Now in Actual Work

Eureka! Er, sorta.

in small doses
in small doses

I often begin these posts with some kind of appreciation of the serendipity of the archives; much of what’s appeared here are things I didn’t expect; or, more often, things that don’t fit into the project I’m working on as my main occupation, but that were just too interesting (for a given value of interesting) to forget completely. All well and good, I suppose.

But sometimes … sometimes you find what you’re looking for. Yesterday was one of those times.

Some background: part of what I’m working on – dissertation-wise – is the American reaction to the first Anglo-Chinese war (i.e. the Opium War), circa 1839-1842. The hope is that charting Americans’ reactions to the war will reveal something about their approach to commercial expansion, empire, Asia, and, possibly, the connections between all that and American domestic politics.

(This is, I should note, pretty garden variety historical method: treating a moment of crisis as a flash of lightning which illuminates larger processes and bodies of thought is, as they say, textbook. In this case, things are a bit more complicated because part of the American reaction to British aggression in China – a market merchants in both the US and Britain want greater access to, not to speak of missionaries – is to lobby for more state involvement in relations with Asia, and particularly China. So, it’s as if the flash of illuminative lighting also hits the thing I’m trying to see…or something).


One of the more important moments within this larger reaction was a speech John Quincy Adams gave on November 22, 1841. Adams – who at this point is caught up in a major ongoing fight about the right to petition the Federal government about slavery in Washington, D.C. (and, incidentally, not sleeping all that much) – comes out and declares, quite emphatically, that Britain is on the side of the angels in China.  Huzzah what? Yes, Old Man Eloquent, the (self-appointed) conscience of the country, declared that Britain’s war to force China to accept opium imports was just — and further, that it was of a piece with Britain’s other contemporaneous military actions in the name of freedom — the campaign to end the Atlantic slave trade.

Adams makes his “yay britain!” argument using a curious blend of appeals to international law, Christian morality, and a good deal of slippage between different meanings of “free” (“free” trade, “freedom” of the seas, “free labor,” etc), coming down somewhere in the same vicinity as later liberal and neo-liberal rationalizations for Western colonialism in Asia (think: Roosevelt, Wilson, et al.).

That speech, and Adams’s claims more broadly, attracted a huge amount of attention and vociferous criticism; so this is a bit of a lighting in a jar during a larger thunderstorm, in terms of illuminative capabilities. I won’t bore you with my theories as to why this was so, but suffice to say that when it came to the British Empire, at this particular moment in American history, “no likey” was really just the starting point for most Americans.

Of late, what I’ve been trying to find out is how, when, and why Adams took up the issue in the first place. The historiography, such as it is on this point, is unhelpful; it gestures to his previous service as Secretary of State, and his then-current office (Rep. for the MA 12th District, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs) as sufficient, which strikes me as too thin. After all, it’s not like the guy didn’t have other things on his mind; and China, even for a man as scholarly as Adams, was quite a bit off the reservation (I mean, it’s China fer chrissakes, and this is the 1840s. We hadn’t even got to California yet).

So, what I’ve been doing for the last few days is paging through Adams’s diary, before and after the delivery of his speech. This is very, very slow work — Adams’s handwriting is clear enough, but jeebus did he write a lot – but yesterday it paid off. I found the first mentions of the Anglo-Chinese in his diary. They come in the middle of a fiercely fought election season (Whig vs. Dems, with Harrison vs. Van Buren at the top of the card), as well as in during a period where Adams has been working day and night to finish two lectures: one on “Faith,” and the other, on the Massachusetts Constitution and democracy (so, you can see how lighthearted his hobbies were).

Here are the relevant passages.

1) October 20, 1840:

…The prospects of War are for the final dismemberment and it is to be hoped extinction of the Ottoman Empire; and for breaking down the impenetrable barriers of the celestial empire of China – Here are two new doors opening wide for the extension of the power of men over the globe of earth – The prevailing opinion in Europe and here yet is that there will be for the present no War, but there are strong indications of a kindling martial and mutually hostile Spirit …” (p.132)

2) October 21, 1840:

… I find that when I commence a Lecture, I know not where it will lead me. I have begun a lecture on the Constitution of Massachusetts, with reference to democracy and I find myself stumping [bumping?] into Sir Robert Filmer, Algernon Sidney and John Locke…
…Looking into these books [Sidney’s collected works] I found not only matters pertinent to my lecture but leading into the the temptation to write another Lecture exclusively concerning Sidney, his life and writings, but this absorbed a considerable part of the day…
…I read a few pages of the Correspondence concerning the Affairs of China reported last year to the British Government.”

3) October 23, 1840:

…While bringing this second Lecture [on the Massachusetts constitution] to a close, I am deliberating upon a Subject for the third; for I must have three to meet the engagements which I have already contracted before I reach Washington. I have nearly come to the determination to take the quarrel between Great Britain and China with which I can make at once a Lecture and an Article for the North American Review which Dr Palfrey has earnestly requested of me. …”

It might not seem like a whole lot, but this blew my mind.

Taken together, these entries seem to indicate that Adams came to the decision to write about the Anglo-Chinese war – and presumably the beginnings of his argument about Britain’s just cause – through the influence of two factors.

First was the fact that China was in the news; war, and rumors of war, piqued his interest.

Second was his other writing project. In the course of writing about the Massachusetts state constitution and democracy, Adams was ruminating on key English political theorists: John Locke and Algernon Sidney, the patron saints all of all that is good in holy in American political thought at this point — and key authorities on the limits of central authority in well-governed republics.(I’m leaving out Filmer here because he was a defender of divine monarchy; and thus the ying to Locke and Sidney’s different yangs, and almost certainly the straw man for Adams).

John-frakking-Locke. Algernon-frakking-Sidney.

holy. crap.

Frankly, this is far more context than I know what to do with. I don’t know nearly enough about either Locke, or Sidney to reconcile JQA’s ruminations on them with his opinions on China; it seems pretty paradoxical. Curious thing to pair with an extended apologia for imperial aggression. But at least there is a strong basis for regarding his thoughts on China – even without the text – as influenced by early liberal and radical whig political theory.

But anyhow, a nice moment of AHA! I found what I was looking for.

More to follow as I keep reading along with the J man.

Cite: John Quincy Adams diary 41, pp. 132, 133, 135 [electronic edition]. The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection (Boston, Mass. : Massachusetts Historical Society, 2004).

Image cite: BigBlue, “Success,” Flickr, CC License

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