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.

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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.
Continue reading “The Engine of American Diplomacy”

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

And Tyler’s Two

Or, an example of history repeating, er, threats

the man who almost wasn't
the man who almost wasn't

Though, in fairness to Mr. Jackson, I think this one was much more sincerely offered:

Unfortunately, for the Captain and his Guard the animosity ran deeper than a few office seekers. Both Cushing and Tyler received “hate mail” from around the country. Vituperative James Campbell of Philadelphia urged Cushing to intercede and persuade Tyler, “a miserable, paltry, third rate county court scoundrel,” to resign. Campbell, somewhat more irrational than most of Cushing’s correspondents, suggested that for his treason to his party Tyler should “have his privates cut off and while yet still alive to have them nailed to a cross as a warning to political traitors hereafter.” In case any doubt existed he attached a graphic color rendering of his intent.

~John M. Belohlavek, Broken Glass: Caleb Cushing and the Shattering of the Union (Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2005), p.136.

Here’s the primary source cite for the letter and “graphic color rendering”: James Campbell, Philadelphia, July 16, 1842, to Caleb Cushing, in Caleb Cushing Manuscripts, Library of Congress.


Image cite: Tony the Misfit, “John Tyler, 10th Union President, Confederate Congressman,” Flickr, CC License