James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Consequa, [10 February 1814]

From Consequa

[10 February 1814]
The petition of Consequa, a
Hong Merchant of the City of
Canton in China


That your Petitioner has for many years had extensive dealings in Commerce with the Subjects of the United States.

That from the correct and honorable deportment of many amongst them he was led to give them Credits for large amount.

That whilst Trade was flourishing, he heard no Complaints from them, and many returned to China and made good their engagements, and others remitted his property to him, and his losses were no greater, than he could well bear.

Of late years, however he has been able to obtain returns in a very trifling proportion to the extent of the Capital, which he has thus confided to American Traders.

Some have applied the large Sums of his property in their hands to other Branches of Commercial Speculation, in which they have been unsuccessfull, and are utterly unable to pay him.

Many who do not labour under inability to pay their debts, or who do not acknowledge that they are unable, object to pay them, as he thinks upon frivolous grounds, and involve the Claims upon them in tedious litigation.1

When such Debtors come to, or reside in China, he cannot claim the aid of the Laws of the Imperial Dynasty in his behalf. They prohibit such confidence, as he has placed in Subjects of the United States, and he would not presume to avow to the Chief of a great Nation that he has infringed the Laws of his own Empire, but in the full consciousness that he has been guilty of nothing disloyal, or injurious in act or intention towards it, whilst to honourable minds, he thinks his Claims would be strengthened by this Circumstance.2

Some resi[s]t payment of their Debt⟨s⟩ contending inferior quality of the Goods, which he has supplied. He always admitted and desired inspection of his Goods before purchase, and his Debtors being professed Merchants in the articles, ought to have possessed, and exercised due skill, and knowledge respecting them.

He does not presume to solicit your Excellency’s protection and consideration, but in as far as may accord with Justice, and the Laws of the United States, they being so far, and so greatly celebrated for their equal protection of the Rich, and of the Poor, and for their dealing equal measure to their own Citizen, and to the Alien.

Your Petitioner is a Stranger of a far distant Country; he knows not what observances are exacted by the American Laws, and is too distant to be able to afford explanation, and proofs where they are wanted, and many years must elapse before he can be heard for himself through very imperfect Channels.3

The scope of his application to your Excellency is for your protection, and countenance in asscerting and claiming his rights in conformity to your Laws, and where an appeal to Courts of Justice becomes necessary, that the forms and proceedings which have been devised for the security of Man may not be allowed to be wrested to his injury, a perversion to which the best are liable.4

The Persons whom he has appointed to present this his humble Petition, will be furnished with all necessary accounts and vouchers of his Clai⟨ms⟩ which are to a great-amount, and of which if h⟨e⟩ does not obtain reembursement, the substance and happiness of his household, and his Commercial credit and reputation must be ruined. The integrity of the American name must also remain forever stained, in a Country, where it had risen so high in estimation as to have obtained credit and trust of Property,5 the Petitioner believes far beyond what is elsewhere customary, and which in this Country was before unknown, both from the institutions of the Empire, and from those Countries which have traded longest, and most extensively with China, having conducted their Commerce upon principles which did not require so great a confidence being reposed on their Subjects.

Initial portion of letter to JM from Chinese merchant Consequa, 10 February 1814.

Translation of RC, RC (in Chinese), and Spanish translation of RC (DNA: RG 59, CD, Canton). RC and translations stamped “Conseequa,” and with his chop. Translation undated; date supplied from the Spanish translation and from a twentieth-century English translation of the RC printed in Lo-Shu Fu, A Documentary Chronicle of Sino-Western Relations, 1644–1820 (2 vols.; Tucson, Ariz., 1966), 1:391–93. The Spanish translation (extensively damaged), which JM may have read, conforms more closely to Fu’s translation of the Chinese RC than does the translation printed above, which JM probably read. For substantial differences in content, see nn.

1Spanish translation has: “Otros hay qe. aunque tengan algun⟨o⟩ lucro, no piensan en restituir. Y si algunos otros pueden restituir; yo pienzo que ellos juzgan que no hay grandes motivos pa. restituirme; penseren qe. se decida delante del Mandarin” (There are others who, though they have made some profit, do not think of repayment. And if some others are able to do so, I think they judge there are no great reasons to repay me; they think that the matter will be decided before the Mandarin).

While in this passage the English translation probably read by JM does not appear to convey the meaning of the Chinese text, it does capture the situation that Consequa (1759–1823) had to contend with in the United States. At least as early as 1805, he attempted with mixed success to collect from his American debtors through legal action in U.S. courts. His agents included John Jacob Astor and Charles Jared Ingersoll. Some of the debtors responded to these collection efforts by obtaining an order of attachment on Consequa’s property in the hands of twenty-one Philadelphia merchants, which prevented them from paying any debts to him for more than a year beginning in 1808. In at least two cases, debtors filed suits alleging that Consequa had supplied them with poor quality teas, and were awarded damages that lessened but did not eliminate their debt. By 1813 Consequa was forced to arrange a payment plan with one of his own foreign creditors, the British East India Company. Additional litigation in the United States did nothing to stop the deterioration of his business affairs, and he died insolvent (Frederic D. Grant Jr., “The Failure of the Li-ch’uan Hong: Litigation as a Hazard of Nineteenth Century Foreign Trade,” American Neptune 48 [1988]: 243–60). For the hong merchant guild, see PJM-PS, description begins Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison: Presidential Series (7 vols. to date; Charlottesville, Va., 1984–). description ends 6:634 n. 2.

2Spanish translation has: “Los Americanos que vienen à china, i habitan en Canton; no pueden ser llevados à juicio del Mandarin por Consecua porque las Leyes de china prohiben à sus vasallos tener pleitos con Estrangeros. Por tanto humildamente suplico al Rey de los Estados unidos que no estrañe q⟨ue⟩ yo me presente en su presencia; antes qe. a los tribun⟨a⟩les Chinos pues esto no es quebrantar la ley Chinesa, sino conformarse con ella” (The Americans who come to China and live in Canton cannot be taken to the Mandarin’s court by Consequa, because the laws of China prohibit its subjects from suing foreigners. Therefore I humbly beg the King of the United States not to find it strange that I present myself to him, rather than to the Chinese courts, because this is not breaking the Chinese law, but conforming to it).

3Spanish translation has: “Y seguram⟨en⟩te pasaran algunos años, antes qe. me llegue la resolucion de este ⟨a⟩sunto” (And surely some years will pass before the resolution of this matter reaches me).

4Spanish translation has: “El e⟨xcu⟩so de esta presentacion, es unicamente suplica ⟨del⟩ Rey de los Estados unidos qe. me administre justicia ⟨sin⟩ dar oidos à lenguas maliciosas, sino que […] ⟨se⟩gun las leyes sabias de su Reyno” (The reason for this petition is solely to beg the King of the United States to do me justice without listening to malicious tongues, but […] according to the wise laws of his kingdom).

5In the Spanish translation, the conclusion of the letter appears as follows: “Perdida la fama, nadie los creerà: y sin credito en qe. lugar podran los Americanos hacer su comercio?

“En todo lugar lo mas principal de los comerciantes es el credito: en China sucede lo mismo. Yo consecua antiguamente crei à los Americanos, por eso les fié mis generos, y si ahora no me restituyen, y me hacen desgraciado con toda mi familia, despues quien los creerà? Quien querra contratar con los Vasallos del Rey de los Estados unidos?” (If that reputation is lost, no one will trust them, and without credit, where can the Americans do business? The most important thing for merchants everywhere is credit; the same is true in China. I Consequa formerly trusted the Americans, and therefore sold them goods on credit; if now they do not repay me, and cause me to be disgraced along with all my family, who will trust them? Who will want to contract with the subjects of the King of the United States?).

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