Wednesday, July 15, 2009

United States Maritime Expansion across the Pacific during the 19th Century

The westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century was not limited to North America, but rather included an ongoing push to establish a stronger U.S. presence in and across the Pacific Ocean. This maritime expansion, driven mostly by commerce, had important implications for U.S. foreign policy.

The Clipper Ship "Flying Cloud" off the English coast. Painting by James E. Buttersworth. (1859-60)

The appeal of profits to be earned from the China trade served as the initial impetus to motivate U.S. citizens and officials to enter into the Pacific region. China was the source of some of the world’s most sought after commodities—tea, porcelain, and silk—and Western merchants had sought access to this highly lucrative trade since at least the 17th century. Following U.S. independence, U.S.-based merchants continued to seek opportunity in China. In February 1784 the Empress of China became the first ship to sail from the United States to China, and in its wake came a steady flow of merchants in search of wealth. During the first decades of the 19th century, U.S. merchants amassed sizable fortunes that they subsequently invested in the development of their homeland. As this trade grew, U.S. traders built a small outpost in China and their interactions with Chinese subjects became more complex and occasionally contentious. The U.S. Government realized that it had to establish formal diplomatic ties in order to protect the interests of its citizens. In the wake of war between Britain and China, and the subsequent opening of diplomatic relations between those two countries, the United States moved to negotiate its own treaty with the Chinese Government. The resulting agreement, the Treaty of Wangxia, was ratified in 1844, and soon thereafter U.S. ministers and consuls took up residence in China’s capital and port cities.

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