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“A Fair, Honorable, And Legitimate Trade”
The opium trade is remembered as a British outrage: English merchants, protected by English bayonets, turning China into a nation of addicts. But Americans got rich from this traffic—among them, a young man named Warren Delano. He didn’t talk about it afterward, of course. And neither did his grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
Warren Delano did have to bother about China again, for Ned’s fears about his overextending himself proved accurate. He had made himself a millionaire by age forty-eight, but the Panic of 1857 ruined him, and in 1860 he was forced to go back to China, to Hong Kong this time, where he spent five more years recouping his losses in the two trades that had initially made him so rich so rapidly—tea and opium.
The British steamer Nemesis sent a boarding party onto the Chinese vessel and set her afire. When the flames reached the magazine, she exploded.
When Westbrook Pegler accused FDR of living off a fortune gained in a traffic “asdegrading as prostitution,” the White House did not reply.
In 1879, more than thirty years after Warren had left Canton, his old friend Robert Forbes asked him to write up his memories of life there in the old days. Both men had since earned distinguished reputations and several fortunes in fields unrelated to the China trade, but Forbes had grown nostalgic for it. He hoped that Warren and all the surviving Russell men would contribute memoirs, he said; there were nearly one hundred of them; the results would be used to compile a colorful company history.
Warren sent him a terse summary of his career in China in which he did not mention his participation in the drug trade. Some of Forbes’s other former partners were still less obliging, wanting no part of any history that might prove too intrusive. Even Forbes finally thought better of his scheme: “The only thing I fear,” he confessed to Warren, “is that in giving a sketch of the causes and effects of the opium traffic…I may say too much.” He finally chose to say nothing.
Warren may have been relieved. He devoted his old age to keeping track of his investments, running his big estate, contributing to Republican candidates and to other causes he considered worthy, among them Booker T. Washington’s work among Southern blacks.
The old opium days were allowed to fade from memory.
Some years after Warren Delano’s death in 1898, an elderly Unitarian clergyman who had benefited from his generosity wrote a tribute to him. “This man seemed to have intuitions of right, justice and equity in small matters, as in great,” he said. “Dishonesty, pretense, chicanery, come how they might and in whom they would, felt themselves rebuked in his presence.…His moral intensity and practical earnestness never relaxed their hold of what he felt to be good: the rest he left to God.”
For a long time American historians also seem to have been content to let the Yankee trader’s pursuit of opium profits largely be forgotten.
Even Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison devoted just three uncharacteristically defensive pages to it in his monumental The Maritime History of Massachusetts 1783–1860 (1921). He found comfort (though it is not easy to see why) in the fact that “for English firms, [opium smuggling] was vital. For Boston firms, it was incidental.” Morison was perhaps on firmer ground when he went on, “at the risk of appearing to black the kettle,” to argue that “there is a difference between smuggling opium under the official wink [as the Americans did] and driving in opium with cannon and bayonet when officials are making a sincere if tardy effort at moral reform.”
More objective study of the American opium trade and its impact on buyers and sellers alike had to await a more recent generation of scholars with access to Chinese as well as American sources—writers such as Jacques M. Downs, John King Fairbank, Peter Ward Fay, and Charles C. Stelle.
No one knows what FDR knew of his grandfather’s involvement in the drug business. When the columnist Westbrook Regler accused the President of living off the fortune left by “an old buccaneer” who had wrested it from “a slave traffic as horrible and degrading as prostitution,” the White House maintained a discreet silence.
But Eleanor Roosevelt had been stung by Pegler’s charge, and when she visited Hong Kong in 1953, she made a point of asking a veteran British merchant about the opium era. After talking with him, she reluctantly concluded, “I suppose it is true that the Delanos and the Forbeses, like everybody else, had to include a limited amount of opium in their cargoes to do any trading at all.”