Those of us who are familiar with the San Francisco Bay Area have all heard of and drove by the city of Burlingame just a few miles south of the San Francisco International Airport. However, most of us do not know that more than 100 years ago the city was named after a most unique diplomat Anson Burlingame.  In 1861 Burlingame was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as the Minister to China. Six years later in 1867 when he was contemplating retirement from that position and returning to the U.S., China appointed him as the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to head a Chinese diplomatic mission to the United States and other principal European nations. This article describes this extraordinary and unique diplomat.
Early Years: Anson Burlingame was born in 1820 in New Berlin, Chenango County, New York (south central part of New York). Later his parents moved to Ohio and then Michigan. After he graduated from University of Michigan, and from Harvard Law School in 1846, he practiced law in Boston. He was active in the Free Soil Party, a short-lived third party, whose leadership was consisted of former anti-slavery members of the Whig Party and the Democratic Party. Its main purpose was opposed to the expansion of slavery, and the party sometimes worked to remove existing laws that discriminated against freed African Americans in states such as Ohio. He was elected to the Massachusetts state senate from 1853-1854, and then a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts from 1855-1861. The Free Soil Party membership was largely absorbed in 1854 by the new Republican Party, which Burlingame helped to organize in Massachusetts. In his last term as a congressman, he was elected as a member of the Republican Party.
During his days as a lawyer, a Massachusetts state senator and a U.S. Congressman, he was known for his oratory skills. He was also famous for an incident in 1856 with Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Congressman Brooks viciously assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts while Sumner was sitting in his desk in the Senate by repeatedly hitting Sumner with his metal-tipped cane even after Sumner was already lying on the floor unconscious. The cause of Brooks’ rage was because three days earlier Sumner delivered a scathing criticism of President Franklin Pierce and Brooks’ uncle Andrew Butler, senator from South Carolina, for supporting slavery expansion and sympathizing with pro-slavery violence. Shortly afterward, Burlingame delivered a celebrated speech denouncing Brooks’ attack on Sumner as a cowardly act. In response, Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to circumvent the U.S. ban on dueling. Burlingame quickly accepted the challenge, but surprised by Burlingame’s quick acceptance and knowing Burlingame’s reputation as a superb marksman, Brooks did not show up citing unspecified risks to his safety if he was to cross the northern states in order to reach Canada. Burlingame became a hero throughout the North.
Minister to China: Recognizing Burlingame’s political integrity, oratory skills, and his contributions to the establishment of the new Republican Party, President Lincoln on March 12, 1861 appointed Burlingame as Minister to the Austrian Empire. However, because Burlingame had championed the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth and his drive for independence from the Austrian Empire, his appointment was not accepted by Austria. So on June 14, 1861 Lincoln instead appointed Burlingame as Minister to the Qing Empire (i.e., China). Unlike previous ministers from the U.S. or other foreign powers who approached their jobs from an imperialistic perspective carrying a big military stick in negotiation, Burlingame carried out his ministerial duty from a more cooperative perspective, treating China as a respected, equal partner. It was this attitude that won the respect and admiration of the Qing Court, including Prince Gong, the sixth prince of the Qing Emperor. At that time, China’s foreign affairs were under the government body Zongli Yamen (總理衙門), which was established by Prince Gong in 1861, following the signing of many unequal treaties between China and various foreign powers.  This office was abolished in 1901 and replaced with a Foreign Office of ministry rank.
Special Envoy to the U.S.: After all these unequal treaties, Prince Gong and the Qing Court wanted to find a better way to represent China and to negotiate with the foreign powers. Prince Gong also felt that China needed to know the foreign powers better. The best way to achieve both of those objectives was to send a Chinese delegation to visit those countries. In 1867 when Burlingame was contemplating retiring from the position of U.S. Minister to China, Prince Gong, on behalf of China, offered to Burlingame the job of China’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary  to head a Chinese diplomatic mission to the United States and other principal European nations. This offer was partially due to their respect and admiration for Burlingame as a man of integrity and fairness and a man with great oratory skills, and partially due to the belief that with Burlingame heading the delegation, it offered better opportunities for the Chinese delegation to be able to meet and discuss with the highest-level officials because of Burlingame’s political connections in the U.S. Burlingame quickly accepted and took office on November 17, 1867. So a citizen of the youngest country in the world became an ambassador of the oldest country in the world.
In early 1868 a Chinese diplomatic delegation was sent to the U.S. and then to Europe and Russia with the mission to give a better representation of China and hopefully negotiate better treaties, either during the trip or when previous treaties need to be renewed or renegotiated. Probably unique in modern history, this Chinese diplomatic delegation was headed by Anson Burlingame, an American, although two high-level Chinese officials, Zhi Gang and Sun Jiagu, accompanied him on this mission.
Before we discuss this Burlingame-led Chinese delegation to the U.S., it is important to understand the political atmosphere in the U.S. at the beginning of 1868. Even though it was already more than two years after the end of the Civil War and after the official abolishment of slavery, the country was still very much politically polarized with respect to treatment of the free slaves and the related issue of reconstruction of the South. The Republican Party, the party that Burlingame belonged to, favored more and faster changes, while the Democratic Party favored more the status quote. Another major political divide was the attitude and treatment towards Chinese living in the U.S., especially in states, such as California, with a large number of Chinese. The Republicans, relatively speaking, favored a fairer policy, while the Democrats favored a hostile policy with many discriminatory laws against the Chinese, although both parties did not want to allow Chinese to become naturalized citizens. In fact, at that time, these two issues were related because “slaves and coolies” were often linked together as undesirable elements.
Burlingame Treaty: The visit of the Chinese delegation to the U.S. with Burlingame as its head generated great fanfare in the U.S. For example, when the delegation arrived in San Francisco on April 1, 1868, there were many welcoming parties. Later, Burlingame also met with Secretary of State William H. Seward and President Andrew Johnson. In many speeches, Burlingame advocated his major theme that the relation between the U.S. and China should be based on equality and reciprocity, which was reflected in the final output of the Chinese delegation to the U.S., and the crowning achievement of Burlingame’s professional life, the Burlingame Treaty (officially known as the Amendment to the Treaty of Tientsin. but commonly known as the Burlingame Treaty) between the U.S. and China. This treaty was signed on July 28, 1868, and has eight articles:
- Article I states that the Emperor of China has eminent domain or dominion over China, even on territories of concession to other countries. It prohibits the United States and other powers from fighting one another on Chinese territory.
- Article II stipulates China’s sole control of the nation’s commercial regulations in so far as these were not governed by existing treaties.
- Article III states that the Emperor of China shall have the right to appoint Consuls at ports of the U.S., who shall enjoy the same privileges and immunities as those which are enjoyed by public law and treaty in the U.S. by the Consuls of Great Britain and Russia, or either of them.
- Article IV guarantees religious freedom to the Chinese in America, and by reciprocity guarantees religious freedom to the Americans in China. [The latter was the main significance of this article.]
- Article V guarantees the right of free Chinese emigration to America and by reciprocity also guarantees the right of free American emigration to China.
- Article VI states that “citizens of the U.S. visiting or residing in China shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities, or exemptions in respect to travel or residence as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation. And, reciprocally, Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the U.S., shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities, or exemptions in respect to travel or residence as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation.” [This part of the article basically declared that the discriminatory anti-Chinese legislation in California was illegal.] Note, however, the following sentence was included at the end of Article VI: “But nothing herein contained may be held to confer naturalization upon citizens of the U.S. in China, nor upon the subjects of China in the U.S.” [This last sentence was not in the original draft of the treaty, but was added during the discussion in the U.S. Senate at the suggestion of Senator John Conness of California, most likely due to political pressure and to increase the probability of getting the treated approved in the U.S.]
- Article VII states that citizens of the U.S. shall enjoy all the privileges of the public educational institutions under the control of the government of China, and reciprocally, Chinese subjects shall enjoy all the privileges of the public educational institutions under the control of the government of the U.S., which are enjoyed in the respective countries by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation. [This article also tried to address some of the then-existing anti-Chinese discriminatory laws.]
- Article VIII reaffirms China’s national sovereignty. It states that the U.S., always disclaiming and discouraging all practices of unnecessary dictation and intervention by one nation in the affairs or domestic administration of another, do hereby freely disclaim and disavow any intention or right to intervene in the domestic administration of China in regard to the construction of railroads, telegraphs, or other material internal improvements. On the other hand, his Majesty the Emperor of China, reserves to himself the right to decide the time and manner of introducing such improvements within his dominions.
Concluding Remarks: Relative to previous treaties between China and foreign powers, the Burlingame Treaty definitely was based more on equality and reciprocity between the two countries. It did not repeal previous unequal treaties and it might not have gone as far as we would like, but taking into account the political atmosphere in the U.S. at that time and to have a treaty that could get approved by Congress and the President of the U.S., it was probably as far as one could reasonably expect to be achievable.
Unfortunately after Burlingame visited several countries in Europe and then Russia, he contracted pneumonia and died in St. Petersburg on February 23, 1870. After his death, Mark Twain wrote a long tribute to Burlingame, part of which included “For he had outgrown the narrow citizenship of a state and become a citizen of the world; and this charity was large enough and his great heart warm enough to feel for all its races and to labor for them. … In real greatness, ability, grandeur of character, and achievement, he stood head and shoulders above all the Americans of to-day, save one or two. … He was a good man, and a very, very great man. America lost a son, and all the world a servant, when he died.”
Many of the Burlingame Treaty agreements signed by the U.S. and China were never implemented. Foreign powers, including the U.S., continued their imperialistic attitude toward China based on military might, and extremely anti-Chinese discriminatory laws were passed in the U.S., with the most noteworthy being the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which was passed after revisions were made in 1880 to the Burlingame Treaty. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was not repealed until December 17, 1943, more than 60 years later, when China and the U.S. were allies fighting the Japanese in World War II.
In light of the current overall negativity and biased media reports and articles about China, as well as speeches by various political leaders, the U.S., China, and the rest of the world really need more courageous and upright leaders like Anson Burlingame. The world would be better off if that were the case.
 I want to thank David Chai, former mayor of Holmdel, New Jersey, for first mentioning to me Anson Burlingame and then providing me with several references.
 In each one of these unequal treaties, China gave concessions to the foreign power. For example, the unequal treaty with England included the ceding of the Island of Hong Kong to England. In the Treaty of Tientsin, it allowed the right of foreign vessels including warships to navigate freely on the Yangtze River. It also allowed England, France, Russia, and the U.S. to set up a legation in Peking, which was a closed city at that time. A legation was the term used in diplomacy to denote a diplomatic representative office lower than an embassy. Where an embassy was headed by an Ambassador, a legation was headed by an Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary.
 This position is equivalent to ambassador, but the term ambassador was not used because there was no embassy between the two countries.