America’s Little-Known Marco Polo
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because today’s two superpowers need more amity.
“We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country,” Republican nominee Donald Trump told his supporters in Indiana this May. And while some may have expected more moderation from the senior leadership of Abraham Lincoln’s party, the GOP echoed Trump in its 2016 party platform this July, labeling China a nation of “barbaric population control” and guilty of “cultural genocide.”
But back when these nations were second-rate powers, they shared a diplomat whom Mark Twain eulogized as having “outgrown the narrow citizenship of a state and become a citizen of the world.” Republican congressman-turned-ambassador Anson Burlingame was so beloved by the Qing court that when his six-year service to America expired in 1867, the emperor hired him. During China’s “century of humiliation” marked by European powers’ race to carve up the “Sick Man of Asia,” the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 granted China and America mutual “most-favored nation” status.
The governor of California raised a toast to Burlingame, calling him the “son of the youngest and representative of the oldest government” …
Despite the historic treaty he signed as the Chinese envoy to Washington D.C., Burlingame’s legacy remains largely forgotten beyond his namesake town in the Bay Area. A 1912 biography by Frederick Well Williams remains the most authoritative work about the man, according to Hong Kong University’s Guoqi Xu, author of Chinese and Americans: A Shared History, who says he’s “surprised that nobody in today’s U.S. really remembers” the diplomat.
Burlingame was born in 1820 to a farming family in the frontier town of New Berlin, in upstate New York. His family soon moved to Ohio, and he grew up assisting survey expeditions around Lake Superior and the upper Mississippi, gaining useful diplomatic experience in negotiations with Native Americans along the border. Later, after attending Harvard Law School and marrying into the aristocratic Livermore family of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Burlingame worked as a lawyer in Boston, where he joined the short-lived Free-Soil and Know Nothing parties, the latter of which was a precursor to today’s GOP. A Massachusetts state senator and three-time U.S. congressman, he rose to national fame when he triumphed in a duel against slave-owning Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
In one of the ugliest moments in D.C. politics, Brooks caned abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, almost to death, in the U.S. Senate. A fiery abolitionist and orator, Burlingame responded by denouncing Brooks three times in the names of “the sovereignty of Massachusetts,” “humanity” and “fair play which bullies and prizefighters respect.” When Brooks challenged him to a duel after his speech, Burlingame suggested a rifle duel on the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls since dueling was banned in the U.S. Citing an unwillingness to travel “through the enemy’s country,” Brooks defaulted.
After Burlingame tasted defeat himself, in the 1860 elections for the lower house, his friend Honest Abe offered him a post as minister to the Austrian Empire. But that first overseas posting quickly went sour when Austrians found out Burlingame had supported Hungarian independence. Lincoln then sent his friend across the Pacific to serve as the ninth American envoy to the ailing Qing Dynasty.
When Burlingame arrived in Beijing to meet the 6-year-old Tongzhi emperor in 1862, China was in the throes of the Taiping Rebellion that claimed 20 million lives. European victors of the two Opium Wars reveled in the extraterritoriality rights that legally immunized them from Chinese claims, but Burlingame dismantled this privilege for Americans. In return, the Qing court granted mining rights to the U.S. and agreed to embargo vessels of the Southern Confederacy. Five years later, and within a few weeks of his retirement as an American diplomat, Burlingame switched flags.
Before the steamer carrying Burlingame’s Chinese envoy docked in San Francisco, he saw a crowd gathered on the wharf and grew nervous that he would be booed as a turncoat. The crowd instead delivered an enthusiastic ovation, and the governor of California raised a toast to Burlingame, calling him the “son of the youngest and representative of the oldest government” during a subsequent banquet. In Anson Burlingame and the First Chinese Mission to Foreign Powers, Williams chronicles that this envoy was welcomed nationwide, as “the specter of yellow peril had not yet harassed the American imagination.”
Two years after signing the Burlingame Treaty with his former boss and Secretary of State William Seward, Burlingame died, at the age of 49, while serving as a Chinese envoy to St. Petersburg. Unfortunately for China and America, his legacy would be as ephemeral as his diplomatic career: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 unraveled his landmark treaty.
And to what would likely be the chagrin of this first Republican ambassador to China, the nominee of the party that gave us the Lincoln-Burlingame and Nixon-Kissinger partnerships is now threatening to build a great wall over the trans-Pacific bridge built by his predecessors.