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ANSON BURLINGAME: REFORMER AND DIPLOMAT David L. Anderson It is no coincidence that one of the most innovative American diplomats ever to serve in China was also one of the most active participants in die New England antislavery struggle of the 1840's and 1850's. Former Massachusetts Congressman Anson Burlingame went to Peking in 1861 as the first United States minister plenipotentiary to reside in the Chinese capital. He traveled to his new postwith no diplomatic experience, after having spent more than a decade laboring in the ranks of the Free Soil movement and the new Republican party. Burlingame was young— only 41 years old—when he went to China. He was a reformer and a politician, not a diplomat, and his fresh approach to Sino-Western relations reflected his background. He disagreed with the belief, prevalent among Westerners in China, that the Chinese were an inferior race and not due respect as a people or a nation. Usinghis political skills, Burlingame endeavored to change the assumptions and methods of Western diplomacy in Peking. In recognition of his efforts, the Chinese government in 1867 named him China's first official envoy to the West. The same reform propensity that propelled Burlingame into the political drama that led to the Civil War also carried him to the fore in the Western encounter with China's centuries-old isolation. Burlingame's humble frontier beginnings gave little hint of his future political and diplomatic success. He was born on November 14, 1820, in New Berlin, a farm community in central New York. Joel Burlingame, Anson's father, was a farmer, school teacher, and Methodist lay preacher. When Anson was three, the family moved to Seneca County, Ohio, and in 1833 moved again to the frontier city of Detroit. After only two years in Detroit, the Burlingames made their final move one hundred miles soudiwest to a farm in Branch County, Michigan. Young Anson remained behind, however, to continue his education.1 At age seventeen Burlingame entered the Detroit branch of the fledgling University of Michigan. Since his family was very poor, his 1 Burlingame to his parents, June 30, 1839, Burlingame Family Papers, Library of Congress; Frederick Wells Williams, Anson Burlingame and the First Chinese Mission to Foreign Powers (New York, 1912), 3-5. Civil War History, Vol. XXV, No. 4 Copyright ß 1979 by The Kent State University Press 0009-8078/79/2504-0001 $0.90/0 293 294CIVIL WAR HISTORY only assets were "a frank, noble disposition, habits of industry, a charming and persuasive manner, and promising talents as an orator."2 He attended class irregularly because he had to work to support himself. He copied deeds and documents in a law office, worked on survey crews, and was employed by die Indian Commission in negotiating treaties with tribes in the Great Lakes region. At the university his academic record was not distinguished. He excelled, however, in one area: oratory. His platform talents brought him notice and a wide circle of friends. He became prominent in a literary society and in college politics. At his final examination in rhetoric Burlingame's speech received a loud ovation, which was not only extremely rare for such occasions but also against the rules.3 Burlingame's accomplishments as an outdoorsman, even more than his effective stump-speaking style, revealed his rural, Western background. A man of great strength and endurance, he frequently took walks of fifteen and twenty miles>into the country just for recreation. He enjoyed hunting and was an excellent marksman. Everyone around Detroit knew and talked about his ability to hit an owl in the steeple of the Presbyterian Church at a distance unmatched by anyone else. His reputation with a rifle played almost as important a role as his oratory in his later public career.4 After leaving the university Burlingame entered a law office in Detroit. He acquired a circle of influential friends and patrons, including Zepheniah Piatt, former attorney general of Michigan. He was in frequent demand as a speaker at Washington's Birthday celebrations, lodge meetings, and other occasions. In 1843, however, Burlingame made a momentous decision. He left Detroit and his rapid but modest successes there...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 293-308
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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