John Brown

Photo above: John Brown. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Engraving of U.S. Army raid against John Brown's fort led by Robert E. Lee. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Harper's Ferry

U.S. Timeline - The 1850s

Expansion and the Looming Divide



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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1853

    July 8, 1853 - Commodore Matthew C. Perry and the United States Navy arrive in Edo Bay, Japan. They would negotiate a treaty to allow U.S. ships into Japan.

    Commodore Perry Expedition to Japan


    For over two hundred years, Japan, under the Tokugawa shogunate, had followed a policy of isolation, only allowing trade through one port, Nagasaki, and only with two foreign powers, the Netherlands (Dutch) and China. They feared the additional influence of Christianity, which could lead to invasion, and the potential influx of wealth that could cause an overthrow of the ruling family. The United States, and other European powers such as France and Great Britain, did not like that policy. They, through the policy of Manifest Destiny, wanted to force a change. In 1846, the American's first foray, an official expedition by Commodore James Biddle with two ships asking for the ports to open, was turned away after laying at anchor for eight to ten days.

    Seven years later, the policy would not be dissuaded. President Millard Fillmore sent Commodore Matthew C. Perry with four warships (Susquehanna, Mississippi, Plymouth and Saratoga) to force trade and bring western civilization to backward Asian nations. The first ship, Mississippi, left Norfolk, Virginia on November 24, 1852. Japan knew they were coming, but were not equipped to force the warships away once they approached in summer 1853. When they arrived at Edo Bay with a letter from the President, the Japanese told the Americans to go to Nagasaki, the port of foreign entry. Perry refused; he would continue to the capitol of Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1868) and destroy it, if not allowed entry there. They allowed him to land nearby six days later and deliver the message from the President.




    Perry Arrives, Account from Official Report of Arrival on July 8, 1853


    "It was directed that the dignitary should be informed that the Commodore, who had been sent by his country on a friendly mission to Japan, had brought a letter from the President of the United States, addressed to the Emperor, and that he wished a suitable officer might be sent on board his ship to receive a copy of the same, in order that a day might be appointed for the Commodore formally to deliver the original. To this he replied that Nagasaki was the only place, according to the laws of Japan, for negotiating foreign business, and it would be necessary for the squadron to go there. In answer to this he was told that the Commodore had come purposely to Uraga because it was near to Yedo, and that he should not go to Nagasaki; that he expected the letter to be duly and properly received where he then was; that his intentions were perfectly friendly, but that he would allow of no indignity; and would not permit the guardboats which were collecting around the ships to remain where they were, and if they were not immediately removed, the Commodore declared that he would disperse them by force. When this was interpreted to him, the functionary suddenly left his seat, went to the gangway, and gave an order which caused most of the boats to return to the shore; but a few of them still remaining in clusters, an armed boat was sent from the ship to warn them away by gestures, and at the same time to show their arms; this had the desired effect, as all of them disappeared, and nothing more was seen of them near the ships during the stay of the squadron. This, as says the Commodore, was the first important point gained. The vice - governor shortly afterward took his leave, saying, as he departed, that he had no authority to promise any thing respecting the reception of the President's letter, but in the morning an officer of higher rank would come from the city, who might probably furnish some further information."

    The letter would eventually be delivered to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and high officials of the Tokugawa shogunate. It read, ...

    MILLARD FILLMORE, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, TO HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY, THE EMPEROR OF JAPAN. GREAT AND GOOD FRIEND: I send you this public letter by Commodore Matthew C . Perry, an officer of the highest rank in the navy of the United States, and commander of the squadron now visiting your imperial majesty's dominions.

    I have directed Commodore Perry to assure your imperial majesty that I entertain the kindest feelings towards your majesty's person and government, and that I have no other object in sending him to Japan but to propose to your imperial majesty that the United States and Japan should live in friendship and have commercial intercourse with each other.

    The Constitution and laws of the United States forbid all interference with the religious or political concerns of other nations. I have particularly charged Commodore Perry to abstain from every act which could possibly disturb the tranquillity of your imperial majesty's dominions.

    The United States of America reach from ocean to ocean, and our Territory of Oregon and State of California lie directly opposite to the dominions of your imperial majesty. Our steamships can go from California to Japan in eighteen days.

    Our great State of California produces about sixty millions of dollars in gold every year, besides silver, quicksilver, precious stones, and many other valuable articles . Japan is also a rich and fertile country, and produces many very valuable articles. Your imperial majesty's subjects are skilled in many of the arts. I am desirous that our two countries should trade with each other, for the benefit both of Japan and the United States.

    We know that the ancient laws of your imperial majesty's government do not allow of foreign trade, except with the Chinese and the Dutch; but as the state of the world changes and new governments are formed, it seems to be wise, from time to time, to make new laws. There was a time when the ancient laws of your imperial majesty's government were first made.

    About the same time America, which is sometimes called the New World, was first discovered and settled by the Europeans. For a long time there were but a few people, and they were poor. They have now become quite numerous; their commerce is very extensive; and they think that if your imperial majesty were so far to change the ancient laws as to allow a free trade between the two countries it would be extremely beneficial to both.

    If your imperial majesty is not satisfied that it would be safe altogether to abrogate the ancient laws which forbid foreign trade, they might be suspended for five or ten years, so as to try the experiment. If it does not prove as beneficial as was hoped , the ancient laws can be restored. The United States often limit their treaties with foreign States to a few years, and then renew them or not, as they please.

    I have directed Commodore Perry to mention another thing to your imperial majesty. Many of our ships pass every year from California to China; and great numbers of our people pursue the whale fishery near the shores of Japan. It sometimes happens, in stormy weather, that one of our ships is wrecked on your imperial majesty's shores. In all such cases we ask, and expect, that our unfortunate people should be treated with kindness, and that their property should be protected, till we can send a vessel and bring them away. We are very much in earnest in this.

    Commodore Perry is also directed by me to represent to your imperial majesty that we understand there is a great abundance of coal and provisions in the Empire of Japan. Our steamships, in crossing the great ocean, burn a great deal of coal, and it is not convenient to bring it all the way from America. We wish that our steamships and other vessels should be allowed to stop in Japan and supply themselves with coal, provisions, and water. They will pay for them in money, or anything else your imperial majesty's subjects may prefer; and we request your imperial majesty to appoint a convenient port, in the southern part of the Empire, where our vessels may stop for this purpose. We are very desirous of this.

    These are the only objects for which I have sent Commodore Perry, with a powerful squadron, to pay a visit to your imperial majesty's renowned city of Yedo: friendship, commerce, a supply of coal and provisions, and protection for our shipwrecked people.

    We have directed Commodore Perry to beg your imperial majesty's acceptance of a few presents. They are of no great value in themselves; but some of them may serve as specimens of the articles manufactured in the United States, and they are intended as tokens of our sincere and respectful friendship.

    May the Almighty have your imperial majesty in His great and holy keeping!

    In witness whereof, I have caused the great seal of the United States to be hereunto affixed, and have subscribed the same with my name, at the city of Washington, in America, the seat of my government, on the thirteenth day of the month of November, in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty-two.

    [Seal attached.] Your good friend, MILLARD FILLMORE.

    By the President:

    EDWARD EVERETT, Secretary of State.


    The Reception


    A change from the official isolationist policy had been discussed before within Japanese circles, and now, with gunboat threats, the kinds words and intentions from President Fillmore were still controversial. Perry departed, however, without a treaty, and when the shogun passed soon after, Abe Masahiro and the Council of Elders took control of the debate from the young successor son, but could come to no quick decision, even though they acknowledged that it was impractical to resist the demands backed by American military support. They polled the fuedal lords. No decision again.

    The Americans became impatient, sending Commodore Perry back to Japan on February 14, 1854 with eight warships and sixteen hundred men, including a total of ten ships (Lexington, Macedonian, Powhatan, Vandalia, Southampton and Supply now among them), and the mission to remain until a treaty was signed. Work on the treaty began on March 8, 1854 after much procrastination and additional threats from Perry to bring one hundred ships to bear. Once negotitiations began, most U.S. demands were agreed to within one month. It was signed in Yokohama on March 31, 1854.


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    Treaty of Kanagawa, March 31, 1854


    The United States of American and the empire of Japan, desiring to establish firm, lasting and sincere friendship between the two nations, have resolved to fix, in a manner clear and positive by means of a treaty or general convention of peace and amity, the rules which shall in future be mutually observed in the intercourse of their respective countries; for which most desirable object the President of the United States has conferred full powers on his commissioner, Matthew Calbraith Perry, special ambassador of the United States to Japan and the august sovereign of Japan has given similar full powers to his commissioners, Hayashi-Daigaku-no-kami, Ido, Prince of Tsus-Sima; Izawa, Prince of Mmimasaki; and Udono, member of the Board of Revenue.

    And the said commissioners after having exchanged their said full powers and duly considered the premises, have agreed to the following articles:

    Article I - There shall be a perfect, permanent and universal peace, and a sincere and cordial amity, between the United States of American on the one part and between their people, respectfully, (respectively,) without exception of persons or places.

    Article II - The port of Simoda, in the principality of Idzu and the port of Hakodadi, in the pricipality of Matsmai are granted by the Japanese as ports for the reception for American ships, where they can be supplied with wood, water, provisions and coal, and other articles their necessities may require, as far as the Japanese have them. The time for opening the first named port is immediately on signing this treaty; the last named port is to be opened immediately after the same day in the ensuing Japanese year.

    Note- A tariff of prices shall be given by the Japanese officers of the things which they can furnish, payment for which shall be made in gold, and silver coin.

    Article III - Whenever ships of the United States are thrown or wrecked on the coast of Japan, the Japanese vessels will assist them, and carry their crews to Simoda or Hakodadi and hand them over to their countrymen appointed to receive them. Whatever articles the shipwrecked men may have preserved shall likewise be restored and the expenses incurred in the rescue and support of Americans and Japanese who may thus be thrown up on the shores of either nation are not to be refunded.

    Article IV - Those shipwrecked persons and other citizens of the United States shall be free as in the other countries and not subjected to confinement but shall be amenable to just laws.

    Article V - Shipwrecked men and other citizens of the United States, temporarily living at Simoda and Hakodadi, shall not be subject to such restrictions and confinement as the Dutch and Chinese are at Nagasaki, but shall be free at Simoda to go where they please within the limits of seven Japanese miles from a small island in the harbor of Simoda, marked on the accompanying chart hereto appended; and shall in like manner be free to go where they please at Hakodadi, within limits to be defined after the visit of the United States squadron to that place.

    Article VI - If there be any other sort of goods wanted or any business which shall require to be arranged, there shall be careful deliberation between the particles in order to settle such matters.

    Article VII - It is agreed that ships of the United states resorting to the ports open to them, shall be permitted to exchange gold and silver coin and articles of goods for other articles of goods under such regulations as shall be temporarily established by the Japanese government for that purpose. It is stipulated, however that the ships of the United States shall be permitted to carry away whatever articles they are unwilling to exchange.

    Article VIII - Wood, water provisions, coal and goods required shall only be procured through the agency of Japanese officers appointed for that purpose, and in no other manner.

    Article IX - It is agreed, that if, at any future day, the government of Japan shall grant to any other nation or nations privileges and advantages which are not herein granted to the United states and the citizens thereof, that these same privileges and advantages shall be granted likewise to the United States and to the citizens thereof without any consultation or delay.

    Article X - Ships of the United States shall be permitted to resort to no other ports in Japan but Simoda and Hakodadi, unless in distress or forced by stress of weather.

    Article XI - There shall be appointed by the government of the United States consuls or agents to reside in Simoda at any time after the expiration of eighteen months from the date of the signing of this treaty; provided that either of the two governments deem such arrangement necessary.

    Article XII - The present convention, having been concluded and duly signed, shall be obligatory, and faithfully observed by the United States of America, and Japan and by the citizens and subjects of each respective power; and it is to be ratified and approved by the President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate thereof, and by the august Sovereign of Japan, and the ratification shall be exchanged within eighteen months from the date of the signature therefore, or sooner if practicable.

    In faith, whereof, we, the respective plenipotentiaries of the United States of America and the empire of Japan aforesaid have signed and sealed these presents.

    Done at Kanagawa, this thirty-first day of March, in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ one thousand eight hundred and fifty-four and of Kayei the seventh year, third month and third day.

    Image above: Lithograph of Commodore Perry 1853 expedition landing in Japan, 1853, Hatch and Severyn, Bayard Taylor, Charles Severyn. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Commodore Perry Meeting the Imperial Commissioners at Yokohama in 1854, 1856, Saxony and Company. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Avalon Project, Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, University of Yale Law School, via Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America. Volume 6, Miller, Hunter ed., Washington: Government Printing Office, 1942; "Perry in Japan a Visual History," Brown University Press; "Report of Commodore M.C. Perry of the Naval Expedition to Japan," 1855; Wikipedia Commons.


    Commodore Perry in Japan




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