Anson Burlingame

American diplomat Anson Burlingame (1820-1870) served as U.S. minister to China and later as a Chinese envoy to the United States.

Anson Burlingame was born on Nov. 14, 1820, in New Berlin, N.Y., a descendant of Roger Burlingame, who had emigrated from England in 1654 and helped settle Providence, R.I. Anson's father, a farmer and Methodist lay preacher, moved his family westward in 1823 to Seneca Country, Ohio, to Detroit in 1833, and in 1835 to a farm at Branch, Mich.

Educated in common schools and at the Detroit branch of the newly formed University of Michigan, Burlingame graduated from Harvard Law School in 1846. He began to practice law in Boston with the son of the governor of Massachusetts. A gifted and popular public speaker, he soon became active in politics. In 1848 he toured Massachusetts on behalf of the third-party Free Soil ticket, Martin Van Buren and Charles Francis Adams. He was elected to the state senate in 1852 and to the state constitutional convention in 1853. He joined the American party when it was formed in 1854, and he won election to Congress in 1854, 1856, and 1858 but lost the election of 1860. In Congress, Burlingame actively supported the antislavery cause and in 1856 helped form the Republican party on Free Soil principles. At the end of his congressional term in March 1861, President Lincoln appointed him minister to Austria. Owing to Burlingame's unacceptability to the Austrian government because of his speeches favoring independence for Hungary and Sardinia, Lincoln changed his assignment, naming him minister to China.

China had only recently granted foreigners the right to reside and trade within its borders, and the mercantile community was anxious to extend its influence. Burlingame, despite his lack of experience, quickly assumed leadership of the diplomatic corps in Peking. He successfully furthered a policy of cooperating with the European powers in defending the weak imperial government of China against the overbearing demands of the foreign merchants. For example, he helped thwart foreigners' efforts to establish in the treaty ports governments that were wholly independent of the imperial government. He tried to settle disputes by diplomacy instead of force, and his policies were "based upon justness and freed from prejudice of race." Throughout, his goal was the modernization of China.

Burlingame had long urged China to send diplomatic representatives to the Western powers, and when he resigned as minister in November 1867, the imperial government named him and two Chinese colleagues to head an official delegation to visit the United States and the European capitals. In the United States the result was the Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which restated the principles of the 1858 treaty and pledged an American policy of respect for the territorial integrity of China. One article of the treaty provided for reciprocal immigration and was designed to promote the importation of Chinese laborers to work on the transcontinental railroad. Unfortunately, anti-Chinese agitation in America resulted in congressional restriction of Chinese immigration and strained Sino-American relations.

Burlingame continued his mission in London, where he secured a declaration that China was "entitled to count upon the forbearance of foreign nations." He was less successful in the other European capitals. He caught pneumonia while in St. Petersburg and died there on Feb. 23, 1870.


Further Reading on Anson Burlingame

There is no full-length biography of Burlingame. The standard account of his mission to the Western powers for China is Frederick Wells Williams, Anson Burlingame and the First Chinese Mission to Foreign Powers (1912). There is also material on Burlingame in John W. Foster, American Diplomacy in the Orient (1903); Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia (1922); and Foster Rhea Dulles, China and America: The Story of Their Relations since 1784 (1946).