Or, A Little Presentism Goes a Long Way
Historians like to think that even as we study the past, we’re doing something new. Bringing fresh light to unexplored recesses, listening, patiently, to quiet, pained voices – or, more aggressively, stripping away the accumulated decades-deep varnish of myths and flipping the table on complacent “just-so” stories about how we got into our present mess. And so on.
I’m no different. Part of the sales pitch for my own work (Hellloooo future employers and funders!) is that early American trade with Asia is understudied – and so, by examining at its sources we can not only learn more about the trade itself, but also overturn long-standing debates in “wider” fields (e.g. American early republic or antebellum history). This is should be a familiar tune to all of you, I’ve sung it enough…
But history, in its modern incarnation, is not a new field; these habits are old. Even (or perhaps especially) when it comes to studying early American trade with Asia.
Allow me to illustrate. In 1937, in his monumental study of the Jackson and Lee merchant families Ken Porter complains, at length, that the American China trade is too well known , romanticized, even – and that the trend in the extant literature is to obscure an equally important topic: U.S. trade with British India.*
It was the trade with the Far East which gave early American commerce its characteristic flavor, but although the early history of the China trade has been told and retold, the story of the trade with Calcutta and other ports in India remains un-recounted either in scholarly or popular form. [emphasis mine]
The very simplicity of the Canton trade, emphasized by the exotic and fantastic characteristics of its physical background, has made it a favorite theme for writers on American foreign trade. Far otherwise was the situation at Calcutta, a British port, where the lack of any such rigid monopoly as the co-hong or any exclusive policy toward foreigners, coupled with the undeveloped character of native industry, rendered the trade situation almost infinitely more complex. This complexity, which calls for a thorough analysis, has instead produced the effect of repelling investigators, who found in the background of Calcutta trade no such compensatory romantic elements as were furnished by the forbidden world of China. Anecdotes of Houqua, the great hong merchant, abound; but who has more than the name of his millionaire Caclutta contemporary, Ram Duloll Day? [Ramdulal Dey]
~Porter, Jacksons and the Lees, I:28, 52
And, for what it’s worth, Porter was right: at the time he was writing, the U.S. public and scholarly community had been inundated, for at least thirty years, with wistful remembrances, detailed annals, and historical examinations of the American China trade.** That itself was a retread: the China trade, and it’s romantic clippers and secret hongs and smuggling, was celebrated well in to the Gilded Age in travelogues, stories, poetry, and images. Indeed, Porter’s own work was part of a new resurgence of interest in the early history of US-Asia relations, prompted, in all likelihood, by near-term threats to American interests in the Pacific (<cough>WWII</cough>).
Porter himself appears to have lost interest – some uphill battles are not worth fighting, I guess? – and devoted the rest of his (extremely long) career to working on the African American experience on the U.S. frontier.
Even among professionals, our historical memory is only the length of a lifetime, if that – and so trends cycle, if not predictably so. This is true, I suspect, in all sub-fields, but certainly in early American history, where once again innovative work is being done by adopting perspectives that echo (at least superficially) those of earlier generations, though hopefully with the benefits that the treadmill of time has provided us.***
But part of that innovation is also a calculated forgetting. Speaking for myself, it would be impossible to write anything new, if I felt obligated to fully represent every quantum of prior work equally in my own scholarship — the accumulated weight of the dust alone would crush me.
Turns out that the the dead hand of the (professional study of the) past is just as easily shrugged off as the past itself; even necessarily so, I think. History, no less than the earth, belongs in usufruct to the living – though perhaps we would do well to be better stewards of it than we’ve been with the land.****
*Kenneth Wiggins Porter, The Jacksons and the Lees: Two Generations of Massachusetts Merchants, 1765-1844, 2 vols., 3rd ed., Harvard studies in business history 3 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969; orig 1937).
**To give but a brief taste of the recent (c. 30 years) lit that Porter might have been frustrated with:
John Watson Foster, American Diplomacy in the Orient (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1903); Frank Erastus Hinckley, American Consular Jurisdiction in the Orient (Washington, D.C: W.H. Loudermilk, 1906); Hosea Ballou Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1910); Charles O. Paullin, “Early Voyages of American Naval Vessels to the Orient,” Proceedings 36, no. 2, United States Naval Institute (USNI) (June 1910): 428-463; Robert Ephraim Peabody, Merchant Venturers of Old Salem; a History of the Commercial Voyages of a New England Family to the Indies and Elsewhere in the XVIII Century, (Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1912); Robert Glass Cleland, “Asiatic Trade and the American Occupation of the Pacific Coast,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1914 I (1916): 283-289; Thomas Franklin Waters, Augustine Heard and His Friends, Ipswich Historical Society publications no. 21 (Salem, Mass.: The Society, 1916); Frederic William Howay, “The Fur Trade in Northwestern Development,” ed. H. M Stevens and Herbert E Bolton, The Pacific Ocean in History (New York, 1917), 276-86; Kenneth Scott Latourette, The History of Early Relations Between the United States and China, 1784-1844, Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 22 (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1917), http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000521723; State Street Trust Company, Other Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston; Being More Information About the Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston Who Played Such an Important Part in Building up the Commerce of New England, Together with Some Quaint and Curious Stories of the Sea (Boston, Mass: Walton Advertising and Printing Company: Printed for the State Street Trust Company, 1919); James Christy Bell, Jr., Opening a Highway to the Pacific, 1838-1846 (New York: Columbia University, 1921), http://books.google.com/books?id=uPRYAAAAMAAJ; Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia: a critical study of the policy of the United States with reference to China, Japan, and Korea in the 19th Century (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922); Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783-1860, 1st ed. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922); Shü-lun Pan, “The trade of the United States with China” (Ph.D. diss., New York: Columbia University, 1924); Charles H Barnard et al., The Sea, the Ship and the Sailor; Tales of Adventure from Log Books and Original Narratives (Salem, Mass: Marine Research Society, 1925); Sydney Greenbie and Marjorie Latta Barstow Greenbie, Gold of Ophir; or, The Lure That Made America (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1925); George Granville Putnam, Salem Vessels and Their Voyages, III (Salem, MA: The Essex Institute, 1925); Robert Ephraim Peabody, The Log of the Grand Turks (Boston ;New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926); Charles Frederick Remer, The Foreign Trade of China (Shanghai, China: The Commercial Press, Limited, 1926); Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Voyages of American Ships to China, 1784-1844,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 28 (1927), http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000521723; Samuel Eliot Morison, “The India Ventures of Fisher Ames, 1794-1804,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 37 (April 1927): 14-23; George H Danton, The Culture Contacts of the United States and China; the Earliest Sino-American Culture Contacts, 1784-1844 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931); “Perkins and Company, Canton 1803-1827,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 6, no. 2 (March 1, 1932): 1-5; Basil Lubbock, The Opium Clippers (Boston: Charles E. Lauriat company, 1933); E. H. Pritchard, “The Struggle for Control of the China Trade during the Eighteenth Century,” The Pacific Historical Review 3, no. 3 (September 1934): 280-295; Eliot Grinnell Mears, Maritime Trade of Western United States,, Stanford business series (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1935); Chen Ching-Jen, “Opium and Anglo-Chinese Relations,” The Chinese Social and Political Science Review 19 (October 1935): 386-437; Amy Christine Carlson, “References to China in American Juvenile Periodicals During the Days of the Old China Trade, 1784-1844.”, 1936
And so on.
***I was having a conversation with a colleague just today about how it’s time to take the doughfaces seriously again! This is an ancient heresy of the worst kind, I tell you.
**** Said with all due obeisances to the lord master of Monticello, of course.