The President and the Stowaway: Abraham Lincoln Meets “The” Japanese

by Dr. Jason H. Silverman


With the exception of a brief trip to Niagara Falls Abraham Lincoln never left the United States. And yet no one would deny that today he is a global figure. In many ways, Abraham Lincoln is larger than life both within and without the United States, including the many countries of Asia. During his lifetime, however, he met very few Asians, the nonwhite group with whom he had the least acquaintance and about whom he had the least opportunity to think. His relationship with Asians began quite inauspiciously, if not downright unpleasantly, before he altered his opinions and before his legacy became time honored.

Speaking to the Phi Alpha Society of Illinois College on February 11, 1859, Lincoln made one of his few remarks about the peoples of Asia. For one who had never been to Asia, or for that matter, barely out of the United States, Lincoln prejudicially claimed that intellectual curiosity and scientific progress was the exclusive domain of the Western world. He recognized Asia as the birthplace of “the human family,” and concluded that Asians, like African Americans, were indeed human beings, but he believed that Asia was an ancient, crumbling civilization whose time had long since passed. “The human family originated, as is thought, somewhere in Asia,” Lincoln said, “and have worked their way principally Westward. Just now, in civilization, and the arts, the people of Asia are entirely behind those of Europe; those of the East of Europe behind those of the West of it; while we, here in America, think we discover, and invent, and improve, faster than any of them.” Recognizing that perhaps he was on a bit of thin ice, Lincoln continued, “They may think this is arrogance; but they can not deny that Russia has called on us to show her how to build steam-boats and railroads—while in older parts of Asia, they scarcely know that such things as S.Bs & RR.s exist. In anciently inhabited countries, the dust of ages—a real downright old-fogyism—seems to settle upon, and smother the intellects and energies of man. It is in this view that I have mentioned the discovery of America as an event greatly favoring and facilitating useful discoveries and conventions [when compared to Asia].” While neither respecting nor appreciating the cultures of Asia, Lincoln, like many nineteenth century nationalists and politicians since, pandered to his audiences by emphasizing the attributes and virtues of the United States. At the expense of degrading other peoples, it was Lincoln’s intention to convince his fellow countrymen that their nation would be next on “the great stage of history,” a most successful strategy to flatter voters during his ascent into national prominence.[1]

Lincoln, generally speaking, was pessimistic about the possibility of white people accepting nonwhites as equals. Often he spoke in flattering praise of white Americans’ technological and moral superiority while denigrating peoples of color, peoples with whom he had little actual contact. But Lincoln was a private person by nature and a political person by appearance. Thus, how much of this represents the inner heart and mind of Lincoln may be a different matter.

Assuming, however, that his public record reflects his private sentiments, Lincoln believed the nations of Asia to be backward. In this regard, Lincoln surely may be considered an ethnocentric individual who measured other cultures and subcultures through the prism of his own and found them wanting; for him, what was right for white America was right for the world. The American system of constitutional government, and its accompanying economic progress, remained his most cherished ideals, ones that other nations and peoples should emulate if they could. And Lincoln knew that few politicians then had gained power by believing otherwise. Put simply, Lincoln constructed a worldview that accepted diversity, but in a condescending manner. Whereas he thought very little about the traditions and fates of nonwhites, he gave extensive consideration to the future of European and Asian Americans and immigrants and their place in the United States. Paradoxically, Lincoln’s understanding of whiteness would move him to a broader interpretation of such concepts as equality, human rights, and natural rights than it would most of his contemporaries. In the end, his very concern for the institutions and freedom of the white race would lead him to a deeper appreciation for the rights of nonwhites.

But Lincoln had little time to reflect on his ideas and philosophy about Asia once he entered the national political arena. By July 1860, political ally, Thomas Swan was telling candidate Abraham Lincoln about the vogue for “Japaneseism . . . [a] modern ism.” In part it was because of the highly publicized politics involved accompanying the formal presentation of the Japanese ambassadors at the James Buchanan White House, where, the National Intelligencer reported, “much excitement prevailed through the city all the morning, from a hope of having at least a passing view of these distinguished visitors.” Another Lincoln friend, Orville H. Browning, told Abraham Lincoln, “of the politicians there [are] in this city very little care or talk about party or candidates [exists] … the Japanese overshadow.” This interest in the previously isolationist Japanese was because they were virtually unknown. Thus, the exotic and the curious merged for Americans in the nation’s capital.[2]

A president cannot exist in a vacuum whether he has firsthand knowledge of a people or not. And Lincoln’s diplomatic contact with the Japanese early in his administration was cordial. In response to a Japanese request to postpone portions of the Ansei Treaties[3] Lincoln responded with characteristic tact, beginning his letter “Great and Good Friend” and then ensuring that his representative Townshend Harris, the first minister to Japan, would be instructed to “proceed not less from a just regard for the interested and prosperity of your Empire than from considerations affecting our own welfare and honor. . . . I do not permit myself to doubt that these views will meet with Your Majesty’s approval.” Lincoln ended his letter with the utmost respect for the Japanese leaders regarding them as an equal and “wishing abundant prosperity and length of years to the great state over which you preside, I pray God to have your Majesty always in His safe and holy keeping.”[4]

Soon, however, Lincoln would finally, and actually, meet a Japanese person. The career of Joseph Heco, born Hikozo Hamada, spans a myriad of ambitions, accomplishments, and obstacles during a period of the expanding commercial influence of the United States and the modernization of Japan. Born in 1837, Heco grew up without a father in a small coastal village in Japan. When he was thirteen, Heco stowed away on a Japanese junk, the Eirikimaru, which was hit by a typhoon and blown far out to sea. Heco and the crew of the damaged ship spent fifty days adrift before being rescued by the American ship Auckland bound for San Francisco. According to Payson Jackson Treat’s classic study of Japan’s relationship with the United States (1922), Heco and the sixteen other survivors were the first Japanese to reach California.

Once in San Francisco, Heco was eventually taken in by Beverly C. Sanders who at the time was the Collector of the Port of San Francisco. Under Sanders’ tutelage, Heco remained in the United States studying English and working at a number of manual and administrative jobs. When Sanders returned to his family’s hometown of Baltimore, Heco went east with him. Intentionally groomed to represent Western interests in Japan, Heco would establish business contacts that would endure throughout his entire life. For instance, at some point Heco caught the eye of California Senator William H. Gwin[5] who would introduce Heco to a number of influential politicians both in California and in the nation’s capital, including Secretary of State Lewis Cass. Indeed, thanks to Gwin, Heco met with Presidents Pierce and Buchanan before becoming the first person of Asian descent to meet with Abraham Lincoln. Heco soon become naturalized as the first Japanese American citizen in United States history. When he ultimately returned to his homeland he worked as an interpreter for the United States Consul at Yokohama before creating Japan’s first newspaper, among many other successful business pursuits.[6]


California Senator William H. Gwin

But, for our purposes Heco’s story begins on a Washington, D.C. spring day in 1862, March 12. With Senator Gwin as his mentor, Heco was hoping to secure a job. Ideally, he had hoped to become an interpreter at the newly-created American Consulate at Kanagawa, near an insignificant fishing village called Tokyo. Gwin and Heco sought an audience with President Lincoln, who at the time was busy with a specially called Cabinet meeting to assess the impact of the recently fought Battle of Hampton Roads between the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (refitted from the old USS Merrimack.)

Waiting in the Presidential Mansion office for Lincoln to have a spare moment, by his own account, Heco trembled. In his homeland, the Tycoon[7] would be in a very bad mood when rumor said that his capitol would need defending against insurgent forces like the Confederates because the recent battle of the ironclads had resulted in a draw. As he waited, Heco pondered meeting the “Chief of the Nation.” “The appearance of everything here,” wrote Heco, “seems against the truth…Only the building is large and fine, being of marble, and there are also iron railings. (For in my country, then, iron was very scarce and exceedingly precious.) But there is no grand gate, no guard of soldiers, not even police outside.” Heco expected that the American president would be, in essence, American royalty and was quite surprised to see otherwise. “And as to the rooms of office,” he wrote, “they are furnished with silk curtains and cushions on the chairs, but beyond that there is nothing to warrant the idea that they are those such a great man as the ‘Chief of the Nation’ should live in. And then again the dress of the man, — just a plain black suit quite apiece with the one my old gentleman [Senator Gwin] wears. And yet he tells me this is the Greatest Man of the Nation! What can he mean?”[8]

Given the simplicity and humility of the Lincoln White House, Heco had a hard time believing that Lincoln was indeed the President of the United States. “If he were the Chief of the Nation,” Heco observed, “surely [Senator Gwin], officer though he is, could not approach him in this easy manner and sit with him and talk with him as if he were his equal.” Such a thing could not even be imagined in Japan. “For in my country,” Heco lamented, “why even the smallest district official has more pomp and splendor about his person than this man has! . . . How could it be that the head man of a mighty nation like the United States of America should live in such a simple manner without . . . grandeur, nay without even, guards or attendants?”[9]

Finally, Heco’s moment came. He was accompanied into President Lincoln’s office by Secretary of State William Seward. “We entered the President’s office and found him seated in an arm chair titled back on to two hind legs,” wrote Heco, “with his ankles crossed over each on the desk in front of him and his spectacles up on his forehead. He was listening patiently to an army officer who sat nearby with lots of documents in his hands and lots more on the corner of the desk beside him. As we entered the President glanced at us, and Mr. Seward pointed me to a chair and told me to be seated.” Lincoln continued his business with the colonel who apparently had been disciplined by his commanding officer and who requested that Lincoln intervene in the matter. Heco was impressed by the manner in which Lincoln conducted his affairs. He was at once compassionate yet firm, and while he listened intently to all that the colonel had to say, in the end he refused to intervene on his behalf. Yet even in his denial of the request, and in the midst of organized chaos in his office, Lincoln exhibited the folksy, down-home charm and good nature of which Heco stood in awe. Lincoln managed to weave in a story and a yarn before dismissing the officer outright and sending him on his way. As he observed all around him, Heco could not but compare the tenor and tone of the Lincoln administration to that of his homeland. And, in that comparison, Heco found himself in complete admiration of Abraham Lincoln.

“After the man had disappeared,” Heco remembered, “the President got up and walked towards us, and we rose from our seats.” Seward then introduced Heco as a “Japanese gentleman” and Lincoln then “stretched out a huge hand, saying he was glad to meet one coming from such far off place as Japan. He shook hands with me very cordially, and then he made a great many inquiries about the position of affairs in [Japan].” Having never met an Asian, let alone someone from Japan, Lincoln was extremely curious and eager to learn all about the politics, culture, and history of Heco’s homeland. Indeed, Lincoln, the former prairie lawyer, asked so many questions and apparently devoted so much more time to the conversation with Heco than he had anticipated that when the conversation was finished, Lincoln had Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, and Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, among others, virtually standing in line waiting to talk with him.

Heco was impressed by Lincoln’s physical appearance as well as his genuine humility. “[Lincoln] was tall, lean, with large strong hands,” Heco recorded, “darkish hair streaked with grey, slight side-whiskers and clean shaved about the mouth. He was dressed in a simple black frock coat. It was said that he was a most sincere and kind person, greatly beloved by all those who came in contact with him, and most especially by his party and friends.”[10] While flattering, Heco was only partial correct in his appraisal. Throughout his administration Lincoln would be plagued by criticism and opposition, oftentimes severe, from members of his own Republican Party. That he was able so adroitly to withstand all the various factions consistently confronting him was a tribute to the Lincoln personality that Heco was able to observe and experience.

Because he did not keep a diary or journal, there are no records of Lincoln’s impression of Heco or the meeting. But if Heco’s reminisces are to be accepted, President Lincoln learned much about Japan through the many questions that he asked and the comments that he made. While Heco never again saw or heard from Lincoln he did stay in touch with Seward, who wrote him a particularly poignant letter after the assassination of Lincoln. “I thank you for remembering me among the troubled concerns yet in the midst of the pleasing climes of your far away native Home,” Seward wrote. “Our father in Heaven has allowed our country to be afflicted, but He has nevertheless remembered mercy, and our nation is rescued from danger. He has been pleased to visit me with trials, but he has graciously enabled me to pass through them. Let us in all things submit ourselves to his will. He is omniscient and omnipotent, we are blind and powerless.”[11] Remembering fondly his trip to the Lincoln White House, Heco maintained a correspondence with Seward, who unlike Lincoln, had traveled extensively in the world and remained ever curious about the state of affairs in Japan.

About a year after meeting Abraham Lincoln, Heco returned to Japan, where he became a prominent journalist, government official, and businessman. In 1863, Heco established a trading firm in Japan and also began his publishing career. He published Japan’s first newspaper, Kaiai Shimbum (The Overseas News) in 1864, which earned him the reputation as the “father of Japanese journalism.” His knowledge of English and of foreign customs, and his belief in the value of newspapers, proved instrumental in the growing diplomatic community.


Example of a mid 19th century Japanese newspaper

But, it was through Heco’s writings and journalism over a thirty year period that his homeland learned all about Lincoln. And, conversely, Heco contributed significantly to an increased American understanding of Japan. His next door neighbor in Yokohama was Francis Hall, who arrived in Japan as a correspondent for Horace Greeley’s influential New York Tribune. Hall’s articles were a major source of American knowledge about Japan at that time, and since he and Heco often traveled together, and since it is known that Lincoln often read the Tribune, it is reasonable to assume that that Hall’s articles not only informed Americans of events in Japan, but, until his death, the President of the United States as well.

Had he lived longer, Lincoln would have been amazed at the influence that he had on a twenty-five year old Japanese former stowaway whose unusual and meandering path had led him to the White House. Until the day Heco died in 1897, he extolled the virtues of the former rail-splitter and emphasized the need to understand and emulate the compassion and resolve of the sixteenth president of the United States. By so doing, he became instrumental in the fostering and spreading of Lincoln’s legacy in a region of the world Lincoln could only have imagined. Lincoln surely would have been surprised to see how important he would become to Japan and other developing nations in Southeast Asia especially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And it all began when he finally met a person of Asian descent in person.[12]


Joseph Heco


[1] Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, February 11, 1859, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols, ed., Roy P. Basler, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), III: 356-363. (Hereafter referred to as CW).

[2] Thomas T. Swan to Abraham Lincoln, June 15, 1860, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, /malhome.html; “Official Reception of the Japanese,” National Intelligencer, 1860, p. 637; Orville H. Browning to Abraham Lincoln, June 29, 1860, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress,

 [3] The Ansei Treaties were a series of treaties signed with the James Buchanan administration that called for, among other things, the exchange of diplomatic agents; the opening to foreign trade the ports of Edo, Kobe, Nagasaki, Niigata, and Yokohama; and the ability of foreign citizens to live and trade at will in those ports with only the opium trade being prohibited.

[4] To the Tycoon of Japan, August 1, 1861, CW, IV: 468-469.

[5] William McKendree Gwin was an American medical doctor and politician, serving in elected office in Mississippi and California. In California he shared the distinction, along with John C. Fremont of being the state’s first U.S. senators. Gwin was well known in California, Washington, D.C., and in the South as a strong Southern sympathizer. After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Gwin helped organize unsuccessful secret discussions between Lincoln’s new Secretary of State, William H. Seward and some Southern leaders in hopes of finding a compromise that would avoid the dissolution of the Union.

[6] Heco’s fascinating life is recorded in his published autobiography, The Narrative of a Japanese: What he has seen and the people he met in the course of the last forty years, 2 volumes, ed., James Murdoch, M.A. (Yokohama: Yokohama Printing and Publishing, 1892, 1895).

[7] When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 he refused to meet with any of the lesser Japanese officials sent to negotiate with him, instead insisting on meeting with no one other than “a dignitary of the highest rank in the empire.” What Perry perhaps did not understand was that the Japanese Emperor had largely been reduced to a figurehead and that Japan was effectively being run by the Tokugawa family, who held the shogunate at the time. But Japanese officials believed the title did not sound sufficiently impressive, as shogun merely translates to “general of the army” in English. In an effort to create a title that reflected the power and grandeur the country was trying to project when dealing with foreigners, the shogun instead began using the word taikiun with foreigners which is an adaptation of the Chinese word takiun which means “great prince.” The word “taikiun” quickly became “tycoon” in English when Perry brought the word back with him to the United States, first appearing in print in 1857. Among those who used the word repeatedly were two of President Abraham Lincoln’s most trusted aides — John Hay and John Nicolay. The pair regularly referred to Lincoln as “the Tycoon”.

[8] Heco, The Narrative of a Japanese, 1:141.

[9] Ibid, 1:142.

[10] The account of Heco meeting Lincoln is found in his Narrative of a Japanese, 1:300-303.

[11] Heco, The Narrative of a Japanese, 2: 78-80. The Joseph Heco Memorial Society continues today to honor his accomplishments and contributions while an extensive collection of the Joseph Heco Papers is housed at Syracuse University.

[12] For more on Lincoln’s lasting legacy in Japan and Asia see Jyotirmaya Tripathy, Sura P. Rath, and William D. Pederson, eds., Abraham Lincoln Without Borders: Lincoln’s Legacy Outside the United States (Delhi: Pencraft International, 2010); and Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton, eds., The Global Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

All images courtesy of the Library of Congress


Dr. Jason H. Silverman is a member of the Scholarly Advisory Group for President Lincoln’s Cottage, and the Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University. His latest book is Lincoln and the Immigrant, a volume in the Concise Lincoln Library published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2015.

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