John K. Sague in China 1918

Courtesy of the Sague Family, these images relate to the trip of Poughkeepsie native John K. Sague, his wife, Helen, and 20-year-old daughter, Katherine, in his role as US Representative to the China Tariff Revision Commission meetings held in Shanghai in 1918. See article in print versions of  Northern / Southern Dutchess News on sale June 12 to June 18.  In an earlier high-profile role, Sague led our troops in the Spanish-American war. The photo of him shown just below is from that period. All images courtesy of the Sague Family Digital Image Collection. Gift of Trish Taylor, 2019. Click here to find the story of one of this young soldiers, Fred Knickerbocker, of Pine Plains. Courtesy of Kemp Digital Image Collection, and great-great grandson of Fred Knickerbocker, Justin Kemp.

Highlights of military and political career of John K. Sague

1898, 1899 – Capt. John K. Sague leads troops from Dutchess County in the Spanish American War in the Pacific.
1907, 1909, 1911 – Sague, a Democrat, runs for and wins Poughkeepsie Mayoralty.
1916 – In a handover between friends, the Presidency of the Dutchess County Society of the City of New York shifts from Sague to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
1917 –  April, US Declares War on Germany, August, China does the same, providing laborers, not combat roles, in Europe. December, the Sagues head to China.
1918 –  February, Tariff Commission talks begin in Shanghai. November 11. Fighting in Europe ceases. December, Commission wraps up it work for that year.
1919 –  China feels abandoned by US in treaty that ends WW1, in favor of Japan.
1920 –  Sague appointed permanent chair of the New York State Democratic Committee. FDR nominated for and runs as Democratic candidate for US Vice President with Presidential Candidate Cox, losing to Harding/ Coolidge.
1927 –  Sague wins another, but his final, Poughkeepsie Mayoral term.
1928 –  November, FDR wins election for NY Governor through 1932, and subsequent Presidential elections that kept him in office the rest of his life.
1945 – Death of FDR.
1958 – Death of Sague.

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Disagreement on China Trade Tariffs? Poughkeepsie Man’s Role in 1918 Shows Some Things Never Change

Disputes about trade tariffs between the United States and China are nothing new. In late 1917, Poughkeepsie native John K. Sague (Sah-gyou’ / rhymes with you), descendant of early, local, French Huguenot settlers,  was appointed by President Wilson to represent the United States at the meetings of the China Tariff Revision Commission to be held in Shanghai in 1918.

Given the protracted nature of such negotiations, Sague attended with his wife, Helen, and 20-year-old daughter, Katherine.

The first step was to get there. They travelled on December 15, 1917 on the steamship USS Venezuela. The trip took 28 days in what could be described as very good accommodation, but very rudimentary by our standards.

More orderly than today’s bilateral tit-for-tat “slapping” of tariffs by tweet and television news, the Tariff Revision Commission involved the United States, Belgium, the British Empire, France, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, and China. It was actually this “orderly” pace of negotiation that frustrated the restless and ambitious Sague who was critical of the process at the time saying, “they would meet for an hour and adjourn for a week.”

Sague’s ambition is reflected in his three consecutive Mayoral wins in Poughkeepsie in November 1907, 1909, and 1911. That run would be topped in November 1927 by an historic fourth term as Mayor. He ran for Congress in 1912. But having lost that election, he managed to win appointment to the influential position of Assessor, Port of New York. This put him in a good position to be effective in the China Tariff Revision Commission meetings in Shanghai.

Sague was a familiar speaker in Dutchess County, given his political interests, and he continued that practice in China. Almost immediately on his arrival in China he spoke on “Woman’s new responsibilities, from the standpoint of a man.” Topics and ideas like this would have found an attentive audience in China at the time. China had become a Republic in the overthrow of a 4,000 year dynasty only six years earlier, in 1912.

If it seems odd to negotiate tariffs at the height of the World War, there is an explanation. Among the last two countries to engage in the War (the US entered in April 1917, China entered in August 1917), China saw its participation as a way to emerge from a final peace treaty more globally engaged, with a stronger footing against Japan that had taken significant portions of China territory through war.

Sague returned to the US in late 1918, maintaining an interest in China by founding the Chinese American Society in New York. He gave talks on business opportunities emerging in China, especially with the war over.  His wife, Helen, gave a talk upon her return at the Women’s Missionary Society of the First Baptist Church in Poughkeepsie on the topic of “Women of China,” citing religious and educational movements in that country.

The level of Sague’s influence and respect in China is reflected in the arrival in Poughkeepsie of the President of the Chinese Senate, C. T. Wang. He was invited by Sague to give a talk at the Nelson House Hotel on Market Street the evening of December 2, 1918. In his comments to a packed house in the main, large dining room, Wang said, “China has taken her new inspiration from the liberty loving nations of the world, and has looked especially to the United States.”

Wang took a leading and visible role in Chinese politics from that moment forward. In the months leading up to the treaty of Versailles in June 1919, China expressed a very positive view of the United States.

But China’s optimism about the US and hopes were dashed on June 29, 1919. The final treaty of Versailles ending World War One, allowed Japan to keep the Chinese land it had acquired in war. China was the only country not to sign the treaty. Some scholars note this as the turning point for China’s embrace of Marxism and Communism.

In 1920, the New  York Times reported, “Popular opinion in China ascribes to Dr. [C. T.] Wang more than to any member of the delegation credit for the fact that China did not sign the Treaty of Versailles…” In a sign of the tumultuous decades that followed in China, and the confusion about who was on the “right” side, Wang was executed by firing squad in 1948.

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