Introduction: "The Chinese Must Go!" was the slogan of the Workingmen's Party of California. The image above comes from an 1879 "ticket," a listing of the party's candidates. Click on it to see the entire list. By the late 1870s, anti-Chinese mobs were attacking Chinese businesses and homes in San Francisco and threatening to burn down that city's Chinatown. Further, as the Workingmen's Party ticket shows, anti-Chinese hysteria was widespread across the state. Congress would respond with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This was the first measure to restrict emigration to the United States on the grounds of race. It would be followed, early in the twentieth century, with a "Gentleman's Agreement" with Japan which stopped emigration from that nation. Later, in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, Congress would again ban all emigration from China, Japan, and most of Asia. It would also drastically reduce the numbers of immigrants overall and mete out quotas to various nations, also based upon racialist ideas. As a result, the Chinese Exclusion Act marked a turning point in American history, the beginning of an effort to control the racial make-up of the nation.
The law also provides several challenges to the historian seeking to make sense of its passage. One arises out of China's willingness to negotiate an end to emigration to the U.S. Why enact legislation, and in the process offend the government of China, when that country was willing to stop emigration voluntarily? [For the text of the proposed treaty and of the Exclusion Act, click here.] Another arises out of the leadership of the anti-Chinese movement. Denis Kearney, pictured at right, the leader of the Workingmen's Party, was an Irish immigrant. His party had its origins in Karl Marx's efforts to launch an International Workingmen's Party. Kearney not only promised to drive all of the Chinese in California into the Pacific, he also promised to burn down San Francisco's City Hall in the name of the coming revolution that would sweep away capitalism and establish a workers' democracy. Here is a sample of his rhetoric from an 1877 speech:
The Central Pacific Railroad men are thieves, and will soon feel the power of the workingmen. When I have thoroughly organized my party, we will march through the city and compel the thieves to give up their plunder. I will lead you to the City Hall, clean out the police force, hang the Prosecuting Attorney, burn every book that has a particle of law in it, and then enact new laws for the workingmen. I will give the Central Pacific just three months to discharge their Chinamen, and if that is not done, Stanford and his crowd will have to take the consequences. (San Francisco Evening Bulletin, November 5, 1877)
Demogogues like Kearney -- his commitment to socialism was entirely opportunistic -- rarely have much impact beyond their immediate locale. Why would key national figures, most especially Republican Senator James G. Blaine, the "Plumed Knight of Maine," take up Kearney's cause.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 came several years after the end of Reconstruction and signalled a national, bipartisan agreement that the United States was to be "a white man's country." White Democrats in the South launched the process of establishing legal segregation, a process the Supreme Court would sanction in 1896 with its "separate but equal" ruling. The wars with the Plains Indians continued, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre. And James G. Blaine, as Secretary of State, would call for an American imperialism, a policy premised on the notion of white supremacy. The debate over Chinese Exclusion highlights some of the keys to this turn towards an explicitly racist national policy.
- What were the arguments for and against Chinese Exclusion?
- Why did those in favor of exclusion win?
1850s -- Chinese immigrants come to the West Coast where they become gold miners, domestic servants, small farmers
1860s -- The Central Pacific brings in thousands of Chinese "contract laborers" to work on the western portion of the transcontintental railway
1877 -- A severe economic downturn, the Panic of 1877, throws millions out of work; in California, the completion of the transcontinental railway, puts thousands more out of work
1877 -- Denis Kearney establishes the Workingmen's Party of California on a platform of class warfare and a pledge that "The Chinese Must Go!"
1878 -- Workingmen's Party wins a third of seats to California's Constitutional Convention
1879 -- Workingmen's Party captures San Francisco city government
1879 -- James G. Blaine strongly supports Chinese Exclusion, the first Republican of national stature to do so
1881 -- U.S. negotiates a treaty with China to restrict immigration
1882 -- Congress ignores negotiations and passes the Chinese Exclusion Act
Anti-Chinese sentiment had arisen contemporaneously with the arrival of Chinese laborers (derisively called "coolies") to work in the mines during the Gold Rush and then on the construction of the transcontinental railroad. There was no Chinese spokesperson, no one comparable to Frederick Douglass, for example, to counter this or present the Chinese perspective. Chinese organizations rarely sought to speak on public issues, even restriction. The heads of the "Six Companies," Chinese organizations in San Francisco, did send a Memorial to U.S. Grant in which they sought to defend their countrymen from various accusations. They did not, however, publish the Memorial. As a result, the voices raised in the debate were all white Americans. One of those belonged to Mark Twain.
In Roughing It (1872), he gave this description of the Chinese in the West in which he excoriated those who opposed Chinese emigration:
OF course there was a large Chinese population in Virginia -- it is the case with every town and city on the Pacific coast. They are a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs; in fact they are almost entirely harmless anyhow, for they seldom think of resenting the vilest insults or the cruelest injuries. They are quiet, peaceable, tractable, free from drunkenness, and they are as industrious as the day is long. A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist. So long as a Chinaman has strength to use his hands he needs no support from anybody; white men often complain of want of work, but a Chinaman offers no such complaint; he always manages to find something to do. He is a great convenience to everybody -- even to the worst class of white men, for he bears the most of their sins, suffering fines for their petty thefts, imprisonment for their robberies, and death for their murders. Any white man can swear a Chinaman's life away in the courts, but no Chinaman can testify against a white man. Ours is the "land of the free" -- nobody denies that -- nobody challenges it. (Maybe it is because we won't let other people testify.) As I write, news comes that in broad daylight in San Francisco, some boys have stoned an inoffensive Chinaman to death, and that although a large crowd witnessed the shameful deed, no one interfered.
There are seventy thousand (and possibly one hundred thousand) Chinamen on the Pacific coast. There were about a thousand in Virginia. They were penned into a "Chinese quarter" -- a thing which they do not particularly object to, as they are fond of herding together. Their buildings were of wood; usually only one story high, and set thickly together along streets scarcely wide enough for a wagon to pass through. Their quarter was a little removed from the rest of the town. The chief employment of Chinamen in towns is to wash clothing. They always send a bill . . . pinned to the clothes. It is mere ceremony, for it does not enlighten the customer much. Their price for washing was $2.50 per dozen -- rather cheaper than white people could afford to wash for at that time. A very common sign on the Chinese houses was: "See Yup, Washer and Ironer"; "Hong Wo, Washer"; "Sam Sing Ah Hop, Washing." The house servants, cooks, etc., in California and Nevada, were chiefly Chinamen. There were few white servants and no Chinawomen so employed. Chinamen make good house servants, being quick, obedient, patient, quick to learn and tirelessly industrious. They do not need to be taught a thing twice, as a general thing. They are imitative. If a Chinaman were to see his master break up a centre table, in a passion, and kindle a fire with it, that Chinaman would be likely to resort to the furniture for fuel forever afterward.
All Chinamen can read, write and cipher with easy facility--pity but all our petted voters could. In California they rent little patches of ground and do a deal of gardening. They will raise surprising crops of vegetables on a sand pile. They waste nothing. What is rubbish to a Christian, a Chinaman carefully preserves and makes useful in one way or another. He gathers up all the old oyster and sardine cans that white people throw away, and procures marketable tin and solder from them by melting.
He gathers up old bones and turns them into manure. In California he gets a living out of old mining claims that white men have abandoned as exhausted and worthless--and then the officers come down on him once a month with an exorbitant swindle to which the legislature has given the broad, general name of "foreign" mining tax, but it is usually inflicted on no foreigners but Chinamen. This swindle has in some cases been repeated once or twice on the same victim in the course of the same month--but the public treasury was no additionally enriched by it, probably. . . .
They are a kindly disposed, well-meaning race, and are respected and well treated by the upper classes, all over the Pacific coast. No Californian gentleman or lady ever abuses or oppresses a Chinaman, under any circumstances, an explanation that seems to be much needed in the East. Only the scum of the population do it - -they and their children; they, and, naturally and consistently, the policemen and politicians, likewise, for these are the dust-licking pimps and slaves of the scum there as well as elsewhere in America.
As Twain's account makes clear, antagonism against the Chinese on the West Coast was already virulent by the early 1870s. It became even worse with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Thousands of Chinese laborers, some highly skilled, streamed into San Francisco and other cities looking for work. This coincided with a severe economic depression, the Panic of 1877, which threw additional thousands out of work in California, and millions nationwide. Kearney's stump speeches in the Fall of 1877 appealed to these desparate workers. "When the Chinese question is settled, we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalists to pieces. In six months we will have 50,000 men ready. . . " he declaimed. This got him put in jail as a danger to the public peace. There Kearney changed his tune. In a successful effort to get himself released, Kearney pledged:
We have no design against the peace of the city, either present or future, and we are willing to submit to any wise measure to allay the existing excitement. We do not propose to hold any more out-of-door meetings, or to tolerate any further use of incendiary language, and sincerely hope that our friends will, under all circumstances, obey the officers of the law and uphold the peace of the city.
Once out of jail, Kearney led a Thanksgiving Day march of some 7,000 or more followers to protest the continued presence of Chinese in the city. Later in 1878 his Workingmen's Party won about a third of the seats to California's Constitutional Convention and succeeded in getting a number of anti-Chinese provisions included. These were later ruled in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Kearney's Workingmen's Party swept the 1879 elections San Francisco. Isaac Kalloch won the mayoralty. He was a minister with the largest congregation in the city; his church had sponsored a Sunday School for Chinese. Nonetheless he ran on the Workingmen's Party ticket and endorsed their "The Chinese Must Go" pledge. During the campaign, a feud developed between Kalloch and the publisher of the Chronicle, Charles De Young. De Young shot Kalloch in front of his church just ten days before the election. Kalloch lived and won in a landslide. The Board of Health then condemned Chinatown as a "nuisance" to the health of the city that had to be "abated." Fortunately, no one tried to enforce the order. Several Chinese had made it known in 1877, in a letter to the then mayor, that "We are not ignorant that self-defense is the right of all men; should a riotous attack be made upon the Chinese quarter, we should have neither the power nor the disposition to restrain our countrymen from defending themselves to the last extremity, and selling their lives as dearly as possible."
In the winter of 1880 mobs of unemployed white workers marched to factories and other businesses where they would demand that all Chinese workers be fired immediately. Some business owners gave in to these threats. But, later, when the mobs dispersed, many hired their Chinese employees back. In all, the atmosphere in the city was volatile.
Here is Kearney's own justification for "The Chinese Must Go!" campaign:
Dennis Kearney, President, and H. L. Knight, Secretary, "Appeal from California. The Chinese Invasion. Workingmen's Address," Indianapolis Times, 28 February 1878.
Our moneyed men have ruled us for the past thirty years. Under the flag of the slaveholder they hoped to destroy our liberty. Failing in that, they have rallied under the banner of the millionaire, the banker and the land monopolist, the railroad king and the false politician, to effect their purpose. We have permitted them to become immensely rich against all sound republican policy, and they have turned upon us to sting us to death. They have seized upon the government by bribery and corruption. They have made speculation and public robbery a science. They have loaded the nation, the state, the county, and the city with debt. They have stolen the public lands. They have grasped all to themselves, and by their unprincipled greed brought a crisis of unparalleled distress on forty millions of people, who have natural resources to feed, clothe and shelter the whole human race.
Such misgovernment, such mismanagement, may challenge the whole world for intense stupidity, and would put to shame the darkest tyranny of the barbarous past. We, here in California, feel it as well as you. We feel that the day and hour has come for the Workingmen of America to depose capital and put Labor in the Presidential chair, in the Senate and Congress, in the State House, and on the Judicial Bench. We are with you in this work. Workingmen must form a party of their own, take charge of the government, dispose gilded fraud, and put honest toil in power.
In our golden state all these evils have been intensified. Land monopoly has seized upon all the best soil in this fair land. A few men own from ten thousand to two hundred thousand acres each. The poor Laborer can find no resting place, save on the barren mountain, or in the trackless desert. Money monopoly has reached its grandest proportions. Here, in San Francisco, the palace of the millionaire looms up above the hovel of the starving poor with as wide a contrast as anywhere on earth. To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China -- the greatest and oldest despotism in the world -- for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth -- the Chinese coolie -- and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor. These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China. They hedge twenty in a room, ten by ten. They are whipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things. They have no wives, children or dependents.
They are imported by companies, controlled as serfs, worked like slaves, and at last go back to China with all their earnings. They are in every place, they seem to have no sex. Boys work, girls work; it is all alike to them. The [white] father of a family is met by them at every turn. Would he get work for himself? Ah! A stout Chinaman does it cheaper. Will he get a place for his oldest boy? He can not. His girl? Why, the Chinaman is in her place too! Every door is closed. He can only go to crime or suicide, his wife and daughter to prostitution, and his boys to hoodlumism and the penitentiary.
Do not believe those who call us savages, rioters, incendiaries, and outlaws. We seek our ends calmly, rationally, at the ballot box. So far good order has marked all our proceedings. But, we know how false, how inhuman, our adversaries are. We know that if gold, if fraud, if force can defeat us, they will all be used. And we have resolved that they shall not defeat us. We shall arm. We shall meet fraud and falsehood with defiance, and force with force, if need be. We are men, and propose to live like men in this free land, without the contamination of slave labor, or die like men, if need be, in asserting the rights of our race, our country, and our families.
California must be all American or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be American, and are prepared to make it so. May we not rely upon your sympathy and assistance? With great respect for the Workingmen's Party of California.
Denis Kearney, President
H.L. Knight, Secretary
Stop and Consider:
- What, according to Twain, are the "Chinaman's" chief characteristics? What are they, according to Kearney?
- To what extent is Twain's characterization of the Chinese based upon stereotype?
- Who, according to Twain, hates the Chinese? Why?
- Why, according to Kearney, must the Chinese "go"?
On February 14, 1879 Senator James G. Blaine, the "Plumed Knight of Maine," made a speech supporting a bill which would limit the number of Chinese passengers on any boat headed for the United States to fifteen.
The question lies in my mind thus: either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it. . . . We have this day to choose . . . whether our legislation shall be in the interest of the American free laborer or for the servile laborer from China. . . . You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beer, alongside of a man who can live on rice.
. . . .
There is not a laboring man from the Penobscot [in Maine] to the Sacramento [in California] who would not feel aggrieved, outraged, burdened, crushed, at being forced into competition with the labor and wages of the Chinese cooly.
. . . .
I feel and know that I am pleading the cause of the free American laborer and of his children and of his children's children.
Ten days later, in an open letter published in the New York Tribune, Blaine drew an analogy:
If as a nation we have the right to exclude the criminal classes from coming to us, we surely have the right to exclude that immigration which reeks with impurity and which cannot come to us without plenteously sowing the seeds of moral and physical disease, destitution, and death.
Blaine had sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 and would seek it again in 1880 and win it in 1884. He was the first Republican of national stature to speak out in favor of Chinese Exclusion. Republicans, as the "party of Lincoln," were also the party of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which declared unconstitutional discrimination based upon race, creed, national origin, or previous condition of servitude. Blaine thus took a giant step away from the traditional Republican commitment to civil rights in supporting exclusion. Many Republicans followed his lead, but some remained true to the party's tradition.
Harper's Weekly for March 15, 1879 carried a cartoon by Thomas Nast satirizing Blaine. Harper's Weekly was the most widely read magazine of the day. Nast was the best known political cartoonist. He invented the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey, for example. His cartoons of the "Tweed Ring" were widely credited with arousing public indignation over corruption in New York City politics in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
The title of the cartoon puns upon the title of a famous comic poem by Bret Harte published in 1870, "Plain Language From Truthful James." In the poem "Truthful James" and his friend Bill Nye seek to fleece a Chinaman at cards. Ah Sin professes not to know how the game is played. Nye, taking no chances, cheats any way. But, to his and "Truthful James'" dismay, Ah Sin wins hand after hand. He too, it turns out, has cards up his sleeve. The stanzas Nast used run:
Then I looked up at Nye,
And he gazed upon me;
And he rose with a sigh,
And said, "Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,"--
And he went for that heathen Chinee.
. . . .
Which is why I remark,
And my language is plain,
That for ways that are dark,
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,--
Which the same I am free to maintain.
Joaquin Miller was a poet who had prospected for gold, been a Pony Express rider, and a judge in Canyon City, Oregon. Nast cited him as an expert on all things Western. It is significant that Nast did not cite any Chinese. As noted above, there were no Chinese who took a prominent role in this controversy. There was not even a Chinese consul, much less an Ambassador, to speak on behalf of the Chinese government.
In the cartoon Blaine kicks the Chinese laborer off "the corner-stone of our republic." Why? Nast's answer lies in the figure to Blaine's left. He represents "dear" or expensive labor, as compared to the Chinaman's "cheap labor." He has "a vote" while the Chinaman has none. He also has a whiskey bottle protruding from his pocket as well as a club. Who is he? He is the Irishman. Nast made the point even more bluntly in another famous cartoon from 1879, "Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day" and more bluntly still in an 1882 drawing, "Let the Chinaman Embrace Civilization and He May Stay." In the latter, "civilization" is a whiskey bottle. The Chinaman proves his fitness to remain by drinking, striking, fighting, loafing, and voting "early and often." All were traits Nast and others attributed to the Irish.
Some historians echo Nast's view that Blaine was looking for votes. The election of 1876 had been extremely close. That of 1880 promised to be so as well. The gain of a few thousand votes in a key state, such as California, could make the difference between victory and defeat. If this was Blaine's hope, history was to play a cruel trick. He lost the 1880 nomination to James Garfield. When, in 1884 he finally became the Republican candidate for president, Blaine did not repudiate the Rev. Samuel D. Burchard's criticism of the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." This greatly angered Catholic voters, including many in the working class, and may well have cost Blaine the election.
A related interpretation suggests that Blaine and other Republicans wanted to make their peace with the doctrine of white supremacy. In the party's bitter struggle with President Andrew Johnson Republicans had staked out positions on equality before the law and voting rights that were considerably more advanced than those held by most northern whites. In this view, Chinese Exclusion is an early step in a long retreat away from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
One way of appreciating how pervasive the belief in white supremacy was among Northerners, including Republicans, is to look at a controversy that arose in Massachusetts. In the Twelfth Annual Report (1881) of the Bureau of the Statistics of Labor, Bureau head Carroll D. Wright described French-Canadian immigrants as "the Chinese of the Eastern States."
They care nothing for our institutions, civil, political, or educational. They do not come to make a home among us, to dwell with us, as citizens, and so become a part of us; but their purpose is merely to sojourn a few years as aliens, touching us only a single point, that of work, and, when they have gathered out of us what will satisfy their ends, to get them away to whence they came and bestow it there. They are a horde of industrial invaders, not a stream of stable settlers.
French Canadians were a "low" and "sordid" people and the "only good use" they could be put to was "to work them to the uttermost." Wright's comments enraged French Canadians who demanded that he give them an opportunity to defend themselves. They wished to prove to Wright, as one correspondent to Worcester's Le Travailleur (The Worker) put it, "that we are a white people." Unlike the Chinese, the French Canadians did have spokespeople. Ferdinand Gagnon, editor of Le Travailleur, lashed out at "Le Colonel Wright." Petitions poured into the Massachusetts legislature. Parish priests organized "Naturalization Clubs" to encourage more French Canadians to become citizens. If more of us voted, Gagnon editorialized, neither Col. Wright nor anyone else would dare insult us.
Wright granted the demand. He held a hearing, allowed the French-Canadian community to choose a chair, invited them to present whatever evidence they wished, and printed the entire transcript in his next annual report. He also, in that report, proclaimed that it was "only a matter of time" before the French Canadians became an indistinguishable part of the population. They owned property. They built schools. They built churches. They organized businesses and newspapers. And they were starting to become citizens. They had succeeded, that is, in convincing him that they were a "white people."
Summary: The Exclusion Act passed in 1882 with comfortable bipartisan majorities in both Houses of Congress. It was only to remain in place for ten years. Even larger majorities, however, voted to renew and then renew it again. When emigration from Japan began to become sizeable, agitation to exclude them quickly grew. This time, however, Congress permitted the Roosevelt administration to negotiate a "Gentleman's Agreement" with Japan. Meanwhile stereotypes of the "Yellow Peril" flourished. Here, for example, is the cover of Nick Carter's Detective Magazine from 1907. A few years later, Anglo-Irish novelist Sax Rohmer, would invent the embodiment of the "Yellow Peril," Dr. Fu Manchu:
Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government -- which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man." -- Nayland Smith to Dr. Petrie, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu
Exclusion would remain official U.S. policy until 1943.
Reflect and Respond:
- What threats, according to James G. Blaine, did the "cooly" pose to the free Anglo-Saxon laborer?
- How similar is Blaine's view to that espoused by Denis Kearney?
- On what basis did Thomas Nast oppose Blaine? In answering make explicit reference to Nast's infamous anti-Catholic (and anti-Irish) 1875 cartoon, "The American River Ganges." It portrays the defenders of the public schools valiantly seeking to prevent Catholic bishops from devouring innocent children.
- What "Chinese" traits did Carroll D. Wright attribute to French-Canadian immigrants?
- How could Americans simultaneously view the Chinese as "coolies" and also as criminal geniuses a la Fu Manchu?
- How do you see the debate over Chinese exclusion as illuminating, and as complicating, the American conversation about the meaning of equality?