Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.

Mr. Jefferson’s Mandarin, Or, a controversial promotion

When the ship Beaver departed New York harbor bound for the China coast in August 1808, the United States was fully embargoed. For over six months the country’s trade had been at a standstill, and all the ports idled. The livelihoods of America’s maritime workers had been sacrificed to the greater good by Jeffersonian Republicans, in the White House and the Congress, who hoped that an extreme form of commercial warfare—a wholesale ban on international trade—would force Great Britain and France to respect American neutrality without any shots fired.[1]

Though it sailed out as an exception to the embargo, the Beaver was no smuggler, and its owner, fur trade magnate John Jacob Astor, was no scofflaw—not this time, at least. The ship was one of the few granted official permission to sail beyond coastal waters—and in this case, that grant came from the President himself, Thomas Jefferson. How did the Beaver and Astor manage this good fortune, one that all the merchants and sailors in America languishing under the embargo desperately desired? The answer lies in the Beaver’s most important passenger: “Jefferson’s mandarin,” a man named Punqua Wingchong.[2]

Mr. Jefferson’s Mandarin, Or, a controversial promotion

Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom

What do you do when you can’t stop yourself from falling into a ditch?

In my case it was “Clinton’s Ditch”—better known as the Erie Canal, opened in 1825. It seemed that every time I went to America’s Historical Newspapers to research my dissertation—I write on the politics of early American trade with China—every query, no matter how carefully constructed, returned discussions of canals. With every “search” button clicked, I felt De Witt Clinton (he of “Ditch” fame) drag me a step more away from the salty tea-clippers at Canton, and further into the freshwater depths of the New York backcountry, yammering all the way about locks, average elevations, and the glorious future of the wheat flour trade.

De Witt Clinton, A Man with a Plan (for a Ditch)
(Source: Rembrandt Peale, Portrait of DeWitt Clinton
oil on canvas, 28 5/8 x 23 3/8, 1823, Wikimedia.org)

Clinton, a political impresario who served as a U.S. Senator, mayor of New York City, and Governor of New York State, was the chief force behind the creation of the Erie Canal, the new nation’s most ambitious and successful infrastructure project. In the early nineteenth century, waterways were the quickest and most reliable way to move freight. Unfortunately, nature did not always provide—but building canals to the hinterland, it was thought, would shrink the distance between pioneer farmers in the West and the hungry urban markets of the East. Boosters predicted that new canals would create a virtuous cycle of agricultural expansion, population growth, and increasing wealth—a recipe for national greatness.

Lake Erie by Way of Guangzhou: Or, The Other Canal Boom

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