Write Your Congressman!
The other day, while flipping through some files looking for something else entirely (isn’t that always the way?), I came across this letter (transcribed below).
It’s a bit of lobbying, from a wealthy China trader and powerful railroad investor, John Murray Forbes, to one of his local congressmen, Thomas D. Eliot. Long story short, JMF asks Eliot to kill a bill prohibiting the “Cooley Trade” — that is, the conveyance of Chinese emigrants to the U.S., mostly to recently acquired West Coast states and territories. Forbes would prefer to see the trade regulated.
Now, the letter is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but the reason I’m posting it is because of the colonization scheme JMF mentions. Apparently, a few years previously, Forbes and his buddies had tossed around the idea of importing Chinese coolies (low-caste laborers), and their families, to Florida to staff a plantation estate; the idea was to prove the viability of free labor in tropical regions, and set up a nice vacation home for retired China traders.
According to Forbes, he was only dissuaded from this plan because a planter friend of his observed that the local slaveholders would go nuts over having free labor in their backyard. This, Forbes tells Eliot, is the real reason why southern pols want to ban the coolie trade — it posed a threat to their peculiar institution.
If all this sounds a bit familiar, well, it is — as Forbes had cause to know, such an experiment in émigré free labor had been tried before. Historians know this episode best from Bernard Bailyn’s account of it in Voyagers to the West, where he discusses Andrew Turnbull’s disastrous Minorcan colony on the St. Johns River.* (Incidentally, JMF’s plantation was to have been on the St. Johns, too.**)
But enough introduction; here’s the letter. I’ll have some more to say about all this soon, but I’d be interested to get all y’all’s reactions to this — and especially what questions it raises in your minds. It certainly blew mine.
John Murray Forbes to Thomas D. Eliot, Boston, April 1860
My Dear Sir,
I see you have got in charge a Cooley Trade Bill. I hope it is not too late for me to put in a word on the subject.
I never owned a vessel which was used in this trade and have used what influence I had to discourage it, but it is my conviction that it it ought to be regulated and not prohibited.
There ought to be and there will be found some means of bringing the admirable labor of over populate China to the new soils of other countries eventually including our own.
I think it would be as bad political economy to prohibit it as it would have been to cut off immigration from Europe to this country.
With improvements in steam, and a return towards civilization on the part of the South, the future may have a great work to be done through the Cooley Trade.
I admit the abuses of the present system, but I want to see them corrected, not merely for the interest of our commerce, but of Civilization and Freedom.
If you give our pro-slavery Senate and Executive a chance, they will surely avail of it through the Treaty making power or otherwise, to fix upon us such legislation as cannot be changed–until we reform the House of Lords (Senate, I beg its pardon) ten or fifteen years hence.
When Humphrey Marshall was in China as Minister, he made no secret of his enmity to the Cooley trade, nor of his reasons for it. These were not the interests of humanity so much as the interests of the slave-holders, whose power he foresaw would one day be endangered by the introduction of free tropical labor. I am credibly informed that he boasted of his intention of coming home and breaking up the Cooley trade. Why it has not been done I cannot understand, unless the advocates of Christianizing Africa by the slave trade, think the Cooley trade in its present shape a good apprenticeship for our seamen and a good entering wedge with the community for that new branch of commerce.
I would most strongly urge your attention upon the means of regulating the Cooley trade.
The Emigrant ships from Europe are none too good now – they were perfect Hells – yet they are gradually becoming ameliorated. There must be means by which the Cooley trade may be put in train for becoming a great engine of civilization.
Prohibit it now on our ships and to our ports, and you simply drive it into the hands of the Portuguese, French, and Dutchmen. Regulate it and you will work those feeble maritime nations out of it, and establish a system that will in the long run improve the condition of the Chinese, and show in our tropics the benefits of free labor, besides benefitting our commerce – a minor object, but not unworthy your attention.
Before the South had proclaimed their great discovery of the heresies of Washington and others, and the mutual benefits to Black and White of slavery, I had organized a plan for a Chinese colony in Florida, where two or three friends had agreed to join me in sending 100 to 200 Chinese men and women to try a model plantation upon free labor principles and at the same time secure to ourselves a winter interest in that delicious climate surrounded by the comforts and safety of civilization which can alone be enjoyed in the midst of free labor. The right spot was selected and could be bought for very cheap, and one of the parties after many years residence in China, was about to return (with an ample fortune) and give his winters to the colony. We did not expect much profit but we hoped to make a pleasant experiment, which might, if successful, lead others to repeat it on a larger scale. I need not say we meant to have no slave Cooleys, but to bring selected men with leaders whom we personally knew, and either immediately on a larger scale, or gradually, to have the Cooleys accompanied by their wives.
When all our plans were laid, before taking the irretrievable step of buying a large tract of land, I thought it prudent to consult an acquaintance, a planter of that neighborhood of great experience and great liberality. He assured me that the public sentiment would be against it, and he gave me good reasons for abandoning the whole plan, growing out of the jealousy which the planters have of any scheme of labor outside of their ‘peculiar institution.’
I mention this plan merely as an illustration of what might, and what may yet, grow out of Chinese labor. Humphrey Marshall and my planter friend were right – there might be and would be danger to the value of slave property from Chinese labor, but that is no reason why we Republicans should lend ourselves to their prohibitory schemes.
Very truly yours,
~Folder 14, Box 1, Forbes Family Records, Historical Collections, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.
*Bernard Bailyn, “Failure in Xanadu,” in Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1986)
**The St. John’s River flows north, which may help explain why such crazy schemes were dreamt up for its banks.
Dear Miss Elizabeth,
Here are certain books, which I am pretty certain belong to your house. I know the Congreve is George’s. What do you think of Mrs. Mowatt’s lecturing. I am coming some evening soon to have long and ‘sweet communion’ with you.
Very truly yours
~Park Benjamin to Ms. Elizabeth, New York, [1841/1842], Box 1, Park Benjamin Papers, Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University
Filed under: Uncategorized
Lately, while I’ve been rummaging about files of then-famous 19th-century politicians, I’ve been surprised by the amount of mail they get from random people. There seems to be nothing holding John Q.Public back from tossing off a note to a septuagenarian former President asking for a favor, an opinion, or, in some cases, a fight: come give a lecture in Newark! Give me an autograph! What’s your take on contract law? You’re wrong about China! etc etc
I suppose the source of this surprise is my own understanding of how relations with the powerful work. I’d always figured that it was only lunatics, or schoolchildren, who wrote such letters. And perhaps that’s true for the nineteenth century as well, but the sheer number of the letters I’ve been finding seems to indicate that there’s something else going on here.
Take, for example, the following letter written by Marcus Spring to John Quincy Adams, dated December 17, 1841:*
I perceive by your letter in a late Boston paper that you quote from the Declaration of Independence the passage ‘all men are created equal, & are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights — among which are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ — to sustain your view of the British war against China —
Will you permit a humble individual (unknown to you, but by whom your public career has been watched with much interest and your opinions highly respected) to ask you to point out the want of analogy (if there be any) so far as any moral principle is involved, between the case of [strike out] the Government of[/strike out] Great Britain forcibly entering upon the territory of the Chinese, to compel them to an intercourse more congenial to British notions of honor and Christian courtesy, and the case I suppose below — viz
An aristocratic family choose to withdraw from all intercourse with the rest of the world and to live within themselves — taking care not to trespass upon the premises of their neighbors — another family, justly regarding this mode of life as selfish, and unchristian, enters their home [door?] and commences inflicting chastisement upon the aristocrats for their haughty and unchristian demeanor Though the selfish family might be flogged into more courteous manners towards their neighbors, does it not strike you that the chastisement supposed would be a violation of their inalienable right to pursue their happiness in their own way so long as they abstained from overt acts to injure their neighbors? I can not doubt your affirmation answer to this last question — And if that is any difference in principle in the two cases I will be sincerely obliged by your dropping me a line to point it out; as I cannot perceive any —
I cannot deny myself the pleasure of expressing to you my admiration of your services in the holy cause of human rights, and my ardent wishes that you may long be spared by Providence to be an honored & efficient instrument in extending the blessings of impartial liberty to every inhabitant of our favored land–
very respectfully & truly
your friend & well wisher
52 Paine St
Or again, this one from James Risk, resident of New Orleans, also to Adams, dated January 7, 1842:*
I address you these few lines for the purpose of asking a favor; and, although a perfect stranger to you, I feel confident you will grant it, provided you can find time, apart from your various and arduous public duties.
I am, Sir, making a collection of autographs of distinguished public persons, and, am peculiarly desirous of being in possession of yours, for various reasons — Few men, sir, in the world’s history, I think, have been so long, prominently and usefully in public life, and, in their old age, enjoy so large a share of the confidence, esteem, veneration and respect as their countrymen, as you do…
These are, so far that I’ve seen, fairly typical, both for Adams and others. They are neither from lunatics, nor schoolchildren (though I’d wager that Risk is on the young side). And that’s just for conversational letters, or small requests — there are hundreds of letters asking for help with pensions, appointments to government officers, requests for lectures, etc.
And you want to know the crazy thing? Sometimes Adams wrote them back. (Not to Risk or Spring, alas, but others not so different).
Now, I have to say, my surprise at finding such things is not wholly a product of my 21st century bias. It’s also a product of my training. You see, the only other time I’ve ever encountered letters like this — from nobodies, to somebodies — is in the context of slaves (or recently ex-slaves) writing to Abraham Lincoln, as part of the selected documents published by the Freedmen & Southern Society Project.
You can see an example of what I mean here.
The Freedmen Project folks discuss this kind of communication, flowing from bottom right on up, as the products of a unique and revolutionary moment.**
Only in the upheaval of accustomed routine can the lower orders give voice to the assumptions that guide their world as it is and as they wish it to be. … Under the tutelage of unprecedented events, ordinary men and women become extraordinarily perceptive and articulate, seizing the moment to challenge the assumptions of the old regime and proclaim a new social order.”
I don’t think that’s quite right, though.
Granted, a slave writing to the President in the middle of a war is a unique situation calling for a unique set of rationales and conditions to explain it. And granted, there are certainly larger differences in class and status at work in the case of a slave writing Lincoln, and Marcus Spring of 52 Paine Street writing Adams (though so far as I can tell, neither Risk nor Spring were part of the ruling elite).
But I think these letters are evidence of something we’ve lost; that sense of equality De Tocqueville claimed to have observed, and then struggled to explain. A closer relationship between governors and governed, even absent a revolutionary moment. (Or perhaps what’s going on here is that the revolutionary moment was not over yet).
Now, there are any number of reasons why things aren’t this way today. There are far more people, for one. Our government is much more complex, and its civil service much more developed — writing a Congressman is probably not the best way to resolve a dispute.
And in some ways, things haven’t changed. Congresspeople still do “constituent service,” which is similar in its ends as much of mail Adams got.
But I’m struck by how un-level the playing field is, now. People might have a poor opinion of their leaders — but they can’t call them up to tell them so. Not directly, anyway. You need to organize first. Maybe the desire for that kind of one-to-one encounter of equals is what’s behind the oft-cited desire of voters to elect someone they could have a beer with? I dunno. But reading dead folks’ mail sure is interesting.
*Adams Papers Microfilm (Boston, MA: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1954-1959), Series III, Reel 520.
** Berlin, et al., Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. x.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Throughout this wide-spread land the belief is general that England, reckless of consequences, has no other object in the war, than the forcing on the Celestials the purchase of opium, and the extension of her scepter over new territories. Daily papers and monthly periodicals have alike exhausted the language of vituperation in abusing her and no voice, with the single exception above referred to, (that of Mr. Adams,) has been raised in her defence. The lecture of Mr. Edmonds, while professing to give an impartial history of the causes and origins of the war, is nothing but an ingenious piece of special pleading, and is rife with evidences of the most deep-rooted and bitter prejudices, such as are rarely to be met with, even in this land, where every stripling in controversy, like school boys shooting their arrows at the sun – first dips his maiden shaft in gall and then aims it at old England.”
~”England and China: Origin and History of the War,” The New World: A Weekly Family Journal of Popular Literature, Science, Art and News (New York), 19 February 1842, p. 118