To the Open Door : America's Search for a Policy in China, 1861-1900

Anderson, David Louis, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Graebner, Norman A., Department of History, University of Virginia
Israel, John, Department of History, University of Virginia

The United States faced a dilemma in China between 1861 and 1900. America, having only limited interests in China, found itself caught between the competing objectives of the Chinese government and the other Western nations. After 1861 a series of treaties signed by China under duress governed Sino-Western relations. These treaties were the cutting edge of Western imperialism. The Chinese justifiably considered the treaty system an encroachment upon their sovereignty. Should America actively defend the integrity of the imperial government? Should the United States join the other western nations in their efforts to protect and expand foreign privileges in China? Or was it possible for the United States to pursue an independent policy--limiting its commitments to both the treaty system and Chinese sovereignty?

These questions confronted the eight ministers plenipotentiary which the United States sent to Peking during the years 1861 to 1898. Washington essentially left these diplomatic representatives on their own to make American China policy. Anson Burlingame, the first of these envoys, respecting China as a sovereign nation and a venerable civilization, advocated a policy of patient and peaceful dealings with the Chinese. J. Ross Browne, who followed Burlingame, considered the Chinese backward and stubborn; he favored forceful and united foreign pressure for chance in China. The methods of these two ministers--conciliation and coercion--represented the extremes in the American options in China. The policies of their successors generally fell somewhere between the two. Frederick F. Low and Benjamin P. Avery in the early 1870's tried variations of both approaches but achieved fe,1 results with either. George F. Seward in the late seventies made expediency his only policy standard. James B. Angell and John R. Young in the early 1880' s attempted to establish an independent American position between the Chinese and the other foreigners. Charles Denby, the last of the group, favored assertive and joint foreign action in China but was repeatedly restrained by the State Department. Overall the efforts of these envoys gave American policy in China a decided ambivalence which reflected the basic dilemma: whether to join the other Western nations in forcing their will upon China or to seek some accommodation with Chinese sovereignty.

Secretary of State John Hay elevated this dilemma to a policy in his Open Door Notes of 1899 and 1900. Hay's notes represented neither force nor forbearance, neither independence nor cooperation, but rather an attempt to bridge the gaps between these alternative. No more able to decide on a course of action than the ministers in Peking, Hay issued his notes in an effort to help the Republican Party in the election of 1900. He loved policy making from Peking to Washington, without adopting either Burlingame 's original conciliatory policy or the more forceful solutions of some of the other ministers. America's ambient policy drift between being referee and participant led Hay into an undefined commitment in China which the United States had studiously avoided throughout the nineteenth century, Hay's notes raised the expectation of an American commitment in China without reflecting the reality of its noncommitment. The United States never chose between the incompatible alternatives of defending China's sovereignty or upholding the treaty system.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
United States -- Foreign relations -- China, China -- Foreign relations -- United States

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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