George Washington and the Early American Expatriate Community
The years following the American Revolution were a time of tremendous ambivalence--crisis, some historians assert--about the legitimacy of the “republic experiment.” The capacity of an ‘extended republic’ to stand was in doubt among the Western world’s most astute students of history and observers of politics. Furthermore, European writers made clear their contempt for a people they described as backward, and renegade. Americans were subjected to dismissive treatment from the mouths of kings such as George III of Great Britain and Frederick II of Prussia, the tongues of travelers such as Harriet Martineau, and the bleating of newspapers and journals, which carried offensive reports that represented “the people of America as mere brutes and savages, and portray our merchants and traders as destitute of principle, honour, and common honesty.”[i] The problem was experienced most acutely by those Americans who came into contact with European and other peoples; particularly, American mariners who sailed to European ports and into the oceans beyond the Cape of Good Hope after the Revolution. For merchants and sea captains, acceptance within the ‘community of civilized nations’ involved more than the niceties of refined society; legitimacy of one’s nation set the conditions for trade, for port visits, for supplies
American expatriates drew upon the cultural authority of the most famous American of their time to establish a place for themselves on the seas and in the ports of global commerce. Representations of George Washington served them as a cultural currency through which they asserted legitimacy--both personal and national--and purchased acceptance in the halls of business. The strength of the new republic could be conveyed through its association with a figure whose character was universally respected as one of character and virtue. In conversation with governors and merchants, in identifying their vessels, in naming newfound islands, they appropriated the figure of Washington as cultural currency through which they could transact commercial dealings and with which they could associate the character of the nation.
For many, the solution to the problem of national legitimacy lay in representing the nation within the terms established would fit their construction of the new nation. Abroad, as at home, Washington was America’s “pole star,” as Fisher Ames described him in his eulogy.[ii] His reputation at home and abroad was one of cultural authority, providing a currency of reputation upon which Americans could draw. This was, of course, the dilemma faced by American mariners, particularly officers and factors involved in the overseas trade, commerce demanded civility, and the successful merchant needed to demonstrate he was not a sailor or a trader solely, but also a gentleman. In the written and material culture that flooded the public sphere of the early republic, we find acts of intentional and self-conscious representation—both of national representation and self-representation. That the conflation of the two was not accidental is recognized when we consider the social and economic position of the travelers. Often, they are represented as young men and women, in or on the verge of early adulthood, and struggling to establish their place in the world. Most were teenagers when they first went to sea. It is no surprise that they should identify their personal aspirations with the struggle of a young nation to establish itself as a legitimate member of the community of civilized nations. Nor should it surprise us that this literature and material culture should resonate with a public that hoped to have their national anxieties calmed.
Washington at the Battle of Trenton, attributed to the China Trade
painter Spoilum (w.1770–1805) after the Cheesman mezzotint
Legitimizing the Imagined Community
Washington’s birthday provided a means through which Americans could legitimize their imagined community. As Europeans celebrated the birthdays of their kings and queens, Americans could match them with commemorations of their leader. Ceremonies in Federalist strongholds such as seaports were particularly elaborate. Washington’s birthday seems to have been an occasion for both celebratory toasts and rallying cries. As early as 1785, and before the Grand Turk became the first Salem vessel to reach Canton, Salemites were celebrating the general’s birthday and associating his authority with respect for their commerce abroad with the toast, “May the American Flag be respected in every quarter of the globe.”[i] When Americans celebrated Washington’s birthday on Wednesday February 22, 1797—a major celebration for his last months in office—the toasts were punctuated with the words of “liberty, patriot, freedom, virtue, and Columbia’s Pride.”[ii] One hailed, “Commerce. Success to the honest merchant, and a yardarm to every piratical spoilator.”[iii] In Salem, toasts on the president’s birthday hailed:
Commerce and Fishery. May the Marts of the World welcome our Ships,
the Nations of the Earth respect our Flag, and lawless plunderers create to
molest our Seafaring Brethren; and may our Industrious and hardy Fishermen
burden their vessels, and whiten their stakes with the treasures of the Sea.
Toasts, songs and celebrations took on particular resonance in the waters of Whampoa reach, the Northwest Coast, or Sumatra. Melding the patriotic and the personal, they cleaved homesick mariners in an identity that connected them to home and nation. They extended reputation. Washington was the embodiment of this identity. Americans abroad used the president’s birthday as a national ritual to cement their connection home and to bond. In doing so, they were making the world American. An early example is found in the journal of Captain Joseph Ingraham, on the Northwest Coast, 4 July, c. 1793: "I caused A Hog of 70 pounds weight to be roasted whole on which we all dined on shore. I with my officers and seamen drank the President's health and made the forest ring with three cheers."[iv] Four years later, the log of the Perseverance for 22 February 1797 recorded, “This is the Anniversary of the illustrious Washington’s Birth Day, may every succeeding years heap New honors upon him.”[v]
Such ceremonies were especially meaningful in venues in which American legitimacy remained a contested proposition. A report in the Salem Gazette for 30 August 1785 provides insight:
GLOUCESTER, April 17, 1792. Mr. Cushing, --By inserting the following
facts you will oblige a number of your Customers.
THIS week arrived here two vessels from Surinam; the Captains of which
inform, that on the eleventh of February, being the birth-day of our beloved
PRESIDENT, the flags of every ship from America, in that port, were hoisted
(except those of eleven sail from Rhodeisland (sic), . . . —an elegant
entertainment was given by the staunch Americans to the governor of that
place, and the officers of every other foreign ship in the harbor--thirteen
patriotic toasts were drank--and the day concluded with that becoming mirth
& conviviality which we hope will ever characterize
The value of this currency of reputation was seen in how Americans used it to open doors to marts across the globe. The New Hampshire Gazette noted Washington’s authority in legitimizing Americans’ overseas commerce when it observed in March 1790, “The President of the United States, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, has been pleased to appoint Samuel Shaw, Consul of the United States of America, at Canton, in China.”[vii] Although a merchant’s personal character was unknown or national character even in doubt, conversation could be turned referentially to Washington. When the American vessel United States touched India in December 1784, national as well as commercial concerns occupied the mind of Captain Thomas Bell, who recorded in the ship’s log that the French governor of Pondicherry “often spoke with great pleasure on the Character of G. Washington.[viii] Americans could read in the Federalist Gazette of the United States for 20-23 May 1789 or the Republican Salem Mercury for 2 June 1789,
NEW YORK. NEW YORK, MAY 19.
The Chesapeake was the first American vessel allowed to hoist the colours
of the U.States in the river Ganges, and to trade there. When Lord
Cornwallis, the Gov. General, then at a great distance up the country, was
applied to by letter from Calcutta, to know in what manner the Americans
were to be received, his answer was, ‘On the same footing with other nations.’
This answer, being probably conformable to his instructions from Great
Britain, evinces the friendly disposition of that nation in that quarter; for the
American ships pay no more at any of the English settlements of Bengal,
Madras & Bombay, which Mr. O’Donnel visited, than other foreigners—
Cornwallis’s agreeability, ironically, stemmed from his respect for the man who had handed him his greatest defeat at the Battle of Yorktown, who expressed admiration for the character of the man. When Washington met Thomas Twining, of Indian tea fame, on Friday, May 16 1796, Twining told him of the admiration Lord Cornwallis had for him.[ix] American mariners learned that even language barriers could be bridged through the currency of Washington’s reputation.
Thus, when the ship Neptune, out of New Haven on sealing voyage, made the Hawaiian island of “Attoi” on 28 August 1797, canoes poured into the bay, and supercargo Ebenezer Townsend hailed, “Who are you?” One of the Hawaiians cried out in response, “I am General Washington.” The man had shipped out with American vessels before, and used Washington’s name as intercultural currency to frame a climate of shared expectations, including friendly exchange.[x]
Yet, Americans abroad did not just cloak themselves under authoritative mantle of Washington’s reputation. They also used his name to personify the nation and literally to carry the national character to the farthest reaches of the globe. A popular means of doing so is seen in the naming of vessels in honor of the General and other republican symbols. Sloops, schooners, and ships were adorned with the names of the president. We cannot know how many vessels were launched bearing a reference to Washington, but a survey suggests an estimate in the hundreds. In 1787, when the renowned merchant family the Browns of Providence wanted to sent a commercial expedition to Madras, the cargo was loaded aboard the General Washington.[xi] And, we read that it was the sloop Lady Washington that was the first vessel to sail from Boston to the Pacific Northwest in 1781 under Captain Robert Grey, and the first American vessel to Japan in 1791. The Mount Vernon sailed out of Salem. The President’s protective reach could extend in other ways, as well. When the Columbia and Lady Washington sailed beyond American shores, it was noted
The concern’d in the ship Columbia and sloop Washington, have receiv’d
letters from Captain Kendrick, dated at Nootka in July last; he informs them
that he passed the Winter preceding on the north west coast of America;
that he was then bound on a voyage further Northward, and from thence
intended to proceed to Canton. —The letters . . . were covered to the President
of the United States of America.
These tokens continued. In 1815, James Durand noted a sloop captured by British forces off New London was named the Lady Washington.[xii] As late as October 1834, it could be reported that the Carne brothers of New York had brought a cargo of goods and the “Chinese lady” Afong May from Canton aboard the Washington.[xiii]
American mariners used Washington’s name to personify the nation and literally to carry the national character to the farthest reaches of the globe. Exploring islands along the Northwest Coast in April 1791, Captain Joseph Ingraham recorded, "I named the first Washington's Island in honor of the illustrious president of the United Sates of America. The other I called Adams's Island after the Vice President."[xiv] One he named “Franklin's Island in memory of his excellency Doctor Benjamin Franklin," and another Federal island "in honor of our new, equal, and liberal constitution, which I hope will be as permanent as the island itself."[xv] When Captain Edmund Fanning discovered a set of uncharted, but “beautiful, green, and flourishing” Pacific islands in the 1790s, he made clear his respect:
With the unanimous approbation of every individual on board, both officers and
seamen, and with feelings of pride for our country, we named this, Washington
Island, after President Washington, the father of his country.”[xvi]
Such acts of appropriation made the world American.
The themes of authority, character, and legitimacy, forming a cogent constellation of thought in the maritime culture of the early republic, found expression most saliently in material culture. In Indies trade goods, especially imported from China and India, the medium was often the message, and the message was often one of authoritative reference to American symbols—so much so that material culture scholar [Robert] Teitelman describes the ceramics as “potted patriotism.”[xvii] Most prominently was the image of Washington, which can be found on one-sixth of all such pitchers extent. In the exotic material goods of the East, from the world’s oldest cultuest, the “new men”--and women--of the early republic found their nation legitimaized. Their homes featured paintings and porcelain and fans such as the 1802 glass work, “Apotheosis, Sacred to the Memory of Washington” and the Gilbert Stuart inspired “Washington at the Battle of Trenton,” possibly from the studio of China Trade painter Spoilum.
Apotheosis, Sacred to the Memory of Washington, ca. 1802.
Glass, paint. Peabody Essex Museum purchase, 1983
In constructing their first entry into the wide world, voyagers portrayed the reception they would meet was a matter of both national and personal consequence. As one of the first, Shaw set the tone: “Respecting the intercourse between the Europeans and the Americans at Canton, it would be only to repeat . . . Nationally and personally, we have abundant reason to be satisfied.”[xviii]
[i] Salem Gazette, 23 February 1785.
[ii] Salem Gazette, 3 March 1797.
[iii] Salem Gazette, 24 February 1797.
[iv] Capt. Ingraham, Hope, 1793, cited in S&P Perkins 73.
[v] This Captain Hathorne was father of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. HHH 340–341.
[vi] Salem Gazette 30 August 1785.
[vii] New Hampshire Gazette, 3 March 1790.
[viii] G. Bhagat, “America’s First Contacts with India, 1784–785,” The American Neptune (January 1971), 38–47.
[ix] Twining was one of the many international visitors who came to Mount Vernon to pay their respects, 16 May 1796. Smith, Patriarch, 268.
[x] America and the Sea 160.
[xi] Robert G. Albion 59.
[xii] Durand 78.
[xiii] Davis, “China Trade,” Ph.D. diss. 59.
[xiv] Hope 19 April 1791, Ingraham Journal 58]
[xv] Ingraham Journal, 19 April 1791, 58.
[xvi] Edmund Fanning 161.
[xvii] Robert Teitelman, lecture, Peabody Essex Museum.
[xviii] Shaw, 317.