On May 6, 1882, President Chester Alan Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although not often seen by the general public as part of our labor history, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislative victory for organized labor in this country. It generated out of the discontent of white labor in the American West toward Chinese competition in general and specifically out of the Workingmen’s Party, a political organization of California’s white working class that threatened to overthrow the state’s two-party system if its major concern was not addressed.
It is useful to think of Chinese exclusion in the context of Gilded Age capital and labor. With capital so overwhelming labor and the free labor ideology of whites controlling their own future through hard work, white labor looked for any solution to the crisis. Generally, they hoped for a single, simple solution that they could grasp onto. That might be Henry George’s Single Tax, the monetaization of silver, the ideas of Edward Bellamy, the 8-hour day, or Chinese exclusion. Workers might swing from one idea to the next, looking for a panacea to industrial capitalism that allowed them to retake control over their own lives. Why Chinese exclusion? The idea of a white man’s republic seemed under threat from racialized labor who would seem to take any job at any price, driving down wages for white men, channeling profits into the capitalists’ arms, and undermining the ability of white men to control their own lives. Eliminate the Chinese and you go a long ways to resetting the balance of power between labor and capital.
When whites moved to California in the late 1840s, most saw it is as a white man’s country. This meant that any job done by a non-white was stealing a job from a white person. When they flowed across the nation during the Gold Rush, they assumed the gold was there for the taking, without competition. Lo and behold, news of the gold had traveled around the world. Native Americans were already there. Miners streamed northward from Mexico, Peru, and Chile. They came from France and Germany. They traveled across the Pacific from Hawaii, Australia, and especially China. While the Australians and Germans and most other Europeans were acceptable to the miners, the non-whites and the French were not. Mexicans and Chinese found their claims stolen, the French (who were seen on the same level as Mexicans) were made unwelcome. Most of the competitors went back home by the early 1850s in the face of American white supremacy.
There was one caveat for this. California was a nearly all-male space. Miners were totally out of sorts because there were no women to clean and cook for them. It really affected them profoundly, as one can see if you read their diaries. Mostly, they lived in filth. But over time, the Chinese were feminized to take over the jobs the whites did not want. This is the origin of the Chinese restaurant and Chinese laundry. Although gender ratios slowly equalized, the Chinese had developed strong communities in California cities. The Chinese also became the cheap labor of choice for industrialists looking to build railroad with inhumane working conditions that most whites would not accept.
Chinese-American children, late 19th century
So-called “anticoolie clubs” became common among whites resentful of Chinese labor. For example, in 1867, a group of white San Franciscans in an anticoolie club drove a gang of Chinese laborers from their railroad work. These ethnic-based clubs were not so different from the Protestant-supremacist riots of pre-Civil War New England against the Irish. These clubs engaged in a boycott of Chinese-made goods beginning in 1859. They also became connected to the burgeoning trade union movement in California. But unionism had a very difficult time getting established in California and the anti-coolie organizations helped fill that working-class vacuum.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Chinese question came to dominate California politics. Into this debate came the Workingmen’s Party. Began among German immigrants in the east in 1876 as a sort of socialist big tent party, in California, the leadership of Denis Kearney turned it into a 1-platform political movement: kick out the Chinese. Kearney, an Irish immigrant, arrived in San Francisco in 1873 and immediately became involved in politics. Combining fervent anti-Chinese hate with violent threats against his political opponents, Kearney took over the Workingmen’s Party to unite white working-class and anti-Chinese politics. At the 1879 California Constitutional Convention, Kearney and his supporters inserted a variety of anti-Chinese laws into the document. The most important of the clauses in the new constitution banned the employment of the Chinese. But business leaders opposed all of this and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned these provisions.
For Kearney and his followers, eliminating the Chinese was just the first step in retaking control of the republic for the working man. Once the Chinese question was settled, Kearney wanted to go after the capitalists. Said Kearney,
”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 mean ready to go out. . . and if ‘John’ [the Chinese] don’t leave here, we will drive him and his aborts [sic] into the sea… We are ready to do it… If the ballot fails, we are ready to use the bullet.”
Although primarily a California movement, by the late 1870s, the anti-Chinese fears began to spread among whites throughout the nation, despite the fact that outside of New York City and western mining towns, the Chinese population was near zero. In 1876, both parties adapted anti-Chinese planks to their party platforms. Kearney took an eastern tour in 1878, speaking to a crowd of thousands in Boston and campaigning with future Greenback Party presidential candidate Benjamin Butler, although his national star faded quickly, in part because of his anti-capitalist views, and he returned to San Francisco without the national popularity he craved. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Among its provisions was to bar the Chinese from citizenship and required each Chinese to acquire a certificate of residence or face deportation. In 1902, the Geary Act made the Chinese Exclusion Act permanent, as opposed to the 10-year extensions mandated in the original law.
Workingmen’s Party poster
Organized labor strongly supported most laws to end Chinese immigration. The Knights of Labor were strongly anti-Chinese and banned Asians from the organization. A group of Knights in Tacoma, Washington spearheaded anti-Chinese violence in Tacoma, Washington in 1885. The American Federation of Labor began in 1886, after Chinese Exclusion, but AFL head Samuel Gompers supported the extension of the law, as well as other anti-immigration legislation through the 1920s.
The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act was hardly the end of violence against Chinese labor, as the Chinese community in Rock Springs, Wyoming would find out in 1885. But it was the effective end of the Workingman’s Party and the end of anti-Chinese groups threatening the established political system.
Kearney’s star faded rapidly after the Chinese Exclusion Act. He died in obscurity in 1907.
Legal Chinese immigration effectively stopped until 1943, when the nation’s wartime alliance with China made exclusion politically untenable and when anti-Japanese sentiment put the Chinese in a new light for many Americans. However, with exclusion, the Chinese began to migrate to northern Mexico and British Columbia and crossing into the United States, forcing the U.S. to create the Border Patrol.
This is the 59th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.