Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

Sent by President Millard Fillmore, Commodore Matthew C. Perry went on an expedition to Japan in 1853 to persuade, even pressure, Japan to end its policy of isolation and become open to trade and diplomacy with the United States. Japan signed a treaty with the U.S. in 1854, agreeing to trade and an American consulate. The Treaty of Kanagawa was the first by Japan with a Western nation. Among many accomplishments, Commodore Perry devised a naval apprentice system, assisted the Naval Academy, worked to develop naval officers to their fullest potentials, and helped found the New York Naval Lyceum.

Commodore Perry had a long and distinguished career in the United States Navy, with his commanding of ships in both the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848, but was also instrumental at the end of his career in opening Japan to the West.

Perry was asked to travel to Japan in 1852, when President Fillmore sent Perry on a mission to open the ports of Japan for American trade. Perry embarked on his voyage on November 24, 1852, from Norfolk, Virginia.  After making various stops along the way, including at Cape Town and Hong Kong, on July 8, 1853, Perry and his contingent arrived at Uraga.  Despite demands by the Japanese to proceed to the only port open to foreigners at Nagasaki, Perry refused. Perry warned the Japanese that if forced to fight, the Japanese would suffer immense damage and that the Americans would conquer them.

After some delays caused by the illness of Japanese shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and debating what was to be done with the demands of Perry, the Japanese decided to accept his offered letter. Perry was allowed to land near Uraga, at Kurihama. Perry presented his letter to the Japanese delegates, and departed for Hong Kong.

Returning approximately six months later, rather than the year he had promised, Perry landed and after negotiations, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed on March 31, 1854. Perry signed on behalf of America. Signed under threat of force, the Convention contained twelve articles, including a provision for it to be ratified within eighteen months. The treaty was written in English, Japanese, Chinese and Dutch, and the text was eventually ratified by Emperor Komei. The treaty was ratified on February 21, 1855.

Perry earned the nickname or title “Father of the Steam Navy” for his advocacy of modernizing the United States Navy and pushing for wider use of the steam engine.

Perry’s efforts to open Japan to the west for trade and diplomatic relationships after many years of isolation was an important achievement, and his ability to land and present his letter on July 14, 1853, is an important date in American history.

Among others, the treaty provided which ports would be open and contained a provision that Japan would supply the United States with any advantages that Japan might negotiate with any foreign nation in the future.

Perry returned to the United States in 1855 and Congress awarded him the sum of $20,000 for his work in Japan.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.  

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