American Classics

Instructions to Commodore Matthew Perry on the Opening to Japan (1851-1852)

“It is the President’s opinion that steps should be taken at once to enable our enterprising merchants to supply the last link in that great chain which unites all nations of the world, by the early establishment of a line of steamers from California to China.”  So begins a letter of instructions from Secretary of State Daniel Webster to Commodore John Aulick in June of 1851 on the subject of “opening” Japan to the outside world.  The advent of the 19th century Steam Age and the renewed interest of the Western World in Asia meant that no longer would the West mostly ignore Japan—now it was an island, a link, in the middle of that great chain of commerce that stretched from Europe to China to the Americas, and it was therefore crucial to the success of current and future commercial endeavors.

For nearly three centuries, the Japanese had purposefully closed themselves off to the outside world, trading only with the Chinese and the Dutch and even then only in small quantities and infrequently.  By the beginning of the 19th Century, however, Europeans were increasingly looking towards Asia for new markets, and new technologies allowed their ships to reach Asian shores faster than ever before.  Although China was often the main focus of their efforts—the British fought the “Opium War” (1839-1842) in order to get more lucrative trading deals and more ports to trade in—Japan was never forgotten.  The problem was that Japan rebuffed nearly all the attempts made to open its shores.

By the middle of the 1840s, while expanding across the North American continent, the United States began to turn its own attention towards Asia.  Negotiating trade treaties with China increased its interest in Japan.  Several attempts were made to initiate trade by American merchants who went to Japan under the guise of returning shipwrecked Japanese sailors—but the Japanese refused to take back their sailors.  A final, official attempt was made in 1846 by Commodore James Biddle, but he was ultimately rebuffed by the Japanese, who insisted that they would only trade with the Dutch.  Biddle’s failed attempt inspired Commodore Matthew Perry, who later led the successful mission to open Japan, to avoid making the same mistakes.

Daniel Webster, a member of the so-called “Great Triumvirate” of Senators which included Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, had previously been Secretary of State under John Tyler.  When Millard Fillmore became President upon the death of Zachary Taylor, he asked Webster, again in the Senate, to become Secretary of State.  Webster reluctantly agreed to do so—but only because he thought the office of Secretary of State would put him into a position where he could further negotiate a compromise between the sections of the country then moving towards a tipping point in the slavery debate.  Indeed, as historian Kenneth Shewmaker points out:  “Webster’s main objective in accepting the post for a second time was not to bring his experience to bear on issues of international politics, but rather to further the Compromise of 1850.  Accordingly, he made deliberate efforts in specific instances to use his office and foreign policy to promote national unity.” (Shewmaker, 1976, 303).

However, even with his focus often on the serious domestic problems of his day, Webster’s Whig views and New England roots rang true when he looked towards the Pacific.   He strongly favored commercial rather than territorial expansion as a means to increase American power and prosperity and to dampen sectional tensions (the recently-concluded Mexican War had been an abject lesson in the failure to follow this approach).  He believed in cultivating good relations with London (the Democratic Party was staunchly anti-British), but was concerned to prevent the Britain from obtaining exclusive strategic commercial privileges in Asia and the Pacific.  In his previous tenure as Secretary of State, he had worked assiduously to keep Britain (and France) from claiming possession of the Hawaiian (Sandwich) Islands.  The British had led the way in “opening” China.  Perhaps the United States should take the lead, and reap the benefits, of opening another Asian-Pacific power.

Webster recognized the commercial importance of Japan, and “looked upon Japan as a gift of Providence placed by the Creator on the great oceanic highway of commerce that united all nations” (Shewmaker, 1985, 245).  By mid-1851, the Fillmore Administration began to look seriously at finding means to open up Japan to trade with the rest of the Western World.  It selected Commodore John Aulick to lead the naval squadron to Japan, in part because it had been Aulick who pointed out to Webster that shipwrecked Japanese sailors, then held in San Francisco, could serve as a stepping stone to negotiations.

On June 10, 1851, Webster penned a letter to Aulick containing instructions for his forthcoming journey to Japan.  Webster makes very clear in the beginning of the letter that a major intent of the trip is to finish the “chain of oceanic steam navigation” then beginning to envelop the whole world.  While Japan might have been ignored had these islands been located elsewhere, owing especially to its two hundred year absence from major trading with the rest of the world, its position on the trade route to China made it a pivotal part of that chain. In addition to providing future trading opportunities, Japan was a place where Westerners could call to refill their stores of water, food, and other supplies.

Perhaps the biggest factor in pushing Webster to begin contact with the Japanese was the advent of the coal-powered steam ship.  Steamers made Japan even more important to those merchants and navies that could not possibly carry all the heavy coal needed for their journeys; since Japan was located in the middle of the trade route between the United States and China, it was a convenient place to have a coal depot.  Japan was even more attractive for this reason because it was supposedly rich in coal.  Webster points to the importance of coal in commercial navigation in the beginning of his letter to Aulick, calling the collection of coal from Japan as indispensable for the facilitation of the enterprise of commerce.

So important was coal to Webster that he claimed the attainment of it as one of humanity’s most pressing interests.  “The interests of commerce, and even those of humanity, demand, however, that we should make another appeal to the sovereign of that country, in asking him to sell to our steamers . . . . a gift of Providence, deposited, by the Creator of all things, in the depths of the Japanese islands for the benefit of human family.”  It appears to have been Webster’s opinion (and likely that of the Fillmore Administration itself, along with the many merchants interested in opening up Japan to their trade) that it was Japan’s duty to the interests of mankind to provide the coal asked of it, especially since it was believed that “mineral coal is so abundant in Japan that the Government of that country can have no reasonable objection to supply our steamers, at fair prices, with that great necessary of commerce.”  If Japan was not going to make use of all that coal, should not the rest of the world have a chance to use it in the commerce that enriches everyone?  If Japan was still unwilling to cooperate, Webster was prepared to offer the Japanese an “out” of sorts, allowing them the option of remaining “closed,” while providing a port for coal at some nearby island so that the majority of the Japanese people would not have to interact with the Americans.

Although access to coal was perhaps the most important issue that Aulick was instructed to address, Webster also instructed him to push the Japanese over humanitarian concerns of shipwrecked sailors.  Of late there had been an incredible uptick in commerce in the northern Pacific, especially the whaling industry, and so there had also been an increase in the number of shipwrecked Americans on the island of Japan.  Along with those shipwrecked foreigners came many stories of apparent Japanese cruelty (see the story of the whaling ship Lagoda in the late 1840s, in particular).  Many of these stories filled American newspapers and inflamed Americans against the supposed cruelty of the Japanese.  Although Breaking Open Japan author George Feifer points out that attitudes towards shipwrecked foreigners was quickly changing in Japan, this fact was generally ignored in both Webster’s letter and in later instructions. (Feifer, 2006, 96).  Additionally, most stories of cruel treatment on the part of the Japanese from the 1840s came from sailors who behaved badly towards the Japanese (including many of the stories from the Lagoda; see Feifer, pages 92-93).  In any case, Aulick was to make it clear that “the American Government will never fail to treat with kindness any of the natives of Japan whom misfortune may bring to our shores, and that it expects similar treatment of such of its own citizens who may be driven on the coasts of Japan.”

Webster was also aware of the Japanese disdain for Christian missionaries—perhaps a major cause for Japan’s closure to almost the whole of the West for 200 years.  Accordingly, Webster instructed to Aulick to assure the Japanese that the idea of commerce and friendship between the United States and Japan did not mean that government-sponsored American Christians would come to Japan to proselytize.  Indeed, Webster wanted Aulick to stress that “the Government of the United States does not possess any power over the religion of its own citizens, and that there is, therefore, no cause to apprehend that it will interfere with the religion of other countries.”

Finally, Webster gave Aulick a bit of discretion in negotiating any treaties of commerce and friendship with Japan, a harbinger of the increased amounts of discretion that Matthew Perry was given later on when he took over the expedition.

In a similar vein to the instructions given above, Webster also drafted a letter from President Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan on May 10, 1851.  “Great and Good Friend”, it began, in order to demonstrate from the very beginning that the United States came to Japan with only the best intentions.  The letter makes clear in the very first paragraph that Aulick was not there as a religious missionary and only came to build a treaty of trade and friendship with the Emperor and people of Japan.

By necessity, the draft letter to the Emperor differs from the instructions given to Aulick; after all, the letter was intended for the ruler of the Japanese.  Still, it differs slightly from the instructions.  First of all, it makes an attempt at persuasion for trade in a way that the instructions do not—it emphasizes the utter size of the United States and makes it a point to mention that Oregon and California, now fully part of America, are rich in gold, silver, and other precious stones.  Further still, ships can steam between the United States and Japan in only twenty days; not actually said, but seemingly implied, is the idea that those steamers could be full of that very same gold and silver.  Aulick was not necessarily instructed to bring this issue up with the Japanese, although he very well could have used it in his discretionary powers in negotiating treaties.

The letter attempts to reinforce the idea that Japan lies between China and the United States and is therefore a crucial link in the chain of commerce that strings the world together: “Many of our ships will now pass in every year, and some perhaps in every week between California and China; these ships must pass along the coasts of your Empire. . . . Your Empire hath a great abundance of coal, this is an article which our steamships, in going from California to China must use.”

Ultimately, it was not John Aulick who made the expeditionary trip to Japan, but Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, the brother of Oliver Hazard Perry, who was the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.  Although Perry was more desirous of being given command of the Mediterranean Squadron, he reluctantly accepted command of the East India Squadron and thus took on the role of chief diplomat in the opening of Japan.  Described by many as a stern disciplinarian, Perry took to his task of opening Japan with vigor.

By the time Perry was given command of the expedition, Webster was in poor health; he died in October of 1852.  Webster apparently gave Perry the opportunity to suggest revisions to the instructions, but Webster also planned to make a final review of them before the expedition departed to Japan, something that never happened because of his death. The final instructions to Perry, dated November 5, 1852, differ quite a bit in length and substance from the initial instructions to Aulick.  They were issued by Charles Conrad, the acting Secretary of State following Webster’s death, to John Kennedy, the Secretary of the Navy, to forward to Perry.  It is generally accepted that Perry himself largely drafted them; see George Feifer’s Breaking Open Japan, Peter Booth Wiley’s Yankees in the Land of the Gods, and Kenneth Shewmaker’s article “Forging the Great Chain.” In the latter’s opinion, “it seems doubtful that it would have received his [Webster’s] unqualified approval.” (Shewmaker, 1985, 249).

We should also note that, while the second iteration of instructions for the Japanese expedition was being drafted, Conrad and Perry knew that Filmore’s term of office was soon to expire.  Before he sailed, Perry was aware that the new President, Democrat Franklin Pierce, represented a party with an aggressive, nationalistic approach to the conduct of foreign affairs. Perry could therefore proceed with considerable assurance that an assertive approach to the Japanese would be supported by his government, a fact that was reflected in the revised instructions.

The broad goals from the first set of instructions were largely unchanged between the two documents.  That is, Perry is instructed to secure coal and coal depots from the Japanese as well as assurance of humanitarian aid for shipwrecked sailors.  But the minutiae of the two documents differ greatly.  Whereas Webster’s initial letter essentially leaves the substance at that, Conrad’s letter proceeds apace, fleshing out the instructions while also explicitly giving Perry considerable discretion in his actions.

For instance, while the instructions to Aulick simply make clear the importance of securing humanitarian aid both for shipwrecked Americans, with a reciprocal American commitment to treat shipwrecked Japanese, the instructions to Perry lay out the case against Japan—that is, the ways in which Japan had allegedly violated international law in its treatment of both shipwrecked Americans and shipwrecked Japanese.  It specifically mentions the case of the Morrison, which made a failed attempt to bring Japanese sailors back to their home but was fired upon once entering the bay of Yedo; and the cases of the Lagoda and the Lawrence, in which American sailors were said to have been grossly mistreated.

Conrad contextualizes these actions by stating that the Japanese acted against international law by refusing to help the shipwrecked:

the law of nations . . . imposes upon her certain duties which she cannot justly disregard.  Among these duties none is more imperative than that which requires her to succor and relieve those persons who are cast by the perils of the ocean upon her shores . . . nevertheless, if a nation not only habitually and systematically disregards it, but treats such unfortunate persons as if they were the most atrocious criminals, such nations may justly be considered as the common enemy of mankind.

In this way, Perry, through Conrad, tries to use international law as a justification for which Japan can be punished for its transgressions.   (Whether the Japanese should have been expected to recognize and conform to Western concepts of international law, having isolated themselves for centuries from the outside world, was not considered.)  The supposed cruelty that Japan had exercised towards shipwrecked foreigners, according to Conrad, had long been tolerated because of their distance from the shores of Europe and America.  However, “the navigation of the ocean by steam, the acquisition and rapid settlement by this country of a vast territory on the Pacific, the discovery of gold in that region, the rapid communication established across the isthmus which separates the two oceans” have served to bring the United States and Japan closer together geographically than ever before.  Here, Conrad is hitting home on a point present in the first letter from Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan—namely, that the shores of Japan could be reached in a mere two and a half weeks from the coast of California.   However, unlike the first letter from Fillmore, and Webster’s initial instructions, Conrad specifically brings up the recent instances where Japan rebuffed American attempts at contact despite their increasingly connected world.

Again, Conrad’s stated goals for the expedition do not differ much from Webster’s, although he does make it clear that just the acquisition of coal is not enough.  Conrad and Perry aim for the specific protection of shipwrecked Americans, for permission to enter port to refuel, and for permission to enter ports for the purpose of trade by sale or barter.

It is in relation to these goals that Conrad gives Perry greater discretion than originally envisioned by Webster.  Conrad states, unequivocally,

If, after having exhausted every argument and every means of persuasion, the commodore should fail to obtain from the government any relaxation of their system of exclusion, or even any assurance of humane treatment of our shipwrecked seamen, he will then change his tone, and inform them in the most unequivocal terms that it is the determination of this government to insist, that hereafter all citizens or vessels of the United States that may be wrecked on their coasts, or driven by stress of weather into their harbors shall, so long as they are compelled to remain there, be treated with humanity; and that if any acts of cruelty should hereafter be practiced upon citizens of this country, whether by the government or by the inhabitants of Japan, they will be severely chastised. (emphasis added)

Further along, Conrad tells Perry to push the issue if necessary but to stop short of making war: “his mission is necessarily of a pacific character, and will not resort to force unless in self defence.”  And how was Perry to force the issue?  Simply by dealing with the Japanese with “patience and forbearance” while also being “careful to do nothing that may compromise, in their eyes, his own dignity, or that of the country.  He will, on the contrary, do everything to impress them with a just sense of the power and greatness of this country.”  Finally, Conrad tells Perry very specifically that even though he has mentioned the above as guidelines for how he was to act, “it is impossible by any instructions, however minute, to provide for every contingency,” and so, therefore, “it is proper that the commodore should be invested with large discretionary powers, and should feel assured that any departure from usage, or any error of judgment he may commit will be viewed with indulgence.”

Finally, Conrad desired Perry to make note of the geography, population, resources, and natural phenomena of the Japanese islands, presumably for scientific or navigational purposes.  Although not a radical departure from Webster’s earlier instructions, this provided Perry with a justification to remain near the Japanese archipelago even if the Japanese did not want him to be there.

Between the two letters of instruction, separated by no more than a year and half, the broad goals of the expedition to Japan remained unchanged.  Webster and Conrad both hoped for a Japan that would allow merchant and naval steamers to refuel and trade.  Both hoped for better treatment of shipwrecked sailors.  However, while the broad goals of the expedition would remain the same between the two sets of instructions, the minutiae differed.  While Webster kept his letter short and provided no more than a framework for John Aulick to follow, Conrad included much more in his letter to guide Perry’s actions.  For instance, Conrad was quick to point out the “transgressions” that Japan had made against the people of the United States, presumably to give Perry reason for forcing the issue if the Japanese were not interested in negotiating.  Furthermore, Conrad’s letter implies that Perry can go as far as threatening the Japanese if they do not wish to negotiate; while Conrad mentions this only in relation to the humanitarian cause, we can probably assume that the idea of a threat of force wound its way through the accomplishment of every goal of the expedition.

Finally, worth mentioning is the second letter from Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan, dated November 13, 1852.  The first and second letters of Fillmore do not differ much, although in the second letter Fillmore implores the Japanese to make new trade laws to replace their older “ancient” laws.  Fillmore stresses that during the two hundred intervening years, America had grown from a poor people to a people that is “quite numerous; their commerce . . . very extensive” and he makes clear that a change in Japanese laws would be very beneficial to both the Japanese and the American people.  In order to demonstrate how “beneficial” a trade relationship between the two countries would be, Fillmore notes that Perry will carry a number of gifts “of no great value,” besides serving “as specimens of the articles manufactured in the United States” given merely as “tokens of our sincere and respectful friendship.”

Ultimately, Perry was successful in “opening” Japan to the rest of the world, by taking advantage of the discretion that he gave himself in formulating the instructions.  He went into his task with single-minded focus.  In a letter dated December 14, 1852, from Perry to Secretary of the Navy Kennedy, he wrote: “Indeed, success may be commanded by our government, and it should be, under whatever circumstances, accomplished. . . . The honor of the nation calls for it and the interest of commerce demands it.”

In his own notes about the expedition in July of 1853, Perry wrote that in going into Japan he planned to “demand as a right, not to solicit as a favor, those acts of courtesy which are due from one civilized nation to another; to allow of none of those petty annoyances which have been unsparingly visited upon those who preceded me, and to disregard the acts as well as the threats of authority, if they in the least conflicted with my own sense of what was due to the dignity of the American flag”  (Correspondence Relative to the Naval Expedition to Japan, 1855, 45).  When the Japanese he dealt with insisted that a reply to Fillmore’s letter could only be received at Nagasaki, and not at Uraga where Perry was moored, Perry responded that “if this friendly letter of the President to the Emperor is not received and duly replied to, he shall consider his country insulted, and will not hold himself accountable for the consequences” (49).  And after providing his letter to the Japanese, Perry ordered his squadron to move up the bay closer to Yedo (Edo, now Tokyo), “being satisfied that the employment of so large a force in surveying service and so near the capital, and in waters hitherto unknown to foreigners, would produce a decided influence upon the pride and conceit of the government, and cause a more favorable consideration of the President’s letter” (52).

Perry pushed for triumph; in his book Americans in Eastern Asia: A Critical Study of the Policy of the United States with Reference to China, Japan, and Korea in the 19th Century, Tyler Dennett points out that Perry believed “he was laying the foundations for an American commercial empire in Asia and on the Pacific” (Dennett, 1922, 270) and that by opening Japan, he was paving the way to eventual domination of the Pacific by the United States, (273), which otherwise would be obtained by Britain.  With such things on the line, failure was not an option for Perry.


For Further Reading

Weblinks to Primary Source Documents:

(From The Writing and Speeches of Daniel Webster Hitherto Uncollected vol. 2)

Letter from Webster to Aulick (June 10, 1851) (pages 427-429)

(From Millard Fillmore Papers vol. 1)

Letter from Fillmore to Emperor of Japan (May 10, 1851) (pages 344-345)

(Both of the following from the document Correspondence Relative to the Naval Expedition to Japan)

Letter from Conrad to Kennedy (Nov. 5, 1852) (pages 4-9)

Letter from Fillmore to Emperor of Japan (Nov. 13, 1852) (pages 9-11)

On Daniel Webster’s role as Secretary of State:

Shewmaker, Kenneth E. “Daniel Webster and the Politics of Foreign Policy, 1850-1852.” The Journal of American History, 63.2 (1976): 303-315.

Shewmaker, Kenneth E. “Forging the ‘Great Chain’: Daniel Webster and the Origins of American Foreign Policy toward East Asia and the Pacific, 1841-1852.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 129.3 (1985): 225-259.

On Matthew Perry:

Morrison, Samuel Eliot. ‘Old Bruin’: Commodore Matthew C. Perry, 1794-1858. Norwalk: Easton Press, 1990.

Schroeder, John H. Matthew Calbraith Perry: Antebellum Sailor and Diplomat. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

On the expedition itself:

Dennett, Tyler. Americans in Eastern Asia: A Critical Study of the Policy of the United States with reference to China, Japan and Korea in the 19th Century. New York: Macmillan, 1922.

Feifer, George. Breaking Open Japan. New York: Smithsonian Books, 2006.

Jansen, Marius B. “The Opening of Japan.” Japan Review, 2 (1991): 191-202.

Wiley, Peter Booth. Yankees in the Land of the Gods. New York: Viking, 1990.

On Japan and International Law (touched on briefly in the essay):

Anand, R.P. “Family of ‘Civilized’ States and Japan: A Story of Humiliation, Assimilation, Defiance and Confrontation.” Journal of the History of International Law, 5 (2003): 1-75.

Although not mentioned in the essay, a brief but interesting look at Dutch interactions with the Japanese prior to Perry’s arrival:

Chaiklin, Martha. “Monopolists to Middlemen: Dutch Liberalism and American Imperialism in the Opening of Japan.” Journal of World History, 21.2 (2010): 249-269.

And finally, a document containing most of the correspondence between Perry and his superiors:

U.S. Senate. (1855). Correspondence Relative to the Naval Expedition to Japan (33rd Congress, 2nd Session, Ex. Doc. No. 34).  Washington, D.C.