Golden Ghetto, History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage

A Brief Account of Cushing’s America

Or, Contractually Bound, Peaceful, Prosperous, and Surprisingly Plural



A portrait can tell you a lot about a person. Especially one done in the older style — before the head shot — where objects and landscapes were visible at the margins of the frame. The value lies, not it its status as as a representative image of a person (though that’s usually approximated), but rather in what it says about both the idealized self of the person pictured and the cultural context within which they lived – the materials from which they pulled together their ideals. In trying to squeeze information from such paintings, a nose for discrepancies – in historical ones, our sense of what’s foreign about the past – are among our best tools, and have long served historians well.

(Of course, the information thus obtained is as much a creation of our own selves as it is of those pictured in the past … but that’s history, folks.)

As luck would have it, the archival record of the first American diplomatic mission to China gives us an opportunity to do the same thing for the United States. From the pen of Caleb Cushing, U.S. minister to China, we have an idealized portrait of the country in the form of a memo he drafted for circulation among Chinese officials and merchants.

He wrote the piece, he explained to his superiors, to correct the “very imperfect and incorrect notions” in China “as to the constitution and character of the United States.” At the end of July 1844, the State Department received a copy of the 1,200-word pamphlet that Cushing, with input from other members of the legation’s staff, had written and translated into Chinese. In his cover letter for the pamphlet, he promised to deliver it “to official and other persons in China” to help achieve the mission’s goals, and further U.S. interests in general. He called the memo “A Brief Account of the United States.”

Cushing’s memo was not the first attempt at American image control in China, of course. The American mercantile community was no stranger to keeping up particular (and peculiar) appearances at Canton. But Cushing’s mission in 1844 was the first instance of an official, organized, and duly deputized national self-presentation to China, and as such should be accorded a bit more weight. He represented more — at least to his countrymen — than the aggregate of a dozen mercantile houses.

More than a PR piece, though, what Cushing had written was, in effect, a snapshot of what he thought the U.S. was, or should be, refracted through some ideas about what he thought would appeal to the Chinese.


It’s a fairly bland document in many ways. Written in simple, almost child-like language, it recapitulates the history of the United States, surveys its present political, economic, and social condition. It also explains, somewhat lamely, why the Americans desire a commercial treaty (“so as to maintain reciprocal respect, and prevent disputes, encroachments and wars”).

Cushing presents the United States as powerful, yet peaceful; diverse, yet well-governed and prosperous; and, pushing a theme Americans consistently thought would play especially well at Canton — recently occupied by the British — as a nation well-experienced in defending itself against perfidious Albion.

There are several predictably ham-fisted attempts to meet the Chinese halfway, culturally. The founding fathers, for example, are described as laboring “in the spirit of the old Sages.” And hilariously, Congress and the state legislatures are a described as councils made up of “wise and learned men.” Sometimes Cushing allows other motives to surface, as when he describes Americans as “the equals of the people of Europe” in their refinement — not a terribly convincing argument to members of a civilization that considered Europeans generally to be barbarians, but surely a statement made in the spirit of the long tradition of Americans’ cultural inferiority complex vis-à-vis Europe.

However, there are more curious elements, striking in the ways they reveal how differently Cushing understood (or thought to make the Chinese understand) the basics of the U.S. His presentation of the settlement of the American continent, the memory of the Revolution, and, above all, the contractual nature of U.S. nationalism all depart significantly from how we understand the country now.

Cushing is quite unsentimental in the way he describes how the Americas were colonized, settled, and then liberated:

The great continent of America, in the old time, was occupied by a very large number of barbarians and uncivilized nations.

Afterwards, it was conquered and taken possession of by armies and colonies from Europe, whose descendants made themselves independent of Europe and have established new governments of their own.

I think what we’re seeing here is evidence of the vast gap he and other Americans saw as created by the Revolution. It really was considered to be a break in cosmic time, or at least in world history. Thus Cushing – and many other Americans – could both account for how colonization occurred and simultaneously attribute those actions completely to a foreign European people (Spanish, British, French) — and then regard themselves as engaged in wholly different activities – even as they were in the midst of continuing the same practices some more of them (armies were still conquering the continent and colonies were still being carved out — they just called them “territories” instead).

There is a parallel here, I think, in how some pro-slavery apologists explained the roots of slavery as an institution “forced” on Southerners by unscrupulous British merchants. In any case, Cushing’s memo imagines a United States as made up of Americans only beginning with the revolutionary struggle; there isn’t any antecedent nationalism. And then Revolution wiped out all debts, both monetary and moral. Americans were a people without a history before 1776.

(Though about 1776: Cushing dates the “present government and union of the United States” to 1790, the first full year of the Constitution being in force — which fits in with another theme in the piece, emphasis on the legal ties that bind the states together rather the than quasi-ethnic, or at least ethos-driven, ties we emphasize now. See below.)

Similarly, Cushing’s portrayal of the American Revolution is very different from our own. Today we think of it, somewhat bizarrely, as nearly a bloodless conflict, a paper cut considered next to greater national traumas, like the Civil War. Cushing goes to the other extreme, describing the war as “a long and bloody war with England” in which Americans “shed seas of blood” to protect themselves to “deliver their country from its invaders.” He goes on to describe American feats of arms, and the humiliation of Britain’s best generals – a bit of unsubtle Anglophobia that is missing in most historical works, but still evident in popular depictions, like Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, where the British army is portrayed as the missing legions of the Third Reich.

Finally, Cushing’s entire memo is shot through with the dominant political philosophy of his day. He consistently refers to the United States in the plural ( “The United States are…” ), and describes the Federal government as the result of a compact for mutual defense between the several states:

The United States are twenty six in number. They are inhabited by men who speak different languages, especially English, German, Dutch, French and Spanish according to the nations of Europe from which they are descended. But they are united together to form one government, for the purpose of preserving tranquility and promoting prosperity within themselves, and for mutual defence against all enemies, whether in Europe or America.

This government is a confederacy or union of free States, which have each its Governor and its councils of wise and learned men to guide its affairs in the path of tranquility and the general good within their own borders, while the foreign affairs of the whole are exclusively directed by the general government of the United States at Washington.

This vision of the U.S. as a compact between autonomous states was a first principle in the various political philosophies derived from the Jeffersonian tradition (the “Old Republicans”), and was generally strongest in the Democratic party’s coalition – though as Cushing illustrates, even a New England Whig could come within the pale on this.

It was particularly ascendant in the South, which had a peculiar stake in warding off any outside interference (cough, slavery, cough), and indeed this approached reached its most extreme forms in the thinking of slaveholder-philosophers like John C. Calhoun. Only after the Civil War did this concept fade in importance (only to be regurgitated — one must assume in a gesture of extreme historical irony — by the current members of the political party that worked so hard to eradicate this notion). This shift was reflected in common usage: people started referring to the “United States” in the singular more often than the plural.


What surprises me, though, is Cushing’s description of the U.S. as ethnically and linguistically diverse: “They are inhabited by men who speak different languages, especially English, German, Dutch, French and Spanish according to the nations of Europe from which they are descended.”

It fits in with “compact” theory of government, to be sure, but doesn’t seem to serve the goals of the mission in any readily apparent way (ethnic diversity was not a celebrated value in the Chinese empire; so much so that the Chinese government observed the fiction that the Qing dynasty — non-Han conquerors – formed an unbroken tradition with the Ming).

This strikes me as quite early for any kind of ready acceptance — promotion, even! — of ethnic and linguistic diversity as one of the main attributes of the U.S. And yet it found its way into a very able politician’s snapshot of the country. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain it’s presence.

I could go on, but as I’ve now far surpassed the length of the “Brief Account,” I think I’ll end here. Thoughts?

1.A pattern distressingly common among some the early communications from the U.S. to China. President Tyler’s official letter to the Daoguang Emperor was even worse, written in an insulting baby-talk style. The State Department apparently reasoned that, similar to how speaking English louder to someone in a foreign language unerringly improves their comprehension, so too would writing in the sing-song phrases of a four year old.

Image cite: Archie McPhee, “American Flag Folding Fan,” Flickr, CC License

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