Archival Follies, Now in Actual Work


Or, Nineteenth-Century Natural History and Geopolitics Go Together Like…*


Henry Wheaton was a busy man in 1843. Aside from his official duties as U.S. Minister to Prussia – which included everything from issuing passports and entertaining visiting Americans to more serious affairs like preparing for a treaty negotiations with the Zolleverein, the German Customs Union – he was also intensely engaged in writing reports, as a hobby.

And not just a few. In 1843, Wheaton wrote at least ten reports for the National Institution for the Promotion of Science – aka the “National Institute” – a Washington-based organization that sought to : “to promote Science and the Useful Arts, and to establish a National Museum of Natural History, &c. &c.”

Wheaton’s contributions to the Institute fell firmly in the “&c. &c.” category. Though best known for his legal work – he was the first professional reporter for the Supreme Court, and wrote the standard treatises on international and maritime law – his reports for the National Institute trace a wider circle, and depart significantly from the then-standard definitions of “scientific and useful arts.” He wrote absolutely no treatises on New England ferns or Great Lake mollusks (all popular topics with the Washington professionals cum amateur scientists that made up the bulk of the Institute’s membership), which probably accounts for his failure to get the Institute to help publish his work.

Instead, he wrote on a bewildering array of subjects, including:

The geography of Central Asia; the revival of Greek tragedy in Prussia; German canals; the state of the fine arts in Denmark ; the character of Frederick the Great; the last days of the Emperor Charles V; the genius and labors of Liebniz; the life and writings of Diderot; the Panama canal; the history of the reformation in Germany; Egyptian Antiquities, and the Ptolemaic canal across the Isthmus of Suez.

If we ignore the Teutonic flavor of some of the reports (likely the result of his location and occupation; he had been a diplomat in Prussia since 1835), a striking pattern emerges. Almost uniquely among the corresponding members of the National Institute, Wheaton was concerned with history, culture, art – and, above all commerce and geopolitics.

Even reports that seem to hew closely to the natural history revered by the Institute’s members are, upon closer examination, highly political. His work on the “geography” of Central Asia, for example, was largely an analysis of the first moves in the Great Game being played by Russia and Great Britain in the -stans, with an assist from the work of his friend Alexander von Humboldt (Humboldt’s geographies were often the basis for Wheaton’s analyses). Likewise, his reports on various canal projects (fully realized and just dreamed of) were attempts to get at the nuts and bolts of what it would take to reorganize world trade along new axes — what he termed “two great revolutions in the commercial intercourse of the globe” — that is, direct sea routes between Europe and Asia (the Suez canal) and between the Atlantic in the Pacific oceans (the Panama canal).

Given this focus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wheaton’s unofficial writings fed back into his primary duties as a diplomat. Writing from Berlin on August 30, 1843, Wheaton forwarded Secretary of State Abel Upshur (also one of the honorary directors of the NI), “some notices on the affairs of China” which had “insensibly swelled into a Memoir.” (perhaps something he should have seen a doctor about?)

Wheaton explained that he had been led to an interest in China by

some researches I had occasion to make in preparing two Communications to the National Institute on the questions of opening a ship-canal between the Atlantic & Pacific oceans, & the restoration of the ancient one between Europe & the East Indies by Egypt & the Red Sea, by which it is evident that a most important revolution in the commerce of the world would be effected.

Whatever its origins, Wheaton’s report is an astonishingly erudite, and detailed, consideration of the causes and consequences of Britain’s recent victory in the Opium War (“the commercial and political relations of the Chinese empire, as they are likely to be affected by the peace concluded with G. Britain at Nanking on the 26th August 1842.”)

Working only from publicly available sources in English and German (both treatises and public documents, like Parliamentary hearings), Wheaton took the British to task for botching the war from beginning to end, and attributed their “unexpected and decisive success” to the unplanned seizure of a major river juncture critical to Chinese internal traffic.

His primary conclusion, commonplace though it was, was that Britain’s victory, and the concessions wrung from of the Chinese, would open China up completely to Western commerce, sooner or later. China would no longer be “exclusive”; if Western ideas did not change the dynasty’s policies, then further aggression would (Wheaton noted this calmly and without malice, in contrast to the threatening tone assumed by other China commentators, like John Quincy Adams). Wheaton, aware of extensive U.S. trade in the Pacific, noted that the U.S. would probably profit from Britain’s imperialism.

So far, so banal.

But what Wheaton injected into the debate — what his day job as a diplomat in Germany, and his earlier work canals enabled him to comment on — was that the Anglo-American traders would have competition from continental Europe. Like the U.S., France, Prussia (for the Zolleverein) and Russia were all sending embassies to China, hoping to secure equal, or better terms for access to Chinese markets.

The German states, in particular, could pose a threat, if the new route to Asia, through Egypt, was combined with the new canal and railroad infrastructure then being completed. Even the supposedly sleepy Hapsburg’s were getting into the act.

…it is conceived that Austria has a deeper interest than any other German State in the new commercial relations to be established with China, since her intercourse with the East Indies will probably be carried on from Trieste and Venice by the ancient route of Egypt and the Red Sea. The Danube is already connected with the Rhine by the magnificent canal constructed by the King of Bavaria, and the port of Trieste will soon be connected with the Danube by the rail – roads the Austrian government has projected in that direction. The rulers for the Austrian empire are fully awakened to the importance of developing its vast resources by restoring those ancient channels of commerce by which the wealth of the East was exchanged for the fabrics of Germany and Italy previous to the discovery of the passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope.

(This last idea — that the new trade relations would be a return to the Silk Road days — is particularly fascinating. Wheaton, though, gets it wrong: it was the metal wealth of the West that flowed East in exchange for Chinese productions, including textiles. This misconstruction of the past, probably neither original nor unique to Wheaton, appears to be one of those traditions conveniently invented at the moment where new economic arrangements were solidifying, and new power structures needed justifying.)

But so, you might be asking, what? Well, put briefly, I think that the expansive boundaries of Wheaton’s thought and interests, as exemplified by the route he took to thinking and writing about China, says something important about a certain drift in American thinking on geopolitics and power. Specifically, I think it indicates that Americans were beginning to see the world as a unified whole, at least with regard to their interests and potential sphere of action — a world that, not so coincidentally, was being both threatened and built by the British empire.

The frame’s the thing, in other words.

Thus the 1840s, rather than seeming like the beginning of an inward-looking cycle (expansion completed, the U.S. could attempt to tear itself apart), instead begins to look like the beginning of a new outward looking cycle. Britain’s attack on China, awakened some long-dormant international perspective, birthed, somewhat ironically, under the aegis of a political ideology that is usually understood as being profoundly focused on continental development, Jacksonian Democracy.

The eastward drift of Wheaton’s interests — by way of considering commercial competition, canals, and the Opium war — is, I think, both a symptom and (in a small way) a contributing factor to this shift.

In reacting to, and thinking about, the consequences of Britain’s rise, Americans were expanding their own horizons, and beginning to think about their role (often outsized in their minds) as a World Power — in commercial, if not yet military, terms.

At least, one small part of the State Department bureaucracy was beginning to act like he thought so.

* Hat tip to a colleague and friend for this phrase. I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, actually.

1. “Declaration” in Bulletin of the Proceedings of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, Established at Washington in 1840 (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1841), p.3

2. “Impending Revolutions in the Commercial Intercourse of the World. On the Panama Canal,” Henry Wheaton to Francis Markoe, Jr., Berlin, 15 June 1843.

3.Within the diplomatic corps, Wheaton appears to have been a relatively rare bird. Other American diplomats, especially those at other major capitals (London, Paris) were as prolific, but rarely so wide-ranging. His only rival real rival is Caleb Cushing, the first U.S. minister to China – who, incidentally, received a copy of Wheaton’s report while en route to Macao. However Cushing’s similarly simultaneous reports for both the National Institute and the State Department occupied parallel, not intersecting, tracks, with little of the fruitful cross pollination that was Wheaton’s stock in trade.

4. Henry Wheaton to Abel P. Upshur, Berlin, 30 August 1843, No. 234

Image cite: Leonski, “The wall was framed,” Flickr CC License

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