Thursday, January 17, 2013
293. Thomas Jefferson and American Policy Toward China
Thomas Jefferson had substantial interest in US-China trade. While serving as American representative in France in 1785, Jefferson obtained a complete report concerning the Empress of China. As Washington’s secretary of state, Jefferson suggested exploration to find a shorter trade route to East Asia. Later, shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, President Jefferson sent the famed explorers Louis and Clark west in hopes of finding a quicker route to China.
During Jefferson’s administration (1801–1809), US-China trade reached new heights, with the number of involved American ships having increased from two in 1785 to forty-two in 1806. US-foreign trade was severely limited in the brief period after President Jefferson signed the 1807 Embargo Act, supposedly prohibiting all American exports, in his attempt to keep the US out of the war between Great Britain and France. Even though only eight American ships sailed to China between 1808 and the first months of 1809, Jefferson realized China’s significance to the new nation and viewed strengthening US-China trade as a strategy to coerce European countries to recognize American interests.
In 1808, a specific event occurred during the second year of Jefferson’s Embargo Act that afforded the president the opportunity to opine on China and the US. With Jefferson’s permission, New York-based merchant John Jacob Astor succeeded in getting one of his vessels to China despite the current trade embargo. Jefferson firmly believed that Astor’s deed provided the United States an opportunity, and he expressed his opinion in a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin: The opportunity hoped from that, of making known through one of its own characters of note, our nation, our circumstances and character, and of letting that [Chinese] government understand at length the difference between us and the English, and separate us in its policy, rendered that measure a diplomatic one in my view, and likely to bring lasting advantage to our merchants and commerce with that country. Jefferson’s pronouncement remained fundamental in American dealings with China long into the future. At least one authority on US-East Asian relations acclaimed the statement as “the nearest to an official opinion on American policy.”