Portrait of Anson Burlingame.

As an American diplomat in China in the 1860s, Anson Burlingame advocated expanding commerce and promoting Christian missionary efforts. After retiring from public service he became an advisor to the Qing court. With the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868, he helped forge one of the least-humiliating agreements, which in part welcomed Chinese immigrant labor to the United States, in China’s unequal treaty era.

Anson Burlingame shaped relations between the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) court and the United States in the 1860s. His career in China grew from political failure in the United States. Burlingame lost an election for the House of Representatives in 1860 and was to have been U.S. minister to Austria but the county refused to receive him as minister. President Abraham Lincoln then appointed him envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to China in June 1861. During the U.S. Civil War the Lincoln administration focused on preventing European powers from recognizing the Confederacy, and China was not a priority. Nor was the United States important to the Chinese, who were confronting domestic upheaval in the Taiping Rebellion and external threats from the British and French.

While never abandoning the goals of expanding commerce and promoting Christian missionary efforts, Burlingame did urge Europe and the United States to limit their demands on China. He retired from government service in 1867 and was immediately employed by the Qing dynasty as an advisor and envoy. Hiring foreigners to assist in relations with foreigners was not unprecedented. For example, Jesuit missionaries negotiated the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk with Russia on the Qing dynasty’s behalf. The Qing court and prominent officials such as Li Hongzhang sought to reduce Western imperialism by highlighting China’s development and ability to cooperate with the outside world. In 1868 Burlingame was accompanied by two Chinese envoys to the United States and Europe.

Burlingame’s most tangible achievement occurred in the United States, where he helped forge one of the least-humiliating agreements of China’s unequal treaty era. The Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868 generally affirmed the privileges detailed in the 1844 and 1858 treaties between the Qing dynasty and the United States. In other ways, however, the treaty was equal and reciprocal in that it guaranteed citizens of each nation the rights to live, work, worship, and build schools in the other nation. The treaty allowed the Qing dynasty to dispatch consuls to U.S. ports—a sign of China’s gradual acceptance of Western diplomatic norms. The treaty also outlawed the “coolie trade” by which Chinese men were kidnapped to serve as laborers overseas. The treaty highlighted one of the most cherished ideals of the United States about its relationship with China, namely, that the United States rejected “intervention by one nation in the affairs or domestic administration of another.”

More controversially, the treaty welcomed Chinese immigrant labor to the United States (but did not contain provisions for emigrants from either nation to become citizens of the other). The U.S. domestic reaction to increased immigration, particularly in California, would result in the 1880 Angell Treaty, part of a series of increasingly stringent restrictions on Chinese labor culminating in the 1882 Exclusion Act. Far from improving relations, ultimately Burlingame’s treaty made the Chinese acutely aware of U.S. racism.

Anson Burlingame died while leading the Chinese delegation to Russia in February 1870. His sympathy for China’s plight was important in shaping the alleged special relationship of the United States with China. His career also illustrated Qing-era China’s tentative steps to engage in diplomacy on Western terms.

Further Reading

Anderson, D. L. (1985). Imperialism and idealism: American diplomats in China, 1861–1898. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hunt, M. (1983). The making of a special relationship: The United States and China to 1914. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Phillips, Steven. (2009). BURLINGAME, Anson. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 247–248. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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