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A Tribute to Townsend Harris

Updated on July 16, 2019
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Before retiring, Jack worked at IBM for over 28 years. His articles have over 120,000 views.


Townsend Harris is not well known today. There is a high school named after him and an award at CCNY that is his namesake and a building. There is much more to tell about this man who lived in the middle of the 19th century. He had a significant impact on over 800,000 people who benefited from a free higher education. Moreover, he was responsible for the opening of trade with the country of Japan. He is probably more revered by the Japanese in modern days than in America the country of his birth.

- June 2019


Townsend Harris (October 3, 1804 – February 25, 1878) was a successful New York City merchant and politician, and the first United States Consul General to Japan. He negotiated the "Harris Treaty" between the US and Japan and is credited as the diplomat who first opened the Empire of Japan to foreign trade and culture in the Edo period. A movie about his experience was romanticized in “The Barbarian and the Geisha.”

He was the founder of the first free higher education college in America - City College of New York in 1847. Over the next 170 years, over 800,000 graduates have benefited from this education and made their impact on our society.

Townsend Harris was born on Oct. 3, 1804, in Sandy Hill, N.Y., and educated at the local primary school. In 1817 he began work at a dry goods store and later joined his father and brother in importing china and earthenware. Harris read and studied widely and became proficient in French, Spanish, and Italian. Elected to the New York Board of Education in the 1840s, he served as its president. Harris was almost solely responsible for legislation creating the New York Free Academy, a public institution that provided free higher education for the poor and eventually became the College of the City of New York. After his mother died in 1847, Harris left for California. He purchased a ship and started trading with ports in China and the British and Dutch East Indies.

Townsend Harris Medal

Harris Arguing for the Establishment of the Free Academy


The best source on Harris is his own work, The Complete Journal of Townsend Harris, First American Consul General and Minister to Japan, edited by Mario Emilio Cosenza (1930; rev. ed. 1959). The only good biography is Carl Crow, He Opened the Door of Japan: Townsend Harris and the Story of His Amazing Adventures in Establishing American Relations with the Far East(1939). Oliver Statler, The Shimoda Story (1969), is a nearly day-to-day coverage of Harris's stay in Shimoda. Harris is featured in Payson Jackson Treat, The Early Diplomatic Relations between the United States and Japan, 1853-1865 (1917), and Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia (1922).

Harris Hall - CCNY Campus

Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn NY

Text From His Journal...on the Stone Above

A Scene From The Movie

A Quote from Townsend Harris - from his Journal


I learned recently, quite by coincidence, that there is a group from Shimoda City Japan which makes an annual pilgrimage to NYC and Newport RI to honor Townsend Harris and Commodore Perry. This group, lead by the mayor of this small city, will be visiting the graves of both Perry and Harris in each city. In addition, they will pay a visit to CCNY and hosted by the school’s archivist. This signify the importance of this man, over 140 years after his death, to the people of Japan.

It is rare that a man could achieve such greatness in one lifetime let alone two. Townsend Harris was the person responsible for starting the “Free Academy” in NYC in 1847 and later the first consul general to Japan that forged a treaty with the nation of Japan in 1858.

PostScript - Annual Event - Mayor of Shimoda Visit CCNY (7/15/2019)

I was invited to attend a talk and a luncheon in honor of a group from Shimoda Japan, lead by the mayor of that port city. It was held at the Archives building of CCNY. An exhibit of some of the original artifacts of Townsend Harris was the highlight. A presentation by the archivist, Sydney Van Nort was also on the agenda. This group included some middle school students from Shimoda and also a descendent of Townsend Harris, Ms. Sally Rush.

It was a wonderful tribute to a great man.

The Original Flag - Made of Silk...on Display at CCNY Archives

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Jack Lee


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