The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Harris, Townsend

Edition of 1920. See also Townsend Harris on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

HARRIS, Townsend, American merchant and diplomatist, of Welsh descent and of Revolutionary stock, the youngest of five children: b. Sandy Hill, N. Y., 4 Oct 1804; d. New York city, 25 Feb, 1878. He received his education at the village school and academy. From 1817 to 1848 he was in business in New York city, continuing his self-culture by continuous and critical reading of the best literature, learning also the French, Spanish and Italian languages; was member of the board of education and in 1846-47 its president. He was the practical founder of the New York Free Academy, now the College of the City of New York, and in many ways was a typically useful citizen. He never married. In 1848 he went to California and during the following six years made trading voyages to China and the Dutch and English Indies, becoming thoroughly acquainted with the manifold Oriental varieties of human nature. He acted for a time as American vice-consul at Ningpo. He was appointed consul-general to Japan and on the United States steamship San Jacinto arrived at Shimoda, his future dwelling place (and now noted for its stone quarries), where the flag of the United States was hoisted 4 Sept 1856. From the first Mr. Harris spoke the truth as against the constant deceit and prevarication of the corrupt officials of the Yedo Shogunate, demanding the courtesies due to an accredited envoy of a civilized power and refusing to deliver the President's letter to any one but the Shogun in Yedo and to him personally. Unbacked by a single ship or man, and with his secretary only, after prolonged negotiations lasting 18 months, he made a triumphal progress to Yedo, and standing erect received personal audience of the Shogun in the palace. Then began four months' instruction of these political hermits in the methods of modern international law and procedure. He concluded the treaty and received the promise of signature by the Premier, without regard to anything happening in China. Nevertheless the arrival of Commodore Tatnall with two American men-of-war, bringing news of the humiliation of the Chinese emperor and court, undoubtedly had its influence on the Japanese. Mr. Harris urged the importance of having the treaty signed without a moment's delay, and the Premier Ii dispatched commissioners to affix their signatures, and soon after an embassy to the United States, for which reason, chiefly, Ii was assassinated in Yedo, 23 March 1860. The Harris treaty secured the right of trade, residence and of missionary operations and teachings. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, N, Y. One of the important buildings of the College of the City of New York, the ‘Townsend Harris Hall,’ is named after him. In Japan, the name of no foreigner is more highly honored. In 1918, the cornerstone of a monument in his honor was laid at Kanagawa. Mr. Harris has always been very highly thought of by the Japanese, and is still the subject of much praise and appreciative writings by Japanese authors. His journals with comment and biography were published in 1896.

Author of ‘Townsend Harris, First American Envoy in Japan’.