Burlingame Treaty

The Burlingame Treaty established reciprocal rights between China and the United States, including respect for territorial sovereignty and bilateral immigration.

Summary of Event

Formal United States interest in China dates from the thirteen-thousand-mile voyage of the U.S. ship Empress of China, under the command of Captain John Green, which departed from New York City on February 22, 1784. The vessel returned from Canton in May, 1785, with tea, silks, and other trade goods of the Orient. Merchants in Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, and New York quickly sought profits in the China trade. By the late 1830’s, “Yankee clippers” had shortened the transit time from America’s Atlantic ports to Canton from a matter of many months to a mere ninety days. Burlingame Treaty (1868)
China;Burlingame Treaty
China;and United States[United States]
Burlingame, Anson
[kw]Burlingame Treaty (July 28, 1868)
[kw]Treaty, Burlingame (July 28, 1868)
Burlingame Treaty (1868)
China;Burlingame Treaty
China;and United States[United States]
Burlingame, Anson
[g]United States;July 28, 1868: Burlingame Treaty[4220]
[g]China;July 28, 1868: Burlingame Treaty[4220]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 28, 1868: Burlingame Treaty[4220]
[c]Trade and commerce;July 28, 1868: Burlingame Treaty[4220]
Gong, Prince
[p]Gong, Prince;and Burlingame Treaty[Burlingame Treaty]
[p]Cixi;and Burlingame Treaty[Burlingame Treaty]

Political problems, however, hindered commercial relations. The Manchu, or Qing, Dynasty (1644-1912), fearful of Western intentions, restricted trade to one city, Canton, and sharply curtailed the rights of foreigners in China. Chafing at these limits, especially China’s refusal to deal with Europeans on terms of equality, caused Great Britain to begin hostilities with the Qing Dynasty, occasioned by the “unsavory issue” of England’s trade in opium with China. The Opium War Qing Dynasty;and Opium Wars[Opium Wars]
Opium Wars (1839-1842) resulted in the Treaty of Nanjing Nanjing, Treaty of (1842) (August 24, 1842), a triumph for the political and commercial interests of Great Britain in eastern Asia. Britain obtained the cession of the island of Hong Kong Hong Kong;British occupation of and the opening of four additional cities—Amoy, Ningpo, Foochow, and Shanghai—to British trade. The U.S. government desired similar rights and obtained them in the Treaty of Wanghia (named for a village near Macao) on July 3, 1844. Commissioner Caleb Cushing, although not formally received by China as a minister, was permitted to negotiate this landmark agreement. The United States secured access to the newly opened ports and was extended the right of extraterritoriality; that is, U.S. citizens were to be tried for offenses committed in China under U.S. law by the U.S. consul.

Within the next twenty years, trade with China grew. The United States acquired Washington, Oregon, and California, and, with Pacific ports, had greater access to Chinese markets. The California gold rush (1849) and the construction of the Central Pacific Central Pacific Railroad;and Chinese labor[Chinese labor] Railroad (completed in 1869), with its need for labor, encouraged Chinese emigration to the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. missionaries, merchants, travelers, and adventurers were arriving in China. Conditions in the “Middle Kingdom,” however, were not good. The authority of the central government had been challenged by the anti-Western Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864)
China;Taiping Rebellion
Qing Dynasty;and Taiping Rebellion[Taiping Rebellion] and was suppressed only with outside help. Further European incursions into China, epitomized by the Anglo-French War with the Manchus (1854-1858), threatened to curtail U.S. cultural and commercial opportunities in China. If the United States did not act, it would face the prospect of being excluded from China by European imperialism.

Secretary of State William H. Seward Seward, William H.
[p]Seward, William H.;and China[China] believed that it was time for the United States to have formal representation at the Manchu court. His fortunate choice was Anson Burlingame. Born on November 14, 1820, in rural New York, the son of a “Methodist exhorter,” Burlingame had grown up in the Midwest, graduating from the University of Michigan. After attending Harvard Law School, Burlingame went into practice in Boston. With a gift of oratory and exceptional personal charm, Burlingame served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1855-1861) and was a pioneer of the new Republican Party. As a reward for his labor and in recognition of his talents, Burlingame was offered the post of U.S. minister to Austria, but the Habsburgs refused him because of his known sympathies with Lajos Kossuth Kossuth, Lajos , the Hungarian revolutionary. As a second choice and a compensatory honor, Burlingame was given the assignment to China.

Because the United States was distracted with the Civil War (1861-1865), Burlingame was left on his own and could count on little U.S. military might to support his actions. Acquiring a great admiration for and confidence in the Chinese, Burlingame won the trust and respect of Yixin, Gong, Prince
[p]Gong, Prince;and Burlingame Treaty[Burlingame Treaty] known as Prince Gong. the coregent of China with the dowager empress Cixi Cixi
[p]Cixi;and Burlingame Treaty[Burlingame Treaty] . When Burlingame resigned as the U.S. minister to China, in November, 1867, the Imperial Manchu court asked him to head China’s first official delegation to the West. The Burlingame mission toured the United States, being warmly received, and arrived in Great Britain as William Ewart Gladstone was assuming the prime ministership of that nation. Burlingame’s brilliant career was cut short during a subsequent visit to Russia, where he contracted pneumonia, dying in St. Petersburg on February 23, 1870. Few had served their own country so well, and it was said that none had given China a more sincere friendship.

Canton, the only Chinese port open to American trade during the mid-nineteenth century

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

The most outstanding accomplishment of the Burlingame mission was the Burlingame Treaty, signed on July 28, 1868, in Washington, D.C. This document dealt with a variety of issues between China and the United States. The United States pledged itself to respect Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, a position in sharp contrast to that of the European powers and one that anticipated the subsequent “open door policy” Open door policy of the United States (1899). The Burlingame Treaty accepted bilateral immigration between China and the United States, and by 1880 there were 105,000 Chinese living in the United States.


By the standards of the 1860’s, the Burlingame Treaty was a landmark of fairness and justice. However, the United States did not honor its spirit or letter. Anti-immigrant feeling focused on a fear of Chinese “coolie” labor. The infamous Sandlot Riots in San Francisco San Francisco;Sandlot Riots , in June, 1877, were symptomatic of both the mistreatment of Asian immigrants and the rising sentiment for Asian exclusion. On March 1, 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes Hayes, Rutherford B.
[p]Hayes, Rutherford B.;and China[China] vetoed a congressional bill limiting the number of Chinese passengers on board ships bound for the United States as a violation of the Burlingame Treaty. Hayes did, however, send a mission to China to work for the revision of the Burlingame Treaty. In 1880, China recognized the right of the United States to regulate, limit, and suspend, but not absolutely forbid, Chinese immigration.

Two years later, President Chester A. Arthur Arthur, Chester A.
[p]Arthur, Chester A.;and China[China] vetoed a twenty-year suspension of Chinese immigration as being a de facto prohibition, but on May 6, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed, suspending the importation of Chinese labor for a ten-year period. In 1894, another ten-year exclusion period was enacted; in 1904, exclusion was extended indefinitely. When, on December 17, 1943, Chinese immigration was permitted by an act of Congress, it was within the strict limits of the 1920’s quota system, allowing the entrance of only 105 Chinese annually. Not until the mid-twentieth century did the United States depart from an immigration policy centered on ethnic origin, thus allowing the original intent of the Burlingame Treaty to be realized.

Further Reading

  • Dulles, Foster Rhea. China and America: The Story of Their Relations Since 1784. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946. This brief, classic history places the Burlingame Treaty in the broad context of United States-Chinese trade and diplomacy over a period of one hundred fifty years.
  • Fairbank, John K. China Perceived: Images and Policies in Chinese-American Relations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. A noted Harvard scholar compares the contrasting sensitivities, traditions, aims, and means of the United States and China as they have affected foreign policy.
  • Fairbank, John K., Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig. East Asia: Tradition and Transformation. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. This profusely illustrated and thoroughly documented survey, a standard introduction to the history of Asia’s Pacific Rim, illuminates the Chinese situation in 1868.
  • Miller, Stuart Creighton. The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785-1882. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. A succinct analysis that explains why the Chinese were the only immigrants other than Africans to be forbidden by law from entering the United States during the nineteenth century.
  • Mosher, Steven W. China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality. New York: Basic Books, 1990. This combination of psychohistory and political analysis examines the varied U.S. perceptions of China, ranging from infatuation to hostility. Carefully annotated.
  • Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. China and the Overseas Chinese in the United States, 1868-1911. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1983. Well-documented, concise study of the key issue between the United States and China during the late nineteenth century: immigration.

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William H. Seward. Burlingame Treaty (1868)
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Burlingame, Anson