Mark Twain’s Obit on Burlingame

Date: 1/1/1870
Content:
A TRIBUTE TO ANSON BURLINGAME by Mark Twain (1870)
On Wednesday, in St. Petersburg, Mr. Burlingame died after a short illness. It is not easy to comprehend, at an instant’s warning, the exceeding magnitude of the loss which mankind sustains in this death—the loss which all nations and all peoples sustain in it. For he had outgrown the narrow citizenship of a state and become a citizen of the world; and his charity was large enough and his great heart warm enough to feel for all its races and to labor for them. He was a true man, a brave man, an earnest man, a liberal man, a just man, a generous man, in all his ways and by all his instincts a noble man; he was a man of education and culture, a finished conversationalist, a ready, able, and graceful speaker, a man of great brain, a broad and deep and weighty thinker. He was a great man—a very, very great man. He was imperially endowed by nature; he was faithfully befriended by circumstances, and he wrought gallantly always, in whatever station he found himself.
He was a large, handsome man, with such a face as children instinctively trust in, and homeless and friendless creatures appeal to without fear. He was courteous at all times and to all people, and he had the rare and winning faculty of being always interested in what-ever aman had to say—a faculty which he possessed simply because nothing was trivial to him which any man or woman or child had at heart. When others said harsh things about even unconscionable and intrusive bores after they had retired from his presence, Mr. Burlingame often said a generous word in their favor, but never an unkind one.
Achivalrous generosity was his most marked characteristic—alargecharity,anoble kindliness that could not comprehend narrowness or meanness. It is this that shows out in his fervent abolitionism, manifested at atime when it was neither very creditable nor very safe to hold such a creed; it was this that prompted him to hurl his famous Brooks-and-Sumner speech in the face of an astonished South at atime when all the North was smarting under the sneers and taunts and material aggressions of admired and applauded Southerners. It was this that made him so warmly espouse the cause of Italian liberty—an espousal sopointed and sovigorous as to attract the attention of Austria, which empire afterward declined to receive him when he was appointed Austrian envoy by Mr. Lincoln. It was this trait which prompted him to punish Americans in China when they imposed upon the Chinese. It was this trait which moved him, in framing treaties, to frame them in the broad interest of the world, instead of selfishly seeking to acquire advantages for his own country alone and at the expense of the other party to the treaty, as had always before been the recognized “diplomacy.”It was this trait which was and is the soul of the crowning achievements of his career, the treaties with America and England in behalf of China. In every labor of this man’s life there was present a good and noble motive; and in nothing that he ever did or said was there anything small or base. In real greatness, ability, grandeur of character, and achievement, he stood head and shoulders above all the Americans of to-day, save one or two.
Without any noise, or any show, or any flourish, Mr. Burlingame did ascore of things of shining mark during his official residence in China. They were hardly heard of away here in America. When he first went to China, he found that with all their kingly powers, American envoys were still not of much consequence in the eyes of their countrymen of either civil or official position. But he was a man who was always “posted.” He knew all about the state of things he would find in China before he sailed from America. And so he took care to demand and receive additional powers before he turned his back upon Washington. When the customary consular irregularities placidly continued and he notified those officials that such irregularities must instantly cease, and they inquired with insolent flippancy what the consequence might be in case they did not cease, he answered blandly that he would dismiss them, from the highest to the lowest! (He had quietly come armed with absolute authority over their official lives.) The consular irregularities ceased. A far healthier condition of American commercial interests ensued there.
To punish a foreigner in China was an unheard-of thing. There was no way of accomplishing it. Each Embassy had its own private district or grounds, forced from the imperial government, and into that sacred district Chinese law officers could not intrude. All foreigners guilty of offenses against Chinamen were tried by their own country-men, in these holy places, and as no Chinese testimony was admitted, the culprit almost always went free. One of the very first things Mr. Burlingame did was to make a Chinaman’s oath as good as a foreigner’s; and in his ministerial court, through Chinese and American testi-mony combined, he very shortly convicted a noted American ruffian of murdering a Chinaman. And now a community accustomed to light sentences were naturally startled when, under Mr. Burlingame’shand, and bearing the broad seal of the American Embassy, came an order to take him out and hang him!
Mr. Burlingame broke up the “extraterritorial” privileges (as they were called), as far as our country was concerned, and made justice as free to all and as untrammeled in the metes and bounds of its jurisdiction, in China, as ever it was in any land.
Mr. Burlingame was the leading spirit in the co-operative policy. He got the Imperial College established. He procured permission for an American to open the coal mines of China. Through his efforts China was the first country to close her ports against the war vessels of the Southern Confederacy; and Prince Kung’s order, in this matter, was singularly energetic, comprehensive, and in earnest. The ports were closed then, and never opened to a Southern warship afterward.
Mr. Burlingame “construed” the treaties existing between China and the other nations. For many years the ablest diplomatists had vainly tried to come to a satisfactory understanding of certain obscure clauses of these treaties, and more than once powder had been burned in consequences of failure to come to such understandings. But the clear and comprehensive intellect of the American envoy reduced the wordy tangle of diplomatic phrases to a plain and honest handful of paragraphs, and these were unanimously and thankfully accepted by the other foreign envoys, and officially declared by them to be a thorough and satisfactory elucidation of all the uncertain clauses in the treaties.
Mr. Burlingame did a mighty work, and made official intercourse with China lucid, simple, and systematic, thenceforth for all time, when he persuaded that government to adopt and accept the code of international law by which the civilized nations of the earth are guided and controlled.
It is not possible to specify all the acts by which Mr. Burlingame made himself largely useful to the world during his official residence in China. At least it would not be possible to do it without making this sketch too lengthy and pretentious for a newspaper article.
Mr. Burlingame’s short history—for he was only forty-seven—reads like a fairy tale. Its successes, its surprises, its happy situations, occur all along, and each new episode is always an improvement upon the one which went before it.
He begins life an assistant in a surveying party away out on the Western frontier; then enters a branch of a Western college; then passes through Harvard with the honors; becomes a Boston lawyer and looks back complacently from his high perch upon the old days when he was a surveyor nobody in the woods; becomes a state senator, and makes laws; still advancing, goes to the Constitutional Convention and makes regulations wherewith to rule the makers of laws; enters Congress and smiles back upon the Legislature and the Boston lawyer, and from these smiles still back upon the country surveyor, recognizes that he is known to fame in Massachusetts; challenges Brooks and is known to the nation; next, with a long stride upward, he is clothed with ministerial dignity and journeys to the under side of the world to represent the youngest in the court of the oldest of the nations; and finally, after years go by, we see him moving serenely among the crowned heads of the Old World, a magnate with secretaries and under secretaries about him, a retinue of quaint, outlandish Orientals in his wake, and a long following of servants—and the world is aware that his salary is unbelievably enormous, not to say imperial, and like-wise knows that he is invested with power to make treaties with all the chief nations of the earth, and that he bears the stately title of Ambassador, and in his person represents the, mysterious and awful grandeur of that vague colossus, the Emperor of China, his mighty empire and his four hundred millions of subjects! Down what a dreamy vista his backward glance must stretch, now, to reach the insignificant surveyor in the Western woods!
He was a good man, and a very, very great man. America lost a son, and all the world a servant, when he died.

Related posts

Leave a Comment