Humphrey Marshall in China

By Jacob F. Lee
Special Collections Assistant

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Humphrey Marshall is best known as one of the leaders of the 1862 ConfederateCarte de visite of Humphrey Marshall, 1812-1872.

invasion of Kentucky. However, Marshall, a native of Henry County, led a distinguished political career before the war. As a Whig and later a Know Nothing, Marshall was influential in Kentucky politics and served four terms in the United States House of Representatives. In 1852, as a reward for his service to the Whig Party, President Millard Fillmore appointed Marshall as Minister to China.  While certain facets of Marshall’s public life are the subject of other manuscripts at The Filson, the recently cataloged Humphrey Marshall Papers include a considerable amount of material related to his tenure as Minister to China, an aspect of Marshall’s life not covered in other collections. 

Appointed in August 1852, Marshall arrived in China the following January and found a nation attempting toEngraving of the American Consulate at Shanghai, from Narrative of the Expedition of An American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854. maintain its connections with the West while simultaneously suppressing a popular revolution.  Most of the material related to Marshall’s time as minister is included in a copybook, kept by both Marshall and one of his secretaries. The book includes copies of numerous letters, both to and from Marshall, that discuss a variety of aspects of the Kentuckian’s stay in China. Some of the letters concern his difficulty in gaining entrance to the Chinese court at Peking and  his personal .nances. Most of the correspondence, however, discusses United States trade concerns in East Asia and the Taiping Rebellion, which began two years before Marshall arrived in China and continued for another decade after he returned home. 

Marshall’s correspondence indicates the importance the United States placed on trade with Asia. In one of Marshall’s first letters as minister, the new appointee emphasized the importance of Sino-American trade. On September 25, 1852, Marshall wrote to Charles M. Conrad, acting Secretary of State, discussing his decision to live in Shanghai while serving as minister. Marshall stated he based this decision in part on the "large and valuable commerce" between Shanghai and San Francisco. Marshall also frequently discussed American trade relations with Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who was in the Orient working to open a trade relationship between the United States and Japan. On May 13, 1853, after discussing the turmoil caused by the Taiping Rebellion in China, Marshall urged Perry to curb his negotiations with Japan in favor of strengthening the United States’ relationship with China. 

Marshall deemed Perry’s mission to Japan a “scheme which must be considered secondary importance”Copy of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's May 12, 1853 letter to Humphrey Marshall. and believed those negotiations would distract the United States from reinforcing its established relationship with the Chinese. Marshall wrote, “There is nothing to be hoped for in Japan equal to the advantages now actually enjoyed in China.” While Perry worked to establish a successful commerce between the United States and Japan, the United States continued  to enjoy its advantageous trade with China. 

A major worry for Marshall during his stay in China was the Taiping Rebellion, which had a negative impact on the nation’s ability to carry on trade. The rebellion began two years before Marshall’s arrival in China, and by March 1853 the revolutionary army had grown to more than 700,000 troops. Led by two zealous Christian converts, one of whom believed himself to be the new Messiah and younger brother to Jesus and the other who claimed to be the mouthpiece of God, the Taiping rebels captured Nanking, which they then proclaimed their “Heavenly Capital.” Marshall reported, “The rebels took the city of Nanking and slaughtered every Tartar in the City. They burned three hundred Tartar women in one house.” While capturing Nanking, the rebels killed more than 30,000 imperial soldiers and thousands of civilians.   

The rebel movements also threatened Shanghai, where Marshall lived while minister. On May 11, 1853, Marshall wrote to Commodore Perry, voicing concerns that the rebel army at Nanking could bring the fighting to Shanghai in as little as three days. However, Perry believed he should continue his mission to Japan and, with his fleet, left Shanghai. With Perry’s departure, the Committee of Cooperation of Shanghai, a group of foreign nationals residing in the city, became alarmed. On May 18, they informed Marshall that “large armies,” presumably both rebel and imperial, were on the Yangtze River less than 170 miles above the city, which “can be occupied by the forces of either party within a very few hours.” The committee feared the removal of Perry’s fleet would encourage the armies to attack the city. Marshall reported to Commodore Perry that American merchants in Shanghai had approached him about obtaining protection for their interests. The American businessmen believed their holdings to be “at risque” and “insecure” because of the rebellion. In reply, Perry promised to “be mindful to watch over the American interest in China, as long as it can be done consistently with obligations of public duty.” Perry was never forced to defend American interests in Shanghai, and no Taiping assault on Shanghai came during Marshall’s residence in the city. 

The Humphrey Marshall Papers provide a window into Marshall’s time in China as well as the state ofEntries from March 22 to May 1, 1853 in Marshall's "Diary of Occurrences." Sino-American relations and the turmoil caused by the Taiping Rebellion. Although the Marshall Papers are much broader in scope than the items concerning his role as Minister to China, these documents fill a gap in The Filson’s Marshall collections. When taken in combination with The Filson’s other groups of Marshall’s papers, this collection helps create a fuller picture of Marshall’s political career, at home and abroad.


Volume 7, Number 1

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