REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
FREDERICK F. LOW
BY WILLIAM V. WELLS.
The appointment of Governor Low as United States Minister to China, while regarded as a fitting recognition of his services in the several honorable stations he has occupied under the Federal and State Governments, was particularly pleasing to Californians—not only his intimate friends, but the community at large. The increasing importance of California, and its position relatively to China, seem especially to designate that State as a point from which to select envoys to the Asiatic countries bordering on the Pacific; a policy, however, which has too often been overlooked by administrations previous to that of President Grant. But Mr. Low, although a Californian proper, made so by twenty years' residence in the land of gold, has a reputation somewhat national in character, having filled the offices of Collector of the Port of San Francisco and Member of Congress, both during periods of great public agitation, and when abilities of no ordinary kind were demanded; and the same may be said of his term as Governor of California. He is not only a representative Californian, but a representative American, and is endowed with those qualities of mind which eminently fit him for a leading foreign mission. In view of the international questions incident to our proximity to the vast populations across the Pacific, the Chinese Mission rises to the first importance. Our representative to that ancient Government is liable to have submitted to his judgment, subjects involving commercial and maritime issues of incalculable weight. A third of the human race live opposite to us; and these nervously active and imitative people are brought by the modern appliances of steam travel nearer to the factories of the North and the cotton fields of the South than England was forty years ago, when European labor reached America by sailing craft, sometimes occupying six weeks in crossing the Atlantic. The natural anxiety which all feel who are interested in our relations with China was relieved upon the announcement of the name of the new Minister, from whose good sense, tact, and experience, much was to be expected.
Mr. Low was born in 1828, in the State of Maine, where his ancestors were among the earliest settlers. After completing an academical education, he engaged in mercantile pursuits in Boston, whence he came to California in 1849, arriving in San Francisco in the height of the gold excitement on the first trip of the steamship Panama, in June of that year. Continuing business as a merchant in San Francisco until 1854, he went to Marysville in the following year, where he established a banking house, and was widely known as a prosperous banker. In 1861, he was elected to the thirty-seventh Congress, and repairing to Washington took an active part in the vital issues then convulsing the nation. The civil war had broken out, and during the whole of his Congressional term ever hour was big with events in which the national existence was at stake between contending armies. The record of Mr. Low finds him ever prompt, energetic, and uncompromising in his devotion to the cause of the Union. The limits of our sketch will not admit of more than this condensed allusion to his course at that time, familiar as it is to the general reader for its unshaken patriotism. In counsel with statesmen of veteran experience, his clearness of discernment and fertility of resource were ever apparent in times of emergency. At the expiration of his term in the spring of 1863, he was appointed by President Lincoln Collector of the Port of San Francisco, succeeding Ira P. Rankin; and here, as in the halls of Congress, he showed an aptitude for business, and a quick comprehension of intricate revenue questions, that commanded the respect of the merchants with whom he came in contact. Soon after assuming the office of Collector, he was elected Governor of California, and entered upon his duties in December, 1863, serving the full term of four years, when, in 1867, he returned to private life.
This, in brief, is the public career of Mr. Low. We believe it will be universally conceded that we have in no respect overestimated his services or abilities. During the larger portion of his term as Governor the civil war was raging, and his activity in holding California true to the Union gave great satisfaction to the Government and to the people of this coast. He devoted himself to the finances of the State, and by his prudence, sagacity, and business intelligence, cleared off the floating debt, amounting to something like $1,000,000, and placed the State Treasury on a cash basis. His administration was distinguished for unflinching opposition to all special and local bills, and a determined enmity to such as were calculated to squander the funds of the State for the benefit of individuals. His veto of several bills granting aid to railroads, and for other similar schemes, gave him the unlimited confidence of the people. His inaugural and messages, terse, vigorous and practical, were generally admired as lucid expositions of the state of public affairs, for the clear comprehension of which, his experience as merchant, banker, and legislator had given him peculiar advantages. He declined a renomination in 1867, which, in the language of one of the leading journals of California, was the mistake of his life, and a great mistake for his party. The appointment of Minister to China was tendered to him by President Grant without solicitation, and his acceptance of that important and delicate mission was more in deference to the wishes of the leading business men of the Pacific coast than to his own inclination. He has naturally given considerable attention to the various difficult questions accompanying our increased intimacy with China—perhaps more than most men not directly interested in them. His predecessors to China during the last twenty-five years have been Caleb Cushing, Humphrey Marshall, Mr. Parker, Robert McLane, William B. Reed, Anson Burlingame, and J. Ross Browne. Mr. Low, albeit he has done his State service in various responsible positions, is still a young man, and the future may yet be burthened with his honors. Next to his clear-headed insight into involved questions, and abilities as a negotiator, perhaps the secret of his remarkable success in life may be found in his amiability and urbanity, which are appreciated by a wide circle of friends, and which draw men towards him almost without an effort on his part.
As a public speaker, he exemplifies the unpretending directness of his character, seldom aspiring to flights of eloquence, always sensible and to the point, ready in language and appropriate in style. At the dinner given in San Francisco to commemorate the opening of the line of steamers between that port and China, in January, 1867, Mr. Low, who presided on the occasion, concluded as follows an eloquent speech on the relations of the United States with China:
Until within a few years, China has been to us a sealed book, practically, and even now we are permitted to examine only the outside and the title-page; and it seems but yesterday that Commodore Perry anchored his fleet in front of Japan, and gave the Tycoon the option of opening his outside door, or having it battered down with shells made of American iron. Who can foretell all the results of intimate commercial relations with these countries during the next ten, twenty, or fifty years? China, with an area of 5,000,000 square miles, a coast line of 3,350 miles, and containing a population of 410,000,000 people, or about one-third of the whole world, thrown open to unrestricted intercourse with, and the indomitable energy of the American people, what mutual advantages may not be expected to flow from it? The ruling powers in China will learn that free intercourse will be of advantage to them; that they can increase their imports of merchandise with profit, and dispense with the large amounts of precious metals which are annually received in payment of exports, and hoarded. And while the Chinese are receiving these valuable lessons, may not our magnates in finance learn that the true remedy for the unsettled state of our financial affairs is to be found in securing a balance of foreign trade in favor of the United States, rather than in acts of Congress making selling of gold a misdemeanor? We must learn to treat the Chinese who came to live among us decently, and not oppress them by unfriendly legislation, nor allow them to be abused, robbed, and murdered, without extending to them any adequate remedy. I am a strong believer in the strength of mind and muscle of the Anglo-Saxon race, which will win in the contest for supremacy with any people, without the aid of unequal and oppressive laws; and the man who is afraid to take his chances on equal terms with his opponents is a coward, and unworthy the name of an American. Were I to sum up the whole duty imposed upon us, I should say let us be honest, industrious, and frugal; be persevering and progressive, and remember Raleigh's maxim, that, "Whoever commands the sea commands the trade of the world; and whoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 625-629.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.