Angell, China and Opium
By James Tobin
The opium trade ... was the most long-continued systematic international crime of modern times.– John King Fairbank
Chapter 1 “I Have Always Attached Great Importance to It”
On a spring evening in 1910, James Burrill Angell, recently retired after nearly 40 years as Michigan’s president, was given a grand testimonial dinner at the Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit.
Hundreds of guests were seated in the main dining room, liberally decorated in ornaments of maize and blue. As they finished dessert, Dr. Angell was presented with a dozen sterling silver dinner plates as a token of his admirers’ gratitude.
Next, one by one, a string of dignitaries (including a former U.S. secretary of state and the head of the Smithsonian Institution) stood to praise Angell’s astonishingly long and fruitful career — his crusade for the abolition of slavery as a newspaper editor before the Civil War; his promotion of scholarly and scientific research; his reform of the University’s curriculum; his leadership as U-M rose to the top rank of higher education; and his services to the nation as a diplomat.
Then the guest of honor was asked to speak.
The elderly Angell rose and expressed humble thanks for all the nice things said about him: “I could only wish that I were worthy of them in the least degree.”
He thought he would review a few episodes in his career that were seldom mentioned, he said, and the first he thought quite significant.
It was the treaty he had negotiated with China in which the United States promised that no American would take part in the trade in opium that had done such terrible damage to Chinese society for many decades.
“I have always attached great importance to it,” he said.
Then he went on with his speech, and the dinner concluded, and Angell’s remark about opium and China was forgotten.
Angell’s remark about opium and China was forgotten.
Chapter 2 The Secretary of State’s Problem
Angell’s mission to the Chinese Empire had occurred 30 years earlier, in 1880-81, when he had been president of Michigan for fewer than 10 years.
He was an expert in international law, and though he had no actual experience as a diplomat, his combination of shrewdness, tact and wisdom was well regarded among influential figures in Washington.
So when it became known that William Evarts, secretary of state to President Rutherford B. Hayes, needed a delicate job done in China, Michigan’s junior senator, the Detroit banker Henry P. Baldwin, invited Angell down to Washington for a chat at the State Department.
* * *
The problem on the secretary of state’s desk was the flood of Chinese manual laborers into the western United States — more than 100,000 since the 1860s, when a treaty had paved the way for unrestricted Chinese immigration, chiefly to provide cheap labor for the transcontinental railroads.
These workers, known by the pejorative term “coolie,” were the West’s answer to the abolition of the slave trade. Throughout the world, poverty-stricken Chinese, Indian and southeast Asian laborers were paid basement-level wages and subjected to indentured servitude to perform the worst jobs. They were brutally treated. Many died en route to the West or on the job.
In the western U.S., when the railroads were finished, many labor contractors refused to return these workers to China. So they migrated to cities and mining towns, where they competed for low-wage jobs against native workers. Without education or skills, they formed dense, “unmeltable” enclaves — “Chinatowns” — in many places.
This scandalous trade brought a train of social ills. The workers came without their families, so Chinese prostitutes often followed in their wake. Some brought their opium habits, and descended into grim lives of addiction in vice-ridden “opium dens.”
So now, western-state politicians and labor leaders were decrying a “yellow peril” and demanding stern countermeasures. “To an American,” cried one populist leader, “death is preferable to life on a par with the Chinese.”
But diplomats in Washington had to tread lightly. The Middle Kingdom had only recently opened itself to the rest of the world, including to Christian missionaries, and many highly placed Americans were fervent supporters of the missionary movement. They feared that any restriction on Chinese labor might provoke a backlash against the missionaries.
Americans treasured the idea of the United States as a haven for the world’s downtrodden — the experience of kidnapped Africans, maltreated Irish and many others notwithstanding. Also, trade with China was significant and likely to become more so. It would not do to offend China’s elites, who believed their ancestors, not the uncouth West, had led the rise to civilization.
Secretary of State Evarts had an additional problem on the China front: Some U.S. diplomats posted to Peking were suspected of corruption. If Evarts was going to solve the immigration problem, he needed someone with a spotless reputation to do the work.
This was the knot of intertwining troubles that Secretary Evarts asked James Angell to untangle.
Low-cost Chinese immigrants were the West’s answer to the abolition of the slave trade.
Chapter 3 Mission to the Middle Kingdom
In Washington, Angell and Evarts had a long talk. The secretary said Angell had been recommended by Sen. George F. Edmunds of Vermont, where Angell had been president of the state university before coming to Ann Arbor. Evarts then explained what Angell’s mission would be, should he accept the charge.
At home Angell talked it over with his wife, Sarah. Both were enthusiastic supporters of American missionaries abroad, and they agreed he might help the movement in China if he accepted the post.
But he would say yes only if he could support the Hayes administration’s plans. So he sent to the library for books, and for the next week he made an intensive study of the immigration problem. Then he stated his conditions in a long letter to Washington.
No U.S. law or treaty had ever prohibited the immigration of a specific ethnic group, as Angell well knew. To enact such a blanket ban on Chinese immigrants, he said, “would be diametrically opposed to all our national traditions & would call down the censure of … our most intelligent & high-minded citizens.”
Also, outright exclusion risked a grave offense to Chinese pride. American missionaries might well pay the cost for a rupture in relations.
So if Washington wanted him to negotiate a full ban, Angell said, he could not accept the appointment.
But he could support less drastic measures. Perhaps immigration could be limited to men with families; that would reduce the influx overall and cut the influx of prostitutes. Or the countries might simply agree to end the contract system of immigration — “a system of temporary quasi-servitude” that was “repugnant to the whole spirit of our institutions.”
If Evarts wanted a deal that would limit “abuses that are plainly pernicious & offensive to the moral sense of the country,” Angell said, then he would take the assignment.
The State Department, with no clear plan of its own, was happy to endorse Angell’s views, so he was appointed American minister plenipotentiary to China and head of a three-man treaty delegation. The president’s good friend, Professor Henry Simmons Frieze, agreed to assume Angell’s duties in Ann Arbor in his absence.
While Mrs. Angell supervised the packing of clothing, linens, a sewing machine, and the family’s French tableware, the president continued to read everything on China he could find.
On June 6, 1880, they attended the wedding of their son, Alexis, to Fanny Cary Cooley, daughter of the dean of the Law School. Then, with their two youngest children and housekeeper, they set off for China.
[A total ban on Chinese immigration] would be diametrically opposed to all our national traditions & would call down the censure of … our most intelligent & high-minded citizens.”– James B. Angell
Chapter 4 Culture Shock
It was a long journey — by train to San Francisco; by steamship to Japan; by U.S. gunboat to Shanghai, then to Chefoo (Yantai). There Angell left his family and went on by houseboat and barge to Tientsin and finally to Peking (Beijing).
Immediately he was unsettled by what anthropologists would come to call “culture shock.” He had to get used to being stared at in the streets. Then there was the novel standard of public sanitation. “There is everywhere a pervading Peking odor,” he wrote his son, “out of which special stinks emerge here and there like mountains out of a plain.” But at the American legation, “the residence and the grounds are more spacious than I had supposed,” he wrote. “I do not see why one may not be comfortable here.”
There were other compensations, including the start of friendships with Chinese educators and other Westerners in the diplomatic corps. Angell struck up an especially good relationship with Sir Robert Hart, an Irishman who, through education and grit, had worked his way up from a tough childhood — he was the eldest of 12 children of an Ulster distillery worker — to high positions in China, first in the British consular service, then in the Chinese government itself.
When the two men met, Hart had been in China for a quarter-century. He had reformed the corrupt Chinese customs service, reorganized the British port authorities and gained the respect of Chinese leaders throughout the empire. (Sir Robert likely kept the fastidious Angell in the dark about his complicated personal life, which included three children by a Chinese concubine, a troubled marriage and a nervous breakdown.)
Hart provided Angell with crucial introductions to Chinese officials. The most important was Viceroy Li Hongzhang, a revered military leader who was now governor-general of several major provinces and de facto foreign minister, the most important man for an American diplomat to know.
He was also a leader in China’s Self-Strengthening Movement, a Western-facing campaign to strengthen the nation’s military and economy in the wake of a long series of setbacks at the hands of the West.
The Chinese and the American enjoyed a long chat at Li’s palace, large but spartan, Angell puffing on a cigar while Li partook of his water pipe. The viceroy wanted to know why President Ulysses S. Grant, after two terms in office (1869-1877), had not been nominated for a third term in 1880. As Angell recalled it: “I told him however it might be in China, in America, men who had been in high office had made enemies.”
Angell would remember his relationships with Robert Hart and Li Hongzhang with pleasure, and they would later redound to the University of Michigan’s benefit.
Angell's new friendships in China would redound to the University of Michigan’s benefit.
Chapter 5 Courtesy and Conflict
Before he could get down to his business, Angell had to make peace in his own delegation.
John Franklin Swift, a congressman from California, where anti-Chinese sentiment was reaching a fever, wanted a total ban on all immigration. Angell and William Trescot, a State Department man, said no, their aim should be simply to win the right to regulate the influx, not to cut it off entirely.
At that, Swift demanded that Washington be consulted by cablegram. Angell overruled him. Swift backed down, but “not without some feeling,” Angell recalled.
* * *
The two Chinese commissioners, appointed by the Chinese foreign ministry, were Pao Chun, a distant relative of the emperor and president of the Imperial College of Literature, and Li Hung Tsao, who had tutored an earlier emperor and was regarded as one of China’s great intellectuals. So Angell’s academic credentials made a favorable impression on his hosts.
The Americans presented their case with an elaborate display of courtesy.
Most Chinese in the United States, they pointed out, were unlike immigrants from Europe, who had emigrated with “the express purpose of changing their allegiance, with their wives and children, to be in the course of a generation completely incorporated” into American society.
The Chinese workers, Angell said, came to America to make money, then take their earnings home to help their families. (On this distinction, the Americans had their facts skewed; many European immigrants came and went from the U.S. for just the same reason.)
In the U.S., he continued, the immigrants contended with social alienation and civil strife. Chinese workers had concentrated in Western cities, “jealously preserving their peculiar nationality in dress, language, creed and habits,” and they were now competing with native workers for jobs, provoking “popular discontent.”
(With careful wording like this, the American commissioners were trying to disguise the fact that many Americans, probably most, regarded Chinese as their racial inferiors. The feeling among the Chinese was mutual.)
The Chinese negotiators could well imagine their own reaction, the Americans said, “if one hundred thousand foreign laborers were in a body introduced into…any great city of the empire, to bring their new and strange manners and habits and to take the places of the same number of native Chinese…”
The U.S. had “no desire or intention to do injustice to the character of the Chinese laborer,” they added. But surely the Chinese could understand the American wish to regulate the influx of new workers when it disrupted social peace. The commissioners sought only “a solution of the difficulties which will be alike honorable and satisfactory to both countries.”
To put it mildly, the Chinese negotiators were not sympathetic. Apparently the Americans had been cowed by “the influence of violent men,” they replied. “Because the Chinese do good work for small remuneration, the rabble are making a complaint.”
This, in turn, offended the Americans. They were hardly speaking on behalf of “a rabble,” Angell shot back. He demanded greater respect for the U.S.’s views. Ruffled feelings on both sides had to be smoothed with shows of politeness.
European diplomats watching from the sidelines saw this thrust-and-parry as a perfectly normal beginning, and predicted that a resolution, if possible at all, would take many months.
But to their astonishment, matters came to a head within just a couple of weeks, thanks in part to Angell’s steady hand at the bargaining table.
Because the Chinese do good work for small remuneration, the rabble are making a complaint.– China's negotiators
Chapter 6 “Let the Fish Chew the Bait”
The next meeting was scheduled for a Sunday. Angell set aside his customary observance of the Christian sabbath only under protest.
The Chinese proceeded to counter the Americans’ opening gambit with a comprehensive treaty proposal so at odds with U.S. views that Angell’s fellow commissioners, Swift and Trescot, said any further talk was pointless.
But Angell began to perceive that what the Chinese really wanted was simply to ensure that their merchants, artisans and students would still be welcome in the United States, and to safeguard manual laborers from abuse at the hands of American street toughs and lawmakers.
Seeing the Chinese deep in discussion, Angell counseled Swift and Trescot to have a little patience. He sent back a counter-offer on an easy point, hoping to start a trend toward agreeing on things. “Let the fish chew the bait a while,” he told Swift and Trescot.
Cautious inquiries went back and forth. Once again, Angell assured the Chinese that the U.S. wanted only to “regulate” the influx of Chinese citizens, not “prohibit” it. He said there would be no bar to merchants and students. And he promised the U.S. would do more to protect Chinese laborers already in the country.
Quite unexpectedly, the parties suddenly realized that no significant differences remained. In short order they agreed the U.S. could limit the flow of Chinese laborers but not cut it off entirely, and that Chinese immigrants “shall not be subject to personal maltreatment or abuse.” Merchants, students, educators and tourists would be fully welcome as ever.
The American delegates, hardly believing a deal was in hand, rose to leave the session.
But one of the Chinese delegates, Pao Chun, asked for an additional word. Angell and the others sat down to listen.
Chapter 7 An Unexpected Paragraph
For many years, Pao said, Europeans had forced deeply unfair trade treaties upon the Chinese Empire. Now the emperor’s government wished to be accorded a rightful equality in international trade.
The United States and China had enjoyed friendly relations in the past, he said, and the Angell delegation had encouraged Chinese esteem for America’s good will. So his country now proposed to begin a campaign for more equitable treatment by signing a new commercial treaty with the U.S., quite apart from the agreement about immigrants.
Immediately, Angell said the U.S. delegation would give favorable consideration to any such proposal, and the Chinese responded by handing a full draft of a commercial treaty across the table.
Angell read through the list of China’s proposals. It was not long or complicated.
The Chinese wanted both nations to “agree to give the most careful and favorable attention to representations of either as to such special extension of commercial intercourse as either may desire.”
They also wanted an understanding that neither country would place any higher tariffs on the goods of the other than they placed on imports from any other countries — a signal of China’s wish for equal status in world trade.
Neither of these proposals raised an eyebrow among the American commissioners. They amounted to no more than a stated wish for the two countries to do more business with each other.
Then, out of the blue, Angell saw a more pointed paragraph. It would enact an absolute ban on Chinese-American commerce in opium.
Chapter 8 “A Systematic International Crime”
Now largely forgotten in the West, the importation of opium that Western nations forced upon China was, according to the American China expert John King Fairbank, “the most continued and systematic international crime of modern times.”
Psychotropic byproducts of the poppy blossom had been used in small quantities for centuries as a medicine, aphrodisiac and recreational substance. But in the 1700s, British merchants had begun to smuggle big cargos of “black dirt,” much of it grown in British India, into China in large quantities. (Many Christian missionaries, too, reached Chinese ports on opium clippers.)
In the early 1800s the traffic swelled enormously, creating a vast market of drug addicts among China’s poor and countless millions. As many as one in five Chinese men were said to be addicted to the narcotic.
In 1839, when China’s emperor, in desperation, ordered the destruction of vast stores of the drug, the British declared war to ensure restitution and safeguard their access to the market. (They won the war and took over Hong Kong in the bargain.) A second Opium War followed in the 1850s, and the scourge grew worse.
American merchants made their own contributions to China’s opium disaster. A number made fortunes in the trade — including Warren Delano II, grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — bringing in mostly Turkish-grown varieties.
Opium ships would offload their cargos to coast-running local smugglers, who paid in gold and silver that were used, in turn, to purchase fine silk, tea and Chinese porcelain (known simply as “china”) for eager buyers back home in the West. By the 1860s, the clippers were unloading 50,000 to 60,000 chests of the drug in China each year.
By the time of Angell’s mission, Chinese leaders had been fighting the opium trade to no avail for decades. It figured substantially in what Chinese revolutionaries of the 20th century would call a “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West. And now the insidious flower was being widely grown and harvested in China itself, creating an economic dependency to match the plight of human addicts.
Reform-minded Chinese were determined to make a long march to rid the nation of the scourge. Now the commissioners seated across the table from James Angell were asking the United States to help.
By the time of Angell’s mission, Chinese leaders had been fighting the opium trade for decades.
Chapter 9 “The Article Was Right”
The Chinese commissioners told Angell the opium article had been included at the special request of Li Hongzhang, the powerful governor-general who had so impressed Angell just after his arrival in China. It was in line with Li’s “Self-Strengthening Movement,” the sort of reform which the progressive Angell could not help but admire.
The Americans went into a quick huddle.
Commissioner Trescot was dubious. The State Department had given them no instructions about opium, he said. If they signed off on this clause, there might be hell to pay in Washington.
Angell considered. He was appalled by what he had seen of opium’s effects. They were bad enough in American cities and far worse in China. Here was an unexpected chance to strike a blow at the infernal trade. Why not approve it? The British might squawk, he said, but he thought the move would be welcomed at home.
That was enough. The opium article was inked, then the entire commercial agreement signed, and the Angell commission found itself with two completed and wholly satisfactory treaties, all for just 48 days of work from start to finish.
* * *
Angell stayed on as minister to China for nearly a year. He attended to routine diplomatic duties, held more meetings with Chinese dignitaries and Western diplomats, and talked at length with Western missionaries.
When the time came for the Angells to go home, the president and Sir Robert Hart shed tears at parting.
On their way to Shanghai, where they would board a steamer for a leisurely trip home via Europe, the Angell family stopped in the treaty port of Tientsin, where many westerners lived in foreign compounds. There Angell, in the company of the U.S. consul, met again with Viceroy Li Hongzhang.
Long afterward, writing his memoirs, Angell would remember the genuine warmth of Li’s greeting. The viceroy was full of praise for the commercial treaty signed by the two nations.
“He was exceedingly affable …,” Angell remembered, “and [began] with the warmest expressions in respect to my part in the opium clause.
“I told him, it did not take us a minute to agree on that article, because the article was right.
“He replied that I had been so instructed in the Christian doctrine & in the principles of right that it was natural for me to do right.”
Angell was appalled by what he had seen of opium’s effects.
Chapter 10 Epilogue
Both of Angell’s treaties were ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1881.
The compromise on immigration was short-lived. Nativist anger toward Chinese laborers in the Western states continued to boil, and in 1882, Congress crushed the deal that Angell had reached with the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act, preventing all Chinese immigration, was signed by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, the first such ban on a specific ethnic group in U.S. history.
But the ban on U.S.-Chinese commerce in opium remained.
It was hardly decisive. But it finally put the United States on the side of right in an ugly history, and it was one productive step in China’s long and ultimately successful campaign to rid itself of the curse imposed on it by the West — a precedent that shows a nation can end its entanglement with narcotics, however long and bitter the struggle might be.
* * *
For the University, Angell’s mission to China set off a cascade of good things.
One came very soon. For the world’s fair held in New Orleans in 1884-85 (officially called the World’s Industrial Cotton Centennial Exposition) the Chinese government assembled a magnificent exhibit, including statues representing various social roles — a bride, a seamstress, a Buddhist priest, a mandarin scholar. When the fair was over, the Chinese government said it would give the entire exhibit to a worthy institution as a gesture of good will.
Several U.S. organizations vied for the prize. But there was no real competition, since the president of the Chinese Commission for the Exposition was none other than Sir Robert Hart.
“It gave me great pleasure to select your University for the gift,” Hart wrote to his friend Angell, now back at his duties in Michigan, “mindful as I was of the pleasant relations you cultivated and maintained, official and private, when at the American Legation here.”
The Chinese exhibit was set up in the University’s main museum. For 40 years, it was a central attraction for students and campus visitors, and it became the core of outstanding Chinese collections that grew by the decade.
The friendships Angell built in China had even larger legacies in Ann Arbor. Upon his return to the U.S., he arranged for the enrollment of a number of Chinese students in the University. Later, after the U.S.’s participation in putting down the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901, Angell urged American lawmakers to return its share of China’s indemnity to create a generous fund to support more Chinese students at U.S. colleges and universities. Many came to Michigan, broadening U-M’s relationship with China.
Two of those Chinese students — Ida Kahn and Mary Stone, both medical graduates in 1896 — so impressed Regent Levi Barbour that in 1917 he established the Barbour Scholarships for Oriental Women. The program has thrived for a century, and is one of the oldest and most successful of its kind in the U.S. More than 700 outstanding Asian women have been Barbour Scholars.
* * *
According to Angell’s biographer, Shirley Wheeler Smith, “There can be little question that James B. Angell always regarded the China episode as the high spot of his career.”
Sources included James Burrill Angell: Addresses at the Dinner Given in his Honor by Professional and Business Men of Detroit on May Fifth Nineteen Hundred and Ten; Nancy Bartlett, ed., “The University of Michigan and China: 1945-1906; Shirley Wheeler Smith, James Burrill Angell: An American Influence; The Reminiscences of James Burrill Angell; Jacques M. Downs, “American Merchants and the China Opium Trade, 1880-1840,” Business History Review (Winter 1968); Geoffrey C. Ward, Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882-1905.