The Silk Road Roots of America and the American Roots of the New Silk Road

Upon reading this title, I can only imagine a reader asking: How could a young nation that only existed since 1776 be responsible for an idea which has its roots in a program that dates back over two millenia?

Of course I am not implying that that America created the ancient Silk Road, but what I am implying is that in principle both the 2000 year old Silk Road which brought China into commercial/diplomatic and cultural contact with Asia, Persia, Europe, Russia and even Africa operated from the same universal principle which guided the founding of the United States of America. This principle was identified by Nicholas of Cusa as the Concordance of Opposites which America expressed not only in it’s constitutional roots but also in the physical economic growth that shaped its development for over 250 years. Never before had a nation been founded upon both the inalienable rights of the individual alongside the welfare of the whole. While this concept was known in western culture as “Natural Law”, it was known in the east as the Confucian idea of a “Mandate of Heaven”.

When viewed from this standpoint, it becomes evident that not only does America’s birth derive from the same principle which created the Silk Road, but that China’s 1911 revolutionary republican rebirth and the current Belt and Road Initiative which is transforming the face of the globe (aka “the New Silk Road”) find their roots firmly grounded, as the title of this report implies… in America’s constitutional tradition.

William Gilpin

Many of the earliest and strongest advocates of the construction of an American transcontinental railway believed whole-heartedly that China and America shared a common destiny to lift the world out of poverty. A leading figure behind the transcontinental railway, William Gilpin, was recorded saying

in 1852:

“Salvation must come to America from China, and this consists in the introduction of the “Chinese constitution” … The political life of the United States is through European influences, in a state of complete demoralization, and the Chinese Constitution alone contains elements of regeneration. For this reason, a railroad to the Pacific is of such vast importance, since by its means the Chinese trade will be conducted straight across the North American continent. This trade must bring in its train Chinese civilization. All that is usually alleged against China is mere calumny spread purposefully, just like those calumnies which are circulated in Europe about the United States”.

In this spirit, Gilpin organized an important rail convention in Missouri in 1849 to promote a transcontinental railway, which featured in its resolutions a call to unite Europe with China through the Americas and going so far as to christen the project the “Asiatic and European Railway”. The resolution read in part:

“Let it be resolved that, whereas the Almighty has placed the territories of the American Union in the center between Asia and Europe and the Route of the Asiatic and European Railway” through the heart of our national domain, it is our duty to the human family to prosecute, vigorously, through its new channel, that supreme commerce between the oriental nations and the nations of the Atlantic, which history proves to have existed in all ages, and to be necessary to keep alive comity, science and civilisation among mankind”.

Asa Whitney

One of Gilpin’s most powerful co-thinkers during these years was a businessman named Asa Whitney, who arguably did more to get the momentum moving for the railway’s construction than anyone else. Having returned from a two year business venture in China in 1844, Whitney devoted all of his time and resources into popularizing the project, stating in an 1849 report to Congress:

“During a residence of nearly two years in Asia I collected all the information within my reach … with a starving, destitute population of 250,000,000 on the one side of us [in Europe], and all Asia on the other side with 700,000,000 souls still more destitute [in China], seemed to demand the accomplishment of this great work, this great and important change for the benefit of the entire human family.”

In response to the warm welcome the Chinese were receiving from America during these years, and the hopeful economic alliance of both nations, an 1853 plaque now installed in the Washington monument was gifted to America from leading Chinese merchants, with the etched prose taken from Qing geographer Xu Jiyu’s 1849 work A Short Account of the Oceans Around Us: “Of all the famous Westerners of ancient and modern times, can Washington be placed in any position but first?”

America’s slide into civil war halted the momentum of the transcontinental railway by many years. By the 1860s, Gilpin, who had also served as Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard, was appointed to become Colorado’s first territorial governor, working closely with Secretary of State William Seward to keep the West free of slavery’s expansion. By 1868 Seward announced the Seward-Burlingham Treaty with China (Burlingham being the American Consul to Beijing and long time ally of Senator Charles Sumner), based on free immigration, reciprocal access to education for citizens living in the others’ country, and “favored nation status” for trade with China. From the moment he was appointed as Consul by Lincoln in 1861, Ansom Burlingham had worked vigorously to reverse the pro-Opium foreign policy that had dominated America’s relations with China.

Senator Sumner expressed his understanding of America’s connection with China and the Trans-continental railroad during his 1867 speech in defense of the Alaska Purchase:

“To unite the East of Asia with the West of America is the aspiration of commerce now as when the English navigator (Meares) recorded his voyage. Of course, whatever helps this result is an advantage. The Pacific railroad is such an advantage; for, though running westward, it will be, when completed, a new highway to the East.” 

Sumner worked with both Seward and Burlingham it was due to their alliance that many young chinese students were brought to America after the Civil War, including a young revolutionary named Sun Yat-sen, who came to America in 1879 to train himself and his allies in political economy and American constitutional law.

Painting depicting final moments of Alaska Purchase with William Seward seated and Russian Ambassador Stoekl standing near the globe

With the ouster of Lincoln’s allies from power after the assassination of President Garfield in 1880, however, the stage was set for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which overthrew Seward’s treaty and many of the efforts to create a new global system based upon US-China cooperation. In spite of that setback, their efforts continued.

After 1882, Gilpin continued to give hundreds of speeches, and published a widely-read book in 1890 titled The Cosmopolitan Railway, in which he forecast the eventual spread of railways around the world which he believed would usher in a new era of win-win cooperation:

“They will continue to expand their work to [the] Bering Straits, where all the continents are united. This will extend itself along … the oriental Russian coasts into China. To prolong this unbroken line of cosmopolitan railways along the latitudinal plateau of Asia, to Moscow and to London, will not have long delay. … The whole area and all the populations of the globe will be thus united and fused by land travel and railway.”

Speaking of China, Gilpin stated: “The ancient Asiatic colossus, in a certain sense, needed only to be awakened to new life, and European Culture finds a basis there on which it can build future reforms.”

Gilpin’s latter years were spent in Denver, Colorado, where he made the state a hub for railway construction and engineering expertise. Gilpin was directly responsible for helping Colorado rail magnate William Jackson Palmer build the Denver-Rio Grande Railway which made Denver a rail capital of the world. It was while in Denver, raising funds and studying railroads, that Sun Yat-sen learned of the success of the Chinese revolution in 1912. Thirty years later, Denver was chosen as the location to launch the sale of a stamp which featured Sun Yat-sen and Abraham Lincoln, former Presidents of their respective nations, with the caption “Of the People, By the People, For the People” upon which Sun Yat-sen modelled his Three Principles of the People – “民族, 民權, 民生”, which roughly translates as “A nation of the People, government by the People, for the People’s welfare” – which also appears on the stamp.

Image: Sun Yat Sen’s rail plans for China published in his 1919 International Development of China called for 10 000 km of rail, 100 000 km of roads, ports, mines and industrial sovereignty. All this was finally accomplished with the advent of Xi Jinping’s age of the Belt and Road

Sun Yat-sen’s designs for Chinese rail development were published in his 1919 report, International Development of China, featuring tens of thousands of kilometers of rail, as well as dozens of ports and transportation corridors, opening China up by sea and rail with the international community. Buried for decades, it was revived only in recent years as a guiding force behind what has now become known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

Forecasting an interconnected Eurasian railway system and US-Asia alliance, Sun Yat-sen echoed the spirit of Gilpin, Seward and Whitney, famously stating in his 1917 treatise:

“The world has been greatly benefited by the development of America as an industrial and a commercial Nation. So a developed China with her four hundred millions of population, will be another New World in the economic sense. The nations which will take part in this development will reap immense advantages. Furthermore, international cooperation of this kind cannot but help to strengthen the Brotherhood of Man.”

With the Belt and Road Initiative creating transport infrastructure across the world, China has not only begun to accomplish the grand designs laid by its first president, but has also revived the global dream of Abraham Lincoln’s allies when they planned and constructed the American transcontinental railway.


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