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Although an ocean and a continent separated the Canton outpost of American trade from the United States Government, the reverberations of the Anglo-Chinese War soon reached Washington. None of the other vicissitudes through which the merchants had passed in far‑off China had made any impression upon the official American consciousness, but once dispatches reached home that England was fighting a war and winning new commercial privileges, Congress demanded that the Government investigate the conditions under which the American traders were operating.
It was not that the China trade had been ignored at home. Ever since the voyage of the Empress of China had first opened up the route to the Far East, the traffic in silks and tea had kept its romantic appeal for all those interested in foreign commerce. New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Salem had been too intimately bound up with the trade's development not to feel a certain kinship with Canton. Many of the mercantile fortunes of these cities were founded upon tea, and Massachusetts had owed its economic revival after the Revolution in a large measure to commerce beyond the Cape of Good Hope. For decades the long, hazardous voyages to the Pacific had constituted the training school for our merchant marine and attracted the most farsighted merchants, the finest ships, and the most able seamen in the country's growing commerce.
The trade with the Northwest Coast, moreover, had led to the discovery of the Columbia River and the first settlements in Oregon. On these events were based America's p176 claim to the Northwest territory, and it was because of the potentialities of the China trade that we refused to abandon our rights to a part of the continent which was at first desired simply as a base for commercial activities in the Pacific. When the Oregon question was debated in Congress in 1822, the Northwest Coast was not thought of as a vast territory to be opened up for settlement by American frontiersmen. It was discussed as the great entrepôt for commerce with China, and it was even suggested that it should be populated with Chinese who might produce goods for the Canton market. A water route across the continent to the Columbia River, with New York, Albany, and Sandusky its post-towns, was the bright prospect held out, not only for American trade with China, but for British trade with India.
Even as late as 1844 these ideas were advanced as the compelling reason for standing by our guns in the long controversy with England, which was finally settled two years later with the acceptance of the forty-ninth parallel as the Northwest boundary. Addressing the Senate, Senator Breese urged support for our claims to the Northwest because developments in China were opening up a rich market for cotton and tobacco which might be shipped to the Far East by the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.a
So, too, had interest in China been awakened by other branches of the commerce. The startling tales of seamen who had fought off treacherous Indian tribes in Nootka Sound were matched by the stories of hardship and danger among the Seal Islands and even more glamorous accounts of adventures in the South Seas. From Canton itself merchants and sea captains brought home unfamiliar tales of a land strange and mysterious. The foreign factories squatting on the river-bank beside the walls of a city which no foreigner p177 was allowed to enter, the haughty mandarins overwhelming the outside barbarians with their celestial scorn, the dignified and open-handed merchants of the co‑hong, whose word was their bond and whose honesty was above reproach, made up a picture of China which had been deeply impressed upon the mind of America.
Tea was a part of every American's daily life and it came from nowhere but China. Nankeens may have been forgotten with New England's growing manufacture of cotton goods; silks and Canton crapes may have somewhat waned in popularity with changing fashions, but they had made Chinese goods familiar throughout the country. The tableware which had replaced the pewter dishes of the colonists actually bore the name of this far‑off country.
Such evidences of American interest in China might be multiplied almost indefinitely. There was the prompt publication in the United States of the journals of Lord Macartney's embassy to the Son of Heaven, the popularity of the accounts of voyages to China published by American travelers, the vogue for curios brought home from Canton, and the exhibition in a New York theater of a Chinese girl whose tightly bound feet created a nine‑day sensation. Then, in 1839, the Chinese Museum of Nathan Dunn was established in Philadelphia. It was a collection of curiosities portraying every phase of life in Canton. Life-size figures in Chinese costumes, models of streets and houses, scenes of manufacturing and farming, examples of handiwork of Chinese artisans, made the thousands of visitors who passed through the Museum more familiar with China than are many Americans to‑day.
Missionary enterprise in the Far East was inaugurated when the Reverend David Abeel and the Reverend Elijah C. Bridgman were sent to Canton in 1829, to be shortly p178 followed by such well-known figures as S. Wells Williams and Dr. Peter Parker. From then on church circles became as interested in China as were commercial circles. The opium smuggling excited tremendous concern for the welfare of the benighted heathen of far Cathay, and throughout the country the discussion raged as to what should be done to bring the Chinese within the fold of Western civilization.
If, despite all this popular interest in things Chinese, no Government action other than the casual appointment of consuls was taken to promote the trade at Canton or to establish more direct relations between Chinese and the United States, the reason is not far to seek. Young America had too many other problems to concern itself officially with anything so far off. The period of the old China trade was primarily a period of national expansion. War and continued quarrels with Great Britain, long-drawn‑out negotiations with France for settlement of American claims against French privateers, the purchase of Louisiana and the acquisition of Florida, endless fighting with the Indians as the frontiersmen pushed steadily westward across the continent, may well have absorbed the interests of those charged with the conduct of foreign policy to the exclusion of anything so remote as our relations with an empire on the other side of the world.
About 1840, there were even more reasons why America should not become greatly excited over problems in the Far East. Controversy with Great Britain over boundaries both in the Northeast and the Northwest had led to a dangerous state of friction between the two countries. But the most pressing question before the United States was its attitude toward Texas, which had broken away from Mexico to become an independent state.1 The annexation p179 issue was becoming all‑important at Washington. The way was being prepared for the Mexican War, and the wonder is that under these conditions even hostilities in China could spur Congress to look so far afield.
Its first intimation of the direction events were taking in China had been the memorial of the eight American merchants resident in Canton, who, in 1839, urged that the United States take common action with Great Britain, France, and Holland to establish a new basis for commercial intercourse. Their idea was to make a direct appeal to Peking for permanent residence of foreign envoys at the imperial court, for a fixed tariff, bonded warehouses, the opening of new ports to trade, compensation for the stoppage of legal trade, and for an agreement that the Chinese should mete out no punishment for the crimes of foreigners more severe than similar offenses would entail under British or American law. Should the Government not favor such a programme, the merchants asked that an American commissioner be sent to China and naval protection accorded their trade.
A few months later, Thomas H. Perkins and a group of Massachusetts merchants in the China trade submitted a somewhat similar memorial, except that the idea of coöperation with the British had been abandoned and a more cautious tone adopted. They, too, urged that a naval force be sent to the Far East, but warned against any action which might lead the Chinese to associate Americans with the British in the impending war. The Government was advised to move slowly in any attempt to negotiate with China, and the idea of sending an envoy to Peking was opposed on the ground that Great Britain had never found such procedure very satisfactory.
These memorials may have been responsible for the dispatch p180 of Commodore Kearny to Canton, but otherwise they had no immediate results. It was obvious that the state of American relations with Great Britain made any form of coöperation between the two countries impossible, even if it had been otherwise desirable. All that Congress felt itself obligated to do in 1840 was to pass two resolutions for inquiries into the Chinese situation, one asking the President to render a full report on American commerce at Canton, and the other requesting a résumé of all relations between China and the United States since the opening of the trade.
In the mean time war had commenced in China, and American opinion soon showed itself bitterly opposed to British policy. Some idea of this may be gained from articles in 'Niles' Register,' which had for many years shown a special interest in Chinese affairs, colored by a bitter anti-British policy. As early as 1822, during one of the periodic quarrels between the English and the Chinese, it assailed England's refusal to abide by Chinese law and pointed out that Great Britain had little right to complain of Chinese severity when its own laws provided hanging for a person convicted of snaring a rabbit. Answering a British suggestion that Canton should be captured to forward the 'acquisition of a barbarous wilderness into the pale of civilization,' it had savagely attacked the idea as a 'tissue of rapine, robbery, religious cant, and hypocrisy.' The theory of forcing trade on China, this article declared, might just as well be applied by the United States to the West Indies, where its interests had clashed with those of Great Britain.
The events of 1840, of course, added even more fuel to this fire, and England's alleged greed for power and cupidity for trade called forth the most bitter comment. China did p181 not commend itself to the editors of 'Niles' Register' by allowing itself to become the quiet victim of Great Britain's attack, but Europe was assailed for standing by with folded arms and 'not even breathing the cheap objection of a manifesto against this new evidence of rapacity.'
This widespread feeling was reflected by Caleb Cushing, who had introduced the first resolution into Congress for an inquiry into the China trade, in a speech he felt called upon to make in explanation of his motives. There was no idea in his proposal, he told Congress, of joining England in the war against China. Quite the contrary. It was the Americans almost alone among the foreigners at Canton who had manifested a proper respect for the laws and public rights of the Chinese Empire 'in honorable contrast with the outrageous misconduct of the British there.' He felt that this was a favorable time to attempt to stabilize trade, 'but God forbid that I should entertain the idea of coöperating with the British Government in the purpose, if purpose it has, of upholding the base cupidity and violence and high-handed infraction of all law, human and divine, which have characterized the operations of the British, individually and collectively, in the seas of China.'
Cushing conveniently forgot that American traders had to a certain extent shared in the opium traffic, but for all its violence his speech probably represented public opinion at home on how such trade was regarded. Having received from the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee assurances that no form of coöperation with the British was contemplated by the Government, he then declared that England could no longer hope, 'if she chose to persevere in the attempt to coerce the Chinese by force of arms to submit to be poisoned with opium in whole provinces, that she is to receive aid or countenance from the United States in that nefarious enterprise.'
p182 Amid this chorus of disapproval for Great Britain's action, one voice was raised in her support. It was that of John Quincy Adams, who had been Secretary of State at the time of the Terranova case. First in a public address before the Massachusetts Historical Society, which the 'North American Review' refused to print, so high was the feeling against Great Britain, and then before Congress, he vigorously advanced the theory that the cause of the war between England and China was not opium, but the latter nation's boasted superiority over every other nation in the world.
Adams pointed out that the fundamental principle of the Chinese Empire was anti-commercial, and that it held itself 'equal to the heavenly host,' while all other nations were considered tributary barbarians which should at all times be 'reverently submissive to the will of its despotic chief.' He refused to accept such a theory, and in thundering terms told his startled audience that 'it is high time that this enormous outrage upon rights of human nature, and upon the first principle of the rights of nations, should cease. . . .'
Declaring that the seizure of the opium was a mere incident in the Anglo-Chinese quarrel and no more the cause of war than the Boston tea party had been the cause of the Revolution, he concluded his address with the emphatic statement that 'the cause of the war is the kotow! — the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind, not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of relation between lord and vassal.'
Adams's views were, of course, far nearer the truth than those of any of his contemporaries. He was better informed on the situation in Canton, and as Secretary of State when Terranova was executed, he must have felt keenly the p183 humiliation which the Americans had undergone at the time of this incident. But in seizing upon the underlying factors which had made the outbreak of hostilities almost inevitable sooner or later, he had chosen to ignore the patent fact that it was the opium seizure which had goaded the British into action. Later he was somewhat to modify his opinion and to speak of the 'questionable morality of the war.' But he continued to maintain, in contrast to those rabid editorial writers who drew a vivid picture of Great Britain forcing opium down the throats of meek and peaceful Chinese at the sword's point, that the struggle was 'in root and substance, for equal rights of independent nations, against the insolent and absurd assumption of despotic supremacy.'2
If it had not been for the critical state of Anglo-American relations — in 1841 war seemed imminent — American opinion would undoubtedly have been more influenced by Adams's stand and there would have been more sympathy for British aims. Some hint of this is given in an article in the 'Merchants' Magazine' of March, 1843, which declared that 'however beneficial in its remote consequences the unsealing of the Chinese ports may be, we cannot but regret that it should have been conceived in crime and consummated in violence.'
When peace was concluded between England and China with the signature of the Treaty of Nanking, a more definite proposal than a request for an investigation into conditions p184 of trade was at length made. Two months after Commodore Kearny had secured in Canton the first promise that American rights would be respected under the new conditions of commerce, Caleb Cushing wrote an interesting letter to President Tyler, which made the specific suggestion that an American mission be sent to China, and showed that Cushing clearly foresaw the advantages to both China and the United States of what was later to become the open-door policy.
He told the President that he had information that the Chinese would be disposed to receive such a mission in a friendly spirit, 'the more so as we only can, by the extent of our commerce, act in counterpoise to that of England, and thus save the Chinese from that which would be extremely inconvenient for them, viz., the condition of being an exclusive monopoly in the hands of England.'
Three days later, on December 30, 1842, President Tyler's message to Congress proposed that a diplomatic agent be accredited to China. He pointed out that with the market for American goods in China having more than doubled within the past ten years, the United States was deeply interested in whether the four additional ports open to British trade would also be open to that of its own ships. Consequently he recommended that an American commissioner should reside in China, watch over all American interests, hold direct intercourse with the Canton officials, and be prepared to address higher functionaries, or the Emperor himself should the occasion arise. This envoy, the President concluded, should be a citizen of weight and intelligence, adequately compensated for his services.
Adams introduced a bill into the House to put this suggestion into effect, which carried an appropriation of forty thousand dollars for the proposed mission. Some objection p185 was raised on the score that the importance of the undertaking did not warrant such a large appropriation, and it was proposed that status of the commissioner should be simply that of commercial agents in other parts of the world. Fortunately, wiser prevailed. It was succinctly pointed out that in the existing state of foreign trade the mission to China was more important than all other similar missions combined, while one Southern Congressman ended his comments on the importance of China as a market for American goods by rhetorically demanding if any one knew 'how much of our tobacco might be there chewed, in place of opium.' The bill then passed by a vote of 96 to 59.
In the Senate the bill ran into politics. President Tyler had incurred the bitter opposition of the Whigs, and his proposal was attacked on purely partisan grounds. Senator Thomas H. Benton argued that the China trade had so far been successful and that there was no need for an expensive mission when relations with the Chinese Government could easily be regularized by instructing a resident merchant to sign a treaty identical with that signed by Great Britain. But his real objection to the China bill was that its appropriation of forty thousand dollars gave the President the power to appoint one of his favorites to a lucrative post without having to submit his name to the Senate. With a sarcastic reference to an American Minister creeping in behind the British Minister to claim the protection of Queen Victoria's petticoats, he declared that the mission had not been created for the country, but for the benefit of one man who was waiting 'to go up and bump his head nineteen times against the ground in order to purchase the privilege of standing up before his Celestial Majesty.'
The mission was authorized at midnight on the last day p186 of the Senate's session despite these small-minded attacks, and the question then arose as to the appointment of a commissioner. The post was first offered to Edward Everett, American Minister to Great Britain, in supposed pursuit of a scheme hatched by Secretary of State Webster. He was anxious to resign his office, and Everett was to go to China in order to allow him to slip gracefully into the vacated London post. But Everett refused to be forced out of England. President Tyler then turned to Caleb Cushing, who accepted the mission with alacrity.
This appointment, made during the Senatorial recess, more than ever called forth the wrath of the President's enemies. Cushing had deserted the Whigs to become one of Tyler's staunchest supporters and this reward for his treachery to his old party associates excited their bitter resentment. Even Adams referred to Cushing's 'obsequiousness and sacrifice of principle.' There is no question that had the Senate, which had already rejected three times his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury, been in session, he would never have been confirmed as the United States' first Commissioner to China.
Caleb Cushing in 1843
For all the political undercurrents in this situation, President Tyler, nevertheless, could not have made a better appointment. Cushing, a shrewd Newburyport, Massachusetts lawyer, was closely identified with the China trade and understood the full significance of the conditions created in Canton by the Anglo-Chinese War. Through his acquaintances among the China merchants and careful study, he was already an expert on Chinese affairs. It was he who had first proposed an inquiry into the trade upon the outbreak of the war and then suggested to President Tyler the establishment of the mission he was destined to head. Moreover, for all his checkered political career, his p187 shifting allegiances, and his unpopularity, he was a man of really brilliant talents which showed at their best in the difficult task he was undertaking. The combination of firmness and tact which marked his negotiations in China soon proved that he was an ideal envoy for the inauguration of our official relations.
Fletcher Webster, son of the Secretary of State, was appointed secretary to the mission; Dr. Peter Parker and the Reverend E. C. Bridgman were made its Chinese secretaries; Dr. E. K. Kane was appointed surgeon; and four young gentlemen were chosen as unpaid attachés, to 'add dignity and importance to the occasion.'
No presents were to be taken to the Chinese Emperor — the United States did not wish to be enrolled among the tribute-bearing nations through a repetition of Lord Macartney's sad experience in 1793 — but a memorandum note in the archives of the Department of State indicates that the mission was to be furnished with a comprehensive collection of scientific objects. They were to include a set of the best charts, and if possible a globe; a pair of six‑shooting pistols, rifles, etc.; model of war steamer; model of steam excavator; daguerreotype apparatus ('it can be purchased, perhaps, in France'); some approved works on fortification, gunnery, shipbuilding, military and naval strategy, geology, chemistry, and the 'Encyclopaedia Americana'; a telescope, spy-glass, barometer, and thermometer; and some useful articles made of India rubber. Against the item 'a model of a locomotive steam engine, and a plan of railroad,' is the penciled notation: 'Will require too much time to prepare. J. T.'3
One more impressive touch to the arrangements was the selection of an official costume for the Commissioner. It p188 was to be the uniform of a major-general: a blue coat with gilt buttons, a white vest, white pantaloons with a gold stripe, and a chapeau with a white plume — the whole with 'some slight additions in the way of embroideries.' This lavishness in costume awoke considerable criticism and caustic reminders of Franklin simplicity. 'Niles' Register' had little confidence in the 'unavailing mummery of courtly style.'
There was little precedent on which the instructions for the mission could be based. The only political relations between the United States and any nations of the East were the treaties with Muscat and Siam which had been negotiated by Edmund Roberts some ten years earlier. They were not very important, had been entered into largely on Roberts's personal initiative rather than because of any demand on the part of American interests, and generally followed the conventional lines of ordinary trade agreements. To cope with the situation in China, the Secretary of State had to strike out along new lines. Consequently he turned for advice to those merchants in the United States who had traded with China.
Their views were summed up in a letter Secretary Webster received from John M. Forbes. It was thought necessary to make some display of force, as the Chinese, Forbes stated, believed that the United States had only two naval vessels. The mission should endeavor to reach the mouth of the Peiho in order to negotiate directly with Peking. The provincial authorities should be warned in advance of the official character of the mission.
On the assumption that the United States was not in any event prepared to force a treaty upon China, the letter ends upon this cautious note: 'If our Envoy does not see his way to succeed, let him do nothing; let him wait the p189 proper time to act, and if his patience fail, let him be authorized to return home, leaving some member of his mission as Chargé to wait an opening.' The American merchants approved this mission, but they did not want it to injure their present position at Canton by any diplomatic conflict with the Chinese Government.
On the basis of such recommendations Secretary Webster drew up the documents which appointed Cushing not only Chinese Commissioner, but Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary for the negotiation of a treaty which would open to American ships the four ports newly opened to the British. The hope was expressed that the jealousy and repulsive feelings which the Chinese entertained toward foreigners would be removed or at least mitigated by the prudence and address of the Commissioner, and that above all he would be able to convince the Government and people of China of the pacific aims of the United States.
In general terms Cushing was instructed to show respect for the institutions and manners of the Chinese and to demonstrate the intention of the Americans to observe their laws. In specific regard to opium he was to make clear that the United States would not interfere to protect smugglers from the consequences of their own illegal conduct. He had orders to dismiss the American Consul, Paul S. Forbes, if charges that his firm was engaged in the opium traffic should prove to be true.
On the other hand, the Commissioner was at all times to impress upon the Chinese officials the equality and independence of the United States and to point out 'in decided terms and a positive manner' that his country could not remain on terms of friendship and regard for China if greater privileges were granted to other countries than p190 to America. If possible he was to visit Peking and deliver in person a letter from President Tyler to the Emperor. This was one of the objects of his mission to be 'persisted in as long as may be becoming and proper.' Should he succeed, the manner of settling the problem of the kowtow was left to his discretion, but he was instructed to be careful to do nothing 'which may seem, even to the Chinese themselves, to imply any inferiority on the part of your Government.'
The tone of these instructions left little to be desired. The Commissioner was to be both firm and conciliatory. The promotion of friendly feelings with China was to be placed above any protestation of the power or dignity of the United States. Much was said about the possible visit to the court at Peking, yet it was clear that this was a secondary object. The real aim of the mission was to secure for the United States through friendly negotiation privileges for trade equal to those enjoyed by Great Britain.
Far different from the letter of instructions or Cushing's own credentials was the letter signed by President Tyler which Cushing was to present to the Son of Heaven. It was couched in such childish terms, more appropriate for an order to some petty Indian chief than for the first official communication between the President of the United States and the Emperor of China, that it seems incredible that a statesman of Webster's ability could have composed it. But the evidence is strong that, although the Secretary of State had by now resigned and been replaced by A. P. Upshur, it was his own handiwork.4
p191 Greeting the Emperor as 'Great and Good Friend,' this letter enumerates the names of the American States and then addresses the sovereign of a state whose civilization was old when Europe was sunk in barbarism, the heir to all the glories of Kubla Khan and those other emperors of the fabulous land of far Cathay, in these stirring words:
I hope your health is good. China is a great empire, extending over a great part of the world. The Chinese are numerous. You have millions and millions of subjects. The twenty‑six United States are as large as China, though our people are not so numerous. The rising sun looks upon the great mountains and rivers of China. When he sets, he looks upon rivers and mountains equally large in the United States. Our territories extend from one great ocean to the other; and on the west we are divided from your dominions only by the sea. Leaving the mouth of one of our great rivers, and going constantly toward the setting sun, we sail to Japan and to the Yellow sea.
Now, my words are, that the Governments of two such great countries should be at peace. It is proper, and according to the will of Heaven, that they should respect each other, and act wisely. I therefore send to your Court Caleb Cushing, one of the wise and learned men of this country. On his first arrival in China, he will inquire for your health. He has then strict orders to go to your great city of Pekin, and there to deliver this letter. He will have with him secretaries and interpreters.
The Chinese love to trade with our people, and to sell them tea and silk, for which our people pay silver, and sometimes other articles. But if the Chinese and the Americans will trade, there should be rules, so that they shall not break your laws nor our law. . . .
There was more of this twaddle which could not but be insulting to the Emperor, especially in its references to the trade which was so far beneath his notice, and after reference to the proposed treaty, the strange document ended with a veiled warning and the polite order: 'Let the treaty p192 be signed by your own imperial hand. It shall be signed by mine, by the authority of our great council, the senate.'
Equipped with his instructions, this amazing letter, and his unique collection of specimens of Western scientific invention, Commissioner Cushing was now ready to sail for China. Careful attention had been paid to the recommendations of the China merchants as to the need of some display of naval force. The squadron which was to convey our first envoy to the Empire of China was composed of four war vessels under the command of Commodore Foxhall A. Parker: the steam frigate Missouri, the frigate Brandywine, the brig Perry, and the sloop-of‑war St. Louis. It was on July 31, 1843, that Cushing embarked on the expedition which was for the first time to give an official status to the trade which more than half a century earlier had been inaugurated by Samuel Shaw.
1 The British representative in Texas in 1842 was none other than Captain Charles Elliot, fresh from his troubled experiences in Canton.
2 Another opponent of the popular view as to the causes of the war was Peter Parker, an American missionary who was later to serve his country in China in various official capacities. He declared that what England sought was simply 'indemnity for the past and security for the future' and that her grounds of dissatisfaction were common to all foreigners in China. A strong advocate of an American mission, his talks in Washington with Adams, Cushing, and Secretary of State Webster undoubtedly influenced the attitude of these men toward the situation which the war had created.
3 Quoted in Tyler Dennett's Americans in Eastern Asia.
4 On the controversial question of authorship of this letter, the best evidence of Webster's responsibility is a letter Cushing wrote to the State Department on June 27, 1843. He refers to 'a draft prepared by Mr. Webster of the President's letter to the Emperor of China,' and then continues: 'Please submit it to Mr. Upshur for the approval of the President and himself. It was Mr. Webster's plan to have it copied in an ornamental form and placed in a suitable box.' While Tyler Dennett seems to think that this refers to Cushing's credentials, this would not seem probable.
a Sidney Breese, a one-term senator, was mesmerized by China, and seems not to have missed a chance to bring trade with China as the best motivation for various schemes of American expansion. An 1846 report by a committee which he chaired, in support of Asa Whitney's project of a railroad from Missouri to California, dilates on . . . China, Manchuria, and Mongolia . . . with such emphasis as to read very strangely to us today; but in the context of this chapter, reading it is worthwhile.
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