Prologue Magazine

Letters from the Middle Kingdom, Part 2

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)


In neither of Shillaber's letters do we find any mention of a need to represent the uniqueness of the American system of government, as reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, so as to assist the Chinese in distinguishing between American and British policies, which was one of his aims. Why did Shillaber not emphasize those issues that had set the colonists and the British at each other's throats a mere sixty years earlier in the American War of Independence? One can only surmise that Shillaber was essentially a captive to the trading mania of those Americans interested in China at the time, a mentality that basically acceded to British expansionist leadership in East Asia.

The early nineteenth century was hardly an era of high idealism in American China policy. The American missionary effort in China was still in its infancy in the 1830s,51 and high-minded, loftily worded diplomatic agreements (whether disingenuous or not) did not arrive until the treaty period after the Opium War. But there was another reason why Shillaber was reluctant to advertise American values. Before the Roberts negotiations in Siam and Cochin-China in 1832, Shillaber had written to Livingston about the necessity not to alarm despots in those places with the knowledge that the United States was a republic that embraced the ideals expressed in its founding documents.52 And even though Roberts, Shillaber, and the American merchants in China did not push for a Sino-American treaty in the 1830s, it might still be bad for business to be too outspoken about the American political system: Despotic regimes might be concerned that their authority would be undermined were Americans to introduce their ideas.

One finds echoes of this attitude in the present day. Businessmen and some government officials are sometimes loath to raise issues such as human rights with the Chinese government. They worry that we will jeopardize the Sino-American relationship by introducing subversive American perspectives and values. At any rate, the idea that the Chinese were naturally friendly to Americans became ingrained in Sino-American relations from these early days into contemporary times: Somehow we were different from the nefarious Europeans, and the Chinese realized this. Yet what made us different was the American system, and Americans in China were (and still are) at times hesitant to advertise too widely the principles on which that system is based.53

A late-eighteenth-century observer would be correct in sensing that Americans, who were relatively small players on the trading scene as compared with the British, would naturally have to be congenial in order to win friends and influence people among the Chinese. This propitious attitude would likely even be quite genuine for such an up-and-coming group. At the same time, as the domestic market in the United States gradually consumed most of what was manufactured in the early decades of the nineteenth century, one had to hustle to be a successful trader in China. And this was especially true during the period before 1834, when the East India Company still occupied the dominant position and put increasingly heavy emphasis on the licensing of private British traders in the so-called "country trade."54 It was also difficult to find products that would be in demand among the Chinese,55 which explains why the United States, like England, participated in the opium trade.56

The American notion of a special position in China was compromised by the difficult trading situation and the obstinacy that derived from middle kingdom psychology.57 One's interests had to be furthered, as well as protected, and one had to play the trading game by the same rules that the leaders, the British, did. And once the game came down to concluding treaties to regulate trade, Americans had to consider doing the same.

And what of John Shillaber? He never became the American consul to China, from where he wrote his letters to Jackson and Livingston in 1834, and he resigned his post as consul at Batavia on June 10, 1835, the year that Peter Snow received the appointment as American consul at Canton.58 Shillaber's resignation came when he was in China, and it is likely that he heard of Snow's appointment while there. It is also likely that he remained in China from this point on, for in late 1840 and early 1841, during the Opium War, he was helping to get supplies to the French priest Louis-Alphonse Taillandier of the Missions Etrangères, who had been imprisoned by the Chinese,59 and also working at the factories in Canton selling cotton and loading black tea (congou [gongfu cha]) for Jardine, Matheson and Company, the leading British private firm in China.60 Thus his diplomatic disappointments did not deter him from further endeavors; his dozen or more years in East Asia had opened up some promising commercial opportunities.

Like most Americans on the scene, Shillaber was a trader at heart, and by the time of the Opium War he had been out of the consular business for over five years. Yet his call for a political and military presence in China had a life of its own and was echoed in an 1840 memorial from American merchants at Canton to the House of Representatives requesting naval protection and a treaty,61 and in the plans of Dr. Peter Parker after the Opium War, in the 1850s, calling for Americans to be like the British in Hong Kong and seize a base for themselves, namely, Taiwan.62 The Yale-educated Parker was originally a medical missionary who had founded an ophthalmic hospital in Canton in 1835 and helped negotiate the Treaty of Wangxia in 1844. In his last "China career," he became a diplomat, and a rather aggressive one at that, though his suggestion to occupy Taiwan resulted in his being recalled as chargé d'affaires of the American legation by President Franklin Pierce in 1857.63 He, too, had been captivated by the lure of British expansionism in China, the past and future course of which had been charted at length by his contemporary John Shillaber.

American traders and government officials were attracted by British expansionist activities, to be sure, but when push came to shove, they took few risks to support them. There were some practical and logistical reasons behind American hesitancy: Despite Secretary of the Navy Woodbury's statements and Shillaber's suggestions, it was never clear that the U.S. Navy was attracted to the idea of sailing halfway around the world to engage in protective, or aggressive, actions.64 Americans aimed at expediency, which was easy enough to achieve with the British in the vanguard, doing the tough negotiating and, eventually, the hard fighting.

The principal aim for Americans was to keep the China trade open on favorable terms, and it was not until the Open Door policy, enunciated in 1899 and 1900, that the United States attempted to define an independent position for its involvement in China that was based on this aim.65 Yet even the Open Door policy had its origins in British diplomacy.66 While Jackson, Livingston, Woodbury, Roberts, and Shillaber toyed with ways to expand the American role in East Asia in the early, pre-treaty phase of U.S.-China relations, the British made such plans moot with the Opium War and the establishment of the treaty system in the war's aftermath. It then became even more difficult for an American like John Shillaber, who was extremely savvy in predicting the course of events in China, to define an American China policy.

At the beginning of this inquiry into John Shillaber's observations on the U.S. role in China just before the mid-nineteenth century, we asked whether or not American policy was more derivative of British policy and opinion than of independent American initiative. And we also asked whether or not it was really possible to implement the unique American China policy that Shillaber desired without becoming more like the British. We now have some answers to these queries. First, because the United States at most played a supporting role in the British-led saga of Western imperialism in China, there was not much room for an independent "American" stance. And second, this role was primarily an economic and missionary one, and inevitably the Chinese viewed Americans as more or less like the British, no matter how the Americans visualized themselves.

There is a revealing exchange between the American consul in China, Samuel Shaw, who served between 1786 and 1794, and a Chinese merchant during the halcyon period of the U.S.-China trade in the late eighteenth century, when relations were cordial, trusting, and friendly. The Chinese merchant is reported to have said the following to Shaw in the pidgin English that was the lingua franca in the early phase of Sino-Western interaction: "All men come first time China very good gentlemen . . . . I think two three time more you come Canton, you make all same Englishman too."67


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

1 Kenneth S. Latourette, Early Relations between the United States and China (1917), p. 70.

2 Ibid., pp. 54, 63.

3 Tong Te-kong, United States Diplomacy in China (1964), pp. 31 - 33. See also Charles Stuart Kennedy, The American Consul: A History of the United States Consular Service, 1776 - 1914 (1990), p. 104; Jacques Downs, "The Commercial Origins of American Attitudes toward China, 1784 - 1844," in Jonathan Goldstein et al., America Views China: American Images of China Then and Now (1991), pp. 58 - 59; and Raymond Wylie, "American Diplomacy in China," in ibid., p. 89.

4 Tong, United States Diplomacy in China, pp. 4 - 5, 9, and 103. Judicial powers for consuls came into force only in 1848, though extraterritorial privileges applied after the Treaty of Wangxia, 1844. For a full description of consular functions after the Treaty of Wangxia, see Eldon Griffin, Clippers and Consuls: American Consular and Commercial Relations with Eastern Asia, 1845 - 1860 (1938).

5 The American consul in China, B. C. Wilcocks, provided Secretary of State John Quincy Adams with details of the Terranova case in early November 1821 (Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Canton, 1790 - 1906 [National Archives Microfilm Publication M101, roll 1], General Records of the Department of State, Record Group [RG] 59, National Archives at College Park [NACP], College Park, MD). See also John Francis Davis, The Chinese (1848), pp. 105 - 106; Foster Rhea Dulles, China and America (1946), pp. 14 - 16; Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia: A Critical Study of the Policy of the United States with Reference to China, Japan and Korea in the 19th Century (1941), pp. 86 - 88; and Latourette, Early Relations between the United States and China, pp. 60 - 63.

6 Latourette, Early Relations between the United States and China, pp. 74 - 76; Charles C. Stelle, "American Trade in Opium to China, 1821 - 1839," Pacific Historical Review 10 (March 1941): 57 - 74.

7 Tong, United States Diplomacy in China, p. 22, believes that this decline was crucial for American policy at the time of the Opium War in 1839, a point with which Chang Hsin-pao disagrees in his Commissioner Lin and the Opium War (1970), p. 30. Cf. Kennedy, The American Consul, p. 109.

8 Fu Lo-shu, A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western Relations, 1644 - 1820 (1966), 2: 621 - 622; Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, p. 88.

9 Tong, United States Diplomacy in China, p. 22.

10 F. Lee Bemis, American Strategy for the British West Indies Carrying Trade, 1815 - 1820 (1923), pp. 173 - 180; also excerpted in William Appleman Williams, The Shaping of American Diplomacy (1956), pp. 211 - 217. At the time, the "reciprocity of 1830" was referred to as the "Arrangement" (Congressional Globe, Jan. 3, 1834, 23rd Cong., 1st sess., vol. 1, p. 77).

11 Good accounts of the Napier mission may be found in Chang Hsin-pao, Commissioner Lin and the Opium War, pp. 51 - 62, and Peter Ward Fay, The Opium War, 1840 - 1842 (1976), pp. 67 - 79. For British documents relating to the mission, see General Correspondence: China, 1815 - 1905, F.0.17, microfilm n.s. 728, and for contemporary reactions to the mission, see the British publication Canton Register 7 (Sept. 23, 1834): 149 - 152. A recent, family-based account based on Napier's letters, which attempts to vindicate him, is Priscilla H. Napier, Barbarian Eye: Lord Napier, 1834 - The Prelude to Hong Kong (1995).

12 On these issues, note Jackson's 1831 speech to Congress in Debates in Congress (1833), 22nd Cong., 1st sess., vol. 8, part III (appendix), p. 4, which is also included in James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789 - 1897 (1900), 2: 551; and Livingston's 1833 plan in Debates in Congress, 22nd Cong., 2nd sess., vol. 9 (appendix), pp. 129 - 131. Jackson submitted Livingston's plan to Congress on March 2, 1833, and it is reiterated in Outline of a Consular Establishment for the United States of America in East Asia (1838), pp. 3 - 27. It was also outlined in the Chinese Repository in June 1837; cf. Latourette, Early Relations between the United States and China, p. 127; and see Kennedy, The American Consul, pp. 76 - 77.

13 See the diplomatic lists in Debates in Congress, 22nd Cong., 2nd sess., vol. 9 (appendix), pp. 131 - 132.

14 Woodbury reported to Jackson on November 30, 1833, that an independent navy was essential in securing trade markets and the rights of American citizens abroad (Congressional Globe, Dec. 13, 1833, 22nd Cong., 1st sess., vol. 1, p. 28); cf. Debates in Congress, 22nd Cong., 1st sess., vol. 8, part III (appendix), p. 20 (Woodbury's report to Jackson, Dec. 3, 1831).

15 The kowtow had been controversial as far back as 1793, when the Earl of Macartney, in attempting to regularize Sino-British trade, refused to perform the kowtow, as the Russians had done several decades before and the Dutch had agreed to do around the time of the Macartney mission. The ceremony involved prostrating oneself before the Chinese emperor and knocking one's head on the ground and was an integral part of the tribute system, into which the Chinese tried to fit Western nations. In 1793 the emperor allowed Macartney to approximate the procedure (see Earl H. Pritchard, "The Kowtow in the Macartney Embassy to China in 1793," Far Eastern Economic Quarterly 2 [February 1943]: 163 - 203). It became more of an issue in 1816, during the Amherst mission to open up the China trade, when Lord Amherst's refusal to comply with this and other Chinese ceremonial procedures resulted in his expulsion (see Davis, The Chinese, pp. 95 - 103 and Fu Lo-shu, A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western Relations, 2: 406).

16 F. Rawle, "Edward Livingston," in S. F. Bemis, ed., The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (1928), pp. 255 - 256; Latourette, Early Relations between the United States and China, pp. 83 - 84. On the rebuff to Roberts in Cochin-China, see S. F. Bemis, Diplomatic History of the United States, p. 344. For more on the mission, see Edmund Roberts, Embassy to the Eastern Courts of Cochin-China, Siam, and Muscat (1837); Nan P. Hodges, ed., The Voyage of the "Peacock": A Journal by Benajah Ticknor, Naval Surgeon (1991), pp. 1 - 2; and Charles O. Paullin, American Voyages to the Orient (1971), pp. 53 - 61.

17 Shillaber was appointed consul on July 23, 1824, and served from February 14, 1825, until October 1832. He officially resigned in China on June 10, 1835. Office of the Historian, Department of State, Washington, D.C., electronic communication, Dec. 17, 2001.

18 Shillaber was sanguine about U.S.-Japan relations because he felt that the United States, unlike England and Russia, would not be looked upon as attempting to subvert the Tokugawa shogunate (Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, pp. 131 and 245).

19 Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, pp. 129 - 130.

20 Newport Mercury (Newport, RI), Mar. 2, 1833. The name Ladrones refers to a group of islands off the coast of Macao and, by extension, to the pirates in the region.

21 Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Canton, 1790 - 1906, M101, roll 1, RG 59, NACP.

22 Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, pp. 32 - 33.

23 Shillaber to Jackson, Apr. 20, 1834, p. 2, M101, roll 1, RG 59, NACP.

24 It should be noted that the "factories" at Canton were not manufacturing plants; they were trading agencies run by "factors," who transacted business for the various merchants who came to China.

25 Shillaber to Jackson, Apr. 20, 1834, p. 3, M101, roll 1, NACP. He estimated that British sailors would number about two thousand and American sailors about six hundred annually between the fall and spring. Whampoa, or Huangpu, was a small village on an island in the Pearl (Canton) river, about twelve miles east of the city of Canton, that served as an anchorage for trading vessels. It became notable again in the 1920s as the site of the Whampoa Military Academy founded by the Guomindang.

26 Shillaber to Jackson, pp. 4 - 5, M101, roll 1, NACP.

27 Ibid., pp. 5 - 6.

28 Ibid., pp. 6 - 7.

29 Washington spoke of the "insidious wiles of foreign influence": see S. F. Bemis, "Washington's Farewell Address; a Foreign Policy of Independence," American Historical Review 39 (1934): 250 - 268.

30 Shillaber to Jackson, p. 8, M101, roll 1, NACP.

31 Outline of a Consular Establishment for the United States of America in Eastern Asia, p. 9. Livingston also wanted the consuls, as representatives of the American people and the government, to devote themselves fully to diplomatic matters. Livingston presented his plan to the Senate, but Congress did not act on it.

32 Shillaber to Jackson, p. 8, M101, roll 1, NACP.

33 Ibid., pp. 8 - 9.

34 Ibid., pp. 9 - 10.

35 Ibid., pp. 10 - 11.

36 Ibid., p. 11.

37 Stelle, "American Trade in Opium to China," p. 74.

38 Livingston retired from office in late May 1833 and soon after became minister to France (Rawle, "Edward Livingston," p. 261). Since Shillaber had been in contact with him in the spring of 1834, he felt that the ex-secretary could still help him in the fall of that year.

39 Shillaber to Livingston, Sept. 25, 1834, pp. 1 - 2, M101, roll 2, RG 59, NACP.

40 Ibid., pp. 2 - 8.

41 Ernest J. Eitel, Europe in China: The History of Hong Kong From the Beginning to the Year 1882 (1895), pp. 32, 37 - 38; William C. Hunter, The `Fan Kwae' at Canton Before Treaty Days, 1825 - 1844 (1882), p. 127.

42 Shillaber to Livingston, Sept. 25, 1834, p. 8, M101, roll 2, RG 59, NACP.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., p. 11.

45 Ibid., p.12.

46 Ibid., p. 14.

47 Ibid., pp. 14 - 15.

48 Ibid., pp. 15 - 16.

49 Literally, this phrase means "to use one barbarian to control the other"; a more bellicose way of putting it is yiyi gongyi, "to use one barbarian to attack the other." Either way it was a policy devised from a position of weakness, and ultimately, it diminished Chinese sovereignty. (It led to the conquest of North China by the Jurchen in the early twelfth century and all of China by the Mongols in the late thirteenth century).

50 Shillaber to Livingston, p. 23, M101, roll 2, RG 59, NACP. Here we should note that Edmund Roberts also made unflattering remarks about the Chinese in his embassy journal. After presenting a wide-ranging survey of Chinese institutions and society, though, he suggests that Americans should seek to understand Chinese civilization more deeply in order to uplift the Chinese people (Roberts, Embassy to the Eastern Courts, pp. 63 - 163 [his survey], 134, and 257).

51 The first American missionary to reach Canton was Elijah Bridgman (1801 - 1861), who arrived there in 1830.

52 Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, p. 131.

53 President Ronald Reagan went against the grain in linking American principles of human rights with social and economic progress in his speeches during his trip to China in April 1984 (Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 1984; also see James Mann, About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China from Nixon to Clinton [1998], pp. 143 - 148).

54 Chang Hsin-pao, Commissioner Lin and the Opium War, p. 4.

55 Dulles, China and America, p. 7; Latourette, Early Relations between the United States and China, pp. 53 and 72. There was a progression in the U.S.-China trade: from ginseng (from the Northeast), to furs (from the Pacific Northwest), to sandalwood (from Hawaii), to cotton products (from New England) and opium (from Turkey and India).

56 Stelle, "American Trade in Opium to China," passim.

57 Edward D. Graham, American Ideas of a Special Relationship with China, 1784 - 1900 (1988), pp. 46 - 47.

58 Office of the Historian, Department of State, Washington, D.C., electronic communication, Dec. 17, 2001.

59 Fay, The Opium War, pp. 266 - 266 and 270.

60 Ibid., p. 271. Jardine's, the "Noble House" of novelistic renown, was handling about one-third of the opium trade in China by the 1830s.

61 Abbott Lawrence of Massachusetts presented this memorial in January 1840 (Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, pp. 102 - 103).

62 Ibid. Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, p. 286; also quoted in Jonathan D. Spence, To Change China: Western Advisers in China, 1620 - 1960 (1969), p. 55.

63 Spence, To Change China, pp. 53 and 55.

64 64 Edward D. Graham, "Early American - East Asian Relations," in Ernest R. May and James C. Thomson, Jr., American - East Asian Relations (1972), p. 16.

65 Wylie, "American Diplomacy in China," pp. 90 - 91.

66 The Open Door idea of equal commercial opportunity was suggested to Secretary of State John Hay and his "China expert" W. W. Rockhill by Alfred Hippisley, a British official whose ideas on equal commercial opportunity were derived from Sir Robert Hart, with whom Hippisley served in the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service. (S. F. Bemis, Diplomatic History of the United States, p. 484; John K. Fairbank, The United States and China, 3rd ed. [1971], pp. 296 - 297.)

67 The exchange is recorded in Shaw's journals and is quoted in Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia, pp. 88 - 89, and Dulles, China and America, p. 5.

Letters from the Middle Kingdom, Part 1



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.



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