blind, dumb, bad luck, Napier had come up against a fundamental cross-cultural barrier.

So where should the United States stand in the face of these events? Shillaber had a suggestion:

Should England determine to demand, accompanied with an adequate force, that His Majesty's Superintendents be admitted to reside in Canton, and to hold direct intercourse with this local Government, the attempt may result in hostilities - or a demand may be made for satisfaction for the indignity - in this case, would it not be well if the United States take an observing attitude, combining a naval force, and a diplomatic agent?45

Once again, as he had in his letter to Jackson, Shillaber predicts serious future hostilities between Britain and China, but he takes a clearer stand here in wishing to combine American naval and diplomatic power on the China scene. He has in mind the distinct possibility that Britain will eventually use powerful hostile force to gain a commercial treaty that will provide security for her subjects and extend trade to the northern ports. But he also observes in his letter that such a force would only really be necessary on the Chinese coast, where even the small pirate fleets of the Ladrones had wrought havoc on weak Chinese defense forces only a couple of decades earlier.46 Without such a show of force, the United States would clearly not be able to gain as much as England could. Shillaber wants the United States to help England in its endeavors so that any possible trade stoppages could be lifted.47

Another reason Shillaber offers for the United States to establish a higher profile in China has to do with the inability of the hong merchants to protect foreigners in the treaty ports from the whims of the policies of the Chinese government.48 The hong merchants were basically traders, but they were hard-pressed by the Chinese government through the "squeeze" (extortion) and by being held responsible for any disturbances that arose from Sino-Western friction. And since the hong merchants could not be expected to look after American interests in an inevitable struggle between Britain and China, the United States could not easily remain neutral; it would get shortchanged in any agreements that ensued from the hostilities.

Shillaber failed to realize that the Chinese might actually want to grant a country like America privileges similar to those it might grant to the British so as to achieve a balance and, in time-honored tradition, "play one barbarian off against the other" (yiyi zhiyi49). Ultimately, the balance was accomplished in 1844, after the Opium War and the Treaty of Nanking, in an American "unequal treaty," the Treaty of Wangxia in 1844, which granted the United States "most-favored-nation" trading privileges without any need for an American show of force. Of course, even though the two treaties demonstrated even-handedness toward the British and the Americans, it exacerbated the power imbalance between China and the West.

Shillaber concludes his letter with some unflattering remarks about Chinese character traits, which lead him to believe that an American show of naval force would produce favorable results. These traits have to do with the Chinese willingness, in his view, to capitulate when confronted by overwhelming force, and they justify the need he sees for an American naval presence in Chinese waters to support governmental policy.50 Such a presence would make it difficult for the United States to stake out a position different from that of the British. Ironically, Shillaber's suggestion that the United States assume a more activist stance would merely serve to make Americans look more like the British in the eyes of the Chinese. His suggestions may only be belligerent in a token sense, but such tokenism was enough for the Chinese to see obvious similarities between the British and the Americans. The unequal treaties after the Opium War provided the proof.

Letters from the Middle Kingdom, Part 2



David Gedalecia is Michael O. Fisher Professor of History at the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he teaches courses on East Asian history and philosophy. He is the author of The Philosophy of Wu Ch'eng (Indiana University, 1999) and A Solitary Crane in a Spring Garden (Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000) as well as articles and book essays on Neo-Confucianism in the Sung and Yüan dynasties.



Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.