Our Glorious National Heritage, The Past is a Foreign...Something

The Engine of American Diplomacy

Or, Choo-Choo! Goes the Tariff Negotiation


One of the clichés of East-West relations in the early modern era was the attempt to use representations of Western technology – especially maps and model machines – to awe non-Westerners into submission. Perhaps hoping for a repeat of Columbus’s trick with the lunar eclipse, Euro-American statesmen and diplomats apparently thought that the mere suggestion of the advanced state of Western civilization would be enough to persuade proud sovereigns to open ports, lower tariffs, and alienate land for the benefit of the major Atlantic-basin powers.

Needless to say, things rarely went down that way. In developed parts of Asia – and especially in China – these attempts repeatedly failed. The most famous of these faceplants was probably Great Britain’s 1793 embassy to China, led by Lord Macartney. The Chinese emperor declared the fancy clockwork the Brits brought – lugged across the world at great expense, and costing many man-hours to assemble – as “good enough to amuse children.” Bafflingly, the stopped cogs and wheels the Brits brought as gifts failed to make the gates to the Middle Kingdom fly off their hinges.

However, this failure – as in so many other instances of cross-cultural contact – did not impede others from flattering through imitation.

No one flattered Britain more than Daniel Webster, so it’s not surprising that Tyler’s Secretary of State drafted a list of various working models of mechanical marvels as part of the preparation for the first official American diplomatic mission to China. It was a different era, so of course mere wind-up toys wouldn’t do. Instead, Webster and his co-conspirators (including President Tyler and various merchants and congressmen) drew up a wish list worthy of Fulton fan-fic, including:

4th Model of War Steamer, armed and rigged. Either Hunter’s or Stockton’s – or after the old style, like the Missouri.

5th Model of Steam Excavator

6th Model of Locomotive Steam Engine; and plan of a Rail Road

7th A Daguerreotype apparatus. Some one attached to the Mission should learn the use of this. It can, perhaps, be best purchased in France, but could with difficulty be forwarded to China.

~ “List of Articles for the Legation to China,” 11 April 1843, in The Papers of Daniel Webster: Diplomatic Papers, Kenneth Shewmaker, ed. (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1983), I:907-908.

(The rest of the list details an astonishingly large arsenal of small arms, but that was just the style at the time).

As that bit about the Daguerreotype equipment illustrates, this was mostly about performing technological superiority, not about actually having it (also: less opprobrium for things French in an era of Anglo-American hostility). Most of the stuff didn’t even make it to China, either because the government was too cheap to pay for it, or it got lost en route. But Americans diplomats were thinking along the right technological imperialist lines.

And so was everyone else, up to and including enterprising machinists in northern Massachusetts. In fact, one pair of them were getting into the act well before a mission to China was a twinkle in Webster’s eye.

In a letter to their local Congressman Caleb Cushing (Whig-MA) — he’d made the papers a few months earlier for a speech condemning Britain’s war with China, and three years later became the leader of the first American diplomatic mission to China – two Yankee machinists suggested that the government should purchase their model steam engine:

Dear Sir,

Your experience leads us to ask a favour which we have reason to believe will be readily granted by your council on the sub[ject] viz.

We have a miniature Locomotive Engine which we wish to dispose of in a manner that will eventually be to our interest. Our present views are (as the steam engine has become familiar to most of the people of this country) to present it to some eastern Monarch who may yet be behind us in the mechanick arts & from hoom we may chance to receive an order for Machinery (or an equivalent in return) such orders have been sent to the U. States Lowell has furnished Cotton Machinery for Russia & Boston a steam Engine to propell it. By a conversation with a Turkish Gent[leman] (Mr. Oscaryan whose name has probably met your eye) we have thought of sending it to the Sultan of Turkey as he is a young Man he might be pleased with it.

We have also thought of the Sovereign of Muscat who has now a vessel in N. York (the Arabian ship “Sultance”) we feel there is much to consider in making a selection such as these relations with the U. States their state of civilization, their views of presents &c. These reasons & the advice of our friends induce us to submit the subject to your consideration which would be received with much respect. We wish you to name this sub[ject] to Mr. J. Q. Adams, Mr Van Buren, & to such other Gent[lemen] as you may deem proper. We believe that Your experience & means of intercourse with Gentl[emen] at Washington will enable you to render us a great favour which would be gratefully
acknowledged by

Your Ob[edien]t Serv[a]ts
S. B. Thyng
L. H. Mann

~S. B. Thyng & L. H, Mann to Caleb Cushing, South Andover, 1 June 1840, Folder 6, Container 22, Caleb Cushing Papers, MSS Division, Library of Congress

Aside from the theorizing about international relations, Thyng did have the presence of mind to include a description of the train itself, in a hasty postscript:

I will now describe the Engine it is a beautifull & compleat working Model. runs on a circular track of 20 feet diameter & will draw several children at a fine rate it requires but little skill to fitt up the rail way & put the Engine in operation the Engine weights 140 lbs & cost upwards of one thousand dollars it rec[eived] a Medal & Diploma at the Fair in Boston also at the American Institute N. York

As to ourselves we have been engaged at Lowell in building forty Locomotive Engines & are now engaged on the Boston & Portland R[ail] Road. For further reference we would refer you to George Darricott [Harricott?] of Boston

Our means are such to enable us to answer promptly an order for most kinds of Machinery built in the U. States. Yet we wish this considered confidential so far that people here may not know our object
I am sire with much
Respect Your Ob[edien]t Ser[a]vt
S. B. Thyng

I don’t really have much to add to this episode, though I should add that what makes it notable is not the idea that private citizens would take it into their heads to start building up a gift giving policy for the U.S. Government — in the early days of nationhood, such things were not uncommon. Rather, it was just the sheer brazenness of Thyng and Mann’s offer that caught my attention — that, and, the fact that it appears to have trickled down, fairly directly, to the planners of the U.S.’s actual mission.

Though I’m pretty sure that their prize-winning miniature locomotive with child-pulling power did not actually make the trip to Canton. Some things are just too valuable to export.

1.) Which vessel, incidentally, burned to the waterline a third of the way to China because of an accident involving an engineer, a lamp, and a bottle of turpentine.

2.) The China mission’s official draftsman and resident artist attaché, George West, probably got the job in part because of his purported skill with a daguerreotype machine. See Charles G. Page to Daniel Webster, Washington, 26 April 1854, microfilm reel 101, on M179: Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 1789-1906, RG 59 (Washington, DC: National Records and Archives Administration, 1963)

3.) The visit of the Sultan’s ship to New York in 1840 – the result of quasi-public diplomacy by another enterprising Yankee during the during the Jackson administration – occasioned its own spate of private diplomacy.

One Dr. Sherman of 106 Nassau St sent the Sultan “a large metal case, containing fifty different sorts of his inestimable lozenges, very neatly done up in metal boxes, for the cure of all complaints under the sun.” The New York Weekly Herald thought this gift perhaps in poor taste, as it carried “on its face the frailty and mutability of poor humanity” but also winked that that “if the Sultan catches a bad cold…as we had about a month ago, he will be glad to swallow some of Sherman’s cough lozenges for nothing on earth can cure him so fast and so effectually.” See: “Presents to the Sultan of Muscat,” Weekly Herald (New York, NY), 1 August 1840, col. D.

Image cite: vgm8383, “Mariposa: 1864 Locomotive,” Flickr, CC License

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