Mr. Williams to Mr. Seward

No. 5.]

Sir: Referring to my despatch No. 2, of the 23d ultimo, relating to the diplomatic mission sent by the Emperor of China to the treaty powers, I have now the honor to inform you that the two co-ordinate Chinese imperial envoys and their suite left Peking on the 4th instant, on their way to Shanghai, where they propose to join Mr. Burlingame in time to leave for California on the 15th proximo. Mr. Brown, first secretary of legation, left a few days after them, taking with him the letters of credence addressed by his Imperial Majesty to all the treaty powers, 11 in number. These documents are written in the Chinese and Mauchu languages, on yellow paper, and, as I saw, are quite similar in form and size to the two replies from the Emperor to Presidents Buchanan and Lincoln.

The preparation and dispatch of these letters of credence marks an advance on the part of this government almost as great as that of sending the mission itself, although apparently a mere consequence of that act. In order to explain this, it is needful to observe that the Board of Foreign Office, notwithstanding its great influence and the high rank of its members, has hitherto no legal existence of itself, but at present consists of the presidents of four of the six boards, viz, civil office, revenue, punishments, and works, and two other high officers, who have been detailed to join in its deliberations under the chairmanship of Prince Kung. The members act in it conjointly under the style of the Tsungli koh kwoh s z, or general managing office of foreign countries; but individually they are responsible also for the conduct of their own departments to the general council of the government. When the desirableness of appointing Mr. Burlingame and his associates as envoys to foreign countries was proposed, the matter was agreed to by the Empress Regents, and others, as a proposal of the foreign office chiefly, for the success and results of which it was responsible; but when the question of granting them a letter written directly from the Emperor to other crowned heads, indorsing the mission and requesting them to accept it, the whole traditionary policy of the empire was interfered with; the supremacy of the Emperor as the son of Heaven, appointed from on high to rule over mankind, was proposed to be practically ignored by his own officers. The propriety of granting the letter was stoutly opposed by many of the members of government, and I am inclined to think that [Page 503] the mission would have left the shores of China without it if it had not been for the precedent set by the Chinese government itself, and drawn out of it by the American ministers. In explanation of this remark it may be stated that it has been the usage among most of the foreign ministers accredited to this government not to deliver their letters of credence to the Emperor, because they were not permitted to do so in person; but the American ministers have chosen to hand them to the highest official they could meet, accompanied by an open translation. Replies to two of these letters having been issued. It was argued by Mr. Brown and Mr. Hart, (who, being officials themselves, in the employ of government, were entitled to a hearing,) that if his Majesty could personally reply to a letter from the President of the United States without derogating from his authority or dignity, he certainly could write a letter to him with equal propriety. The question had been often discussed whether it was suitable in every respect for the American minister to transmit his letter of credence to the Emperor instead of delivering it in person, but the result has answered a purpose that one cannot object to, and has probably incidentally furnished a strong argument for those officers who, in a few years, must go further, and claim for him an audience at court.

I have read the translation of the letter addressed to the President, and I am confident that you will not find anything in it savoring of the extraordinary assumption on the part of the Emperor which runs through the two replies quoted in the other dispatch. It completes the full authority and authenticalness of this new mission to the western world on the part of this ancient empire, the first, I believe, which it ever sent from its shores to other lands on a footing even approaching to equality. Previous embassies have been sent in a patronizing, authoritative style, requiring the rulers of other countries to humbly accept the envoys and behests of his Majesty; this goes to confirm and develop an intercourse mutually beneficial to all. Since its formation public opinion has been much divided as to its propriety, and some objectors have openly expressed their opinion that the whole affair has been got up by a few foreigners in Peking for their own advantage, and added their hopes that the western powers will reject it as a hybrid mission whose existence is an anomaly and its objects impertinent. Happily their number is few, and their clamor will, I think, meet with little attention.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,


Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.