One year earlier (Oct. 1856), a second Opium war had begun between Britain and China over the complications caused by China's refusal to apologize for an incident arising out of the boarding of a harbor craft flying a British flag. In this she was joined by France, smarting over a previous incident involving the murder of a missionary. The position of the U.S., like that of the other interested power, Russia, was to maintain a strict neutrality. By the date of Reed's letter requesting renegotiations, Canton had already been stormed (Dec. 1857) by British troops and a British expedition was soon (Apr. 1858) to sail north to Tientsin to negotiate yet another 'unequal treaty' with China.
Extracts from the letter, which has some archaic phrasing as it is a translation from the Chinese version forwarded to Peking, follows. It may also be noted that though the U.S. is careful to indicate its neutrality, it appears that sympathy lies with his co-negotiators Britain and France.
First, since the signing of the treaties your honorable officials have hindered trade on many, many occasions.
Second, there are many nationals of the present country[i.e., the U.S.] residing in the ports who have had their persons plotted against by murderers who make no distinction between worthy and unworthy, and who are bold enough to cut to pieces or poison. Therefore people are alarmed and very apprehensive.
Third, various imperial commissioners of the present country who have come to handle foreign affairs and trade at the five ports with Chinese Imperial commissioners have repeatedly been insulted, put off, and on several occasions have been unable to gain interviews or answers to state papers.
Fourth, the great discourtesy was last year when, since there was an Imperial autograph letter [from the U.S. government], permission was given to send it by government post to Peking to be presented to the Emperor for inspection. Unexpectedly, it was suddenly returned with the seals broken and was never answered. This is a matter of great discourtesy and people were infuriated.
But mindful that the present country always desires to have continuous friendly relations with China, how could even these grievances large or small postpone a settlement [i.e., renegotiation of the 1844 treaty]? Besides, it [the 'undelivered' letter] proposed mediation between the two parties [i.e., U.S. mediation of the hostilities between Britain and China] which might have saved the capital city the catastrophe of a war and the people any anxiousness of danger. The present minister [Reed himself] was certainly at one with his countrymen in this hope.
The present high official [Reed] several months ago sent two or three communications to His Excellency Governor General Yeh [the anti- foreign governor-general at Canton who had precipitated the second Opium war] asking for an interview with him in order to deliver personally an Imperial autograph letter and ask him to send it to Peking . . . and to discuss amicably various matters, large and small, of interest to our respective countries; but His Excellency Governor General Yeh would never receive him. By defeating our plan to arbitrate between the two sides, he brought about a clash of arms. When calamity came upon his country, he allowed the city to be lost and taken over by others, was arrested hands down, and placed in confinement [Yeh was brought to India as a prisoner where he died in 1859].
This kind of conduct the present high official has experienced and observed, but greatly fears that the Emperor living in the depths of his cabinet may not fully know everything that develops in distant parts. Now the French and English military and civil officials control the forces at Canton. The people in the city want peace and there is no more resistance. As soon as merchants are allowed to open trade the Imperial Commissioners of the two countries will go direct to the Court to try again to negotiate in order to avoid subsequent concern. They have invited the present minister [Reed] and the Russian Imperial Commissioner to negotiate with them. All want peace and justice for everybody, which accords with the humanity of the Holy Commandment of Jesus.
As to the present country [i.e., the U.S.] and Great Britain, their intercourse is of the longest standing. Since they are of a common origin, their books in the same script and their speech of the same sound, they always cooperate. Since both have a great mutual trade in China, which is daily becoming more prosperous for both, he [Reed] must ask that there be no interference with it.
As to France and the present country, from ancient times to the present there have been cordial relationships without any barrier, as examination of a long series of past events will prove. But France and China previously established the ruling that no Catholic priests coming to the country be harmed without cause, and to her surprise, last year a missionary was arrested, tortured, and cruelly put to death. Now a minister has come to Canton specially instructed to redress the grievance and forgive the sin, thus it is apparent that the emperor of that country [i.e., France] is benevolent and princely.
The present minister deeply hopes that China will lay a solid foundation for friendship with western countries by negotiating treaties, If treaties of amity are firmly established China and the world will never be worried with spoliation of their frontiers. The present minister has been sent to renew an old friendship and negotiate regulations. Although in the present document it is not convenient to itemize what the treaties should be, our various western countries have no ulterior motives nor does any one country demand special favor. While the present country agrees in general with the other three countries, still the present country's grievances ought naturally to be set forth. As soon as convenient they must be explained item by item and investigated clearly.
As one instance, the goods stolen from merchants of the present country several years ago should, by right, be indemnified. Although these merchants are not smugglers they have suffered losses; while engaged peacefully in business, encountering the fighting had not the slightest concern, they have never been protected.
Now to secure indemnity for their losses, it is necessary to notify the Grand Secretaries [high officials at the Imperial court] that on this occasion he has gone direct to Shanghai in the hope of a Patent by Command for one or two ministers with full powers, of rank equal to that of the present official, to come to the port to meet him and suitably discuss matters, large and small, by March 30, 1858. Should there be any desire to shift the place to Kwangtung [Canton] as has been proposed in previous years or to some other port further removed from Peking, the present minister after much thought must regard this as an evasion of treaty negotiations. But mindful that the Grand Secretaries of China are the pillars of the state [this is a term more correctly applied to the more powerful Grand Councilors, who were closest to the emperor and responsible for all major policy-making], he is sure they will not reject this excellent proposal.
If they fail to arrive by the appointed day, the present minister as soon thereafter as convenient, without further notice, without delay, and without further explanation will either himself take up residence near the capital, or with the Imperial Commissioners of the other western countries go to reside near the capital, or wait until he memorializes the throne (i.e., the Chinese emperor) to see what instructions there are. If this takes place how can China take exception and how can she prevent it?
The negotiations were eventually concluded and resulted in the U.S.-China Treaty of Tientsin of June 17, 1858.
[Ref.: Earl Swisher, China's Management of the American Barbarians (1972), pp. 379-82. Copyright Hippocrene Books. Quoted with permission of the publisher]