How did we get here? Chinese Exclusion Act buildup (1848-1872)

When co-blogger Chris Hendrix started off a series a couple of years ago on the origins of immigration restrictions, he fittingly began with the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), looking at the arguments made for the act at the time. He examined them both the evidence available at the time and the evidence that has emerged since then. In a subsequent post in the series, I briefly examined the early years of the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1910). While both these posts examined some aspects of the Chinese Exclusion Act in some detail, there is a lot about the history and aftermath of the Act that went unexplored.

Recently, I had the opportunity to create a number of Wikipedia pages on topics related to the Chinese Exclusion Act: Chae Chan Ping v. United States, Angell Treaty of 1880, Chy Lung v. Freeman, Fong Yue Ting v. United States, and others. As I worked on these pages, I familiarized myself more with the situation surrounding the Chinese Exclusion Act. I became more convinced that a more in-depth look at the Chinese Exclusion Act would help shed light on the modern border control regime.

I therefore intend to do at least three more posts on the subject. The current post will focus on the key developments and tug-of-wars that occurred until about 1872 (with passing mentions of trends that would continue into the late 1870s). A later post will discuss the more eventful years starting 1873. The year 1873 was marked by the Panic of 1873, the beginning of an economic downturn in the United States. The economic downturn was likely a contributing factor to increased anti-Chinese sentiment over the coming years, and key legislative and judicial developments related to immigration happened beginning 1875.

This post looks at the “keyhole solutions” used by state and local law enforcement in California before the federal government got on board with significantly restricting immigration.

Table of contents

Limitations of my analysis

Perhaps the biggest limiting factor to the quality of my analysis is the fact that such little data is maintained about that time period; in particular, about how ordinary people (both Chinese and the others in California) perceived the situation at the time. There is no Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram to gauge public sentiment. There was no equivalent of Gallup polls. There were few newspapers and even those that existed don’t have all their archives available to peruse. Therefore, apart from actual legislative or judicial records, the main guidance present is various summaries provided by historians, who are in turn relying on observations penned by a few people, who may in turn have their own biases.

The lack of good resolution on who was thinking what leads to broad-brush generalizations in many parts of the text. I talk about the “Chinese” and “whites” but both groups were probably quite heterogeneous in terms of their habits, attitudes, beliefs about the other group, legislation they supported, etc. A more able historian with more time to research the issue and more space to devote to describing it would be able to pick nuances better. As such, please take any general statements I make about ethnic groups below with a large grain of salt: they are a third-hand summary of very incomplete data examined through possibly biased lenses.

How my thinking has evolved

Writing this post has led to some minor updates in my thinking. Here is a summary, that you can read without having to read the whole post.

  • As I had previously noted in “Why was immigration freer in 19th century USA?”, there were no restrictions on immigration till the late 19th century (the Page Act of 1875 being the first federal regulation, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882). Even then, the first restrictions applied only to Chinese immigration. But I now see that the sentiment to oppose and restrict migration existed far in advance of actual restrictions, and the reason that it took so long to restrict immigration was mostly the federal structure of governance combined with the poor connectivity of California with the rest of the United States.
  • This post also makes me more confident of observations I had made in my post on South-South migration and the natural state: despite the virulent and hostile response to Chinese immigration in California, migration remained freer and arguably closer to a state-of-nature than it does in the modern world.
  • My feelings on “keyhole solutions”, and in particular, on the question of their feasibility and stability, have evolved a bit. I am now more convinced that they are not a stable equilibrium that placates those favoring restrictions. One reason is that some keyhole solutions, particularly those involving taxes and tariffs, can hurt migrants so much that their subsequent impoverishment makes them look even worse on social indicators to the rest of the population (a point related to what co-blogger Nathan alluded to in his post the dark side of DRITI). Another is that keyhole solutions need to be extremely punitive (at risk of impoverishing migrants and making them look worse) to make a significant dent in migration trends, to the level that would satisfy those who seek restrictions. Keyhole solutions at an intermediate level can generate revenue for government and can address rationally calibrated concerns about immigration, but they can’t really solve the public’s general aversion to migration. Keyhole solutions might work better in quasi-democratic settings. In quasi-democratic settings, not every individual policy choice is debated. Rather, as long as the quasi-democratically elected leaders’ overall performance meets natives’ expectations, they buy into the policy package despite not liking parts of it. A country like Singapore might be an example.
  • Seeing the effects of migration isn’t guaranteed to drive one in favor of migration. In the case of events prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act, in fact, exposure to Chinese migrants led people to oppose it. California, which experienced the Chinese first, turned anti-migration first. Later, when the Chinese arrived in the Eastern cities, anti-Chinese sentiment also spread there. This does not mean that exposure to migrants always leads to anti-migration sentiment, nor does it mean that such anti-migration sentiment is factually grounded. Rather, we have to keep in mind existing narratives and biases that have been developed, in addition to the characteristics of migrants and natives, and results on sentiment towards migration could go in either direction. I don’t think nativist backlash is inevitable, but writing this post has led me to somewhat increase the importance I place on it as a force to reckon with.

First, they came for the Chinese

John’s post on tearing down Chesterton’s fence offers a good bird’s eye view of how immigration restrictions originated worldwide. While researching the subject, I noticed that in at least two other English-descended countries (Canada and Australia) the first significant immigration regulations appear to have been explicitly targeted at the Chinese, as I noted in an Open Borders Action Group post.

The situation in Australia closely paralleled the situation in California. In both cases, large numbers of Chinese moved to the area around 1850 in search of gold. In both cases, resistance to Chinese started off with native miners and labor unions of “natives” (i.e., whites, rather than the indigenous population), but gradually spread to the rest of society. However, in the case of Australia, federal action on immigration occurred more quickly: the Immigration Restriction Act of 1855 imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants arriving at Victorian ports. Although action was federal, the actual restriction on Chinese arrival was only applied to the ports that were attracting Chinese. This keyhole solution led to a keyhole response: Chinese started arriving at ports where the head tax was not enforced, and then walking from there to the mining areas. Wikipedia says:

The Royal Commission after the Eureka stockade also looked into the Chinese situation as another one of the miner’s grievances. In 1855 the Victorian parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act in an effort to restrict Chinese immigration. This forced Chinese arrivals in Victorian ports to pay a £10 head tax. It also mandated that there could only be a certain amount of Chinese travelers per tonnage of shipping. This put a dent in the ship masters coffers. Cost of passage was already high. This Act did appear to limit the numbers of Chinese arriving in Victorian ports. Official Victorian records show over 10,000 Chinese arriving in Victoria between 1853 and 1855 but only a few hundred in the next two years. However, numbers of Chinese on the Victorian goldfields continued to swell through overland routes. To avoid this Act, many ships travelled to South Australia. Between 1855 and 1857 thousands of Chinese landed in the Port of Adelaide and the port town of Robe, South Australia. In fact thanks to these migrants the town of Robe’s population doubled overnight and it developed into the main port of call for Chinese arriving in Australia. It was then a long overland route to the Victorian goldfields.

This imperfect but still reasonably successful restriction on Chinese immigration would eventually be superseded by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, the act that marked the beginning of the White Australia policy. The chief difference between the cases of Australia and California appears to be that in the case of California, it took a couple decades between the point in time when there was state-level anti-Chinese sentiment to the point where there was sufficient political impetus for federal action.

The timeline of immigration regulation in Canada more closely matches that of federal immigration regulation in the United States. The first significant restriction on Chinese immigration to Canada was the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 that, like Australia’s first attempt at restriction, imposed a head tax on Chinese migrants. The head tax was increased over time until the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 that shut off immigration from China entirely. This is similar to the sequence of events in the United States: a Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned migration for Chinese laborers, followed with tightening and closing of loopholes over the next few decades.

Why did all three countries come for the Chinese first, before expanding to Asia, Africa, and less developed parts of Europe? To some extent, the similarity in the evolution of immigration regulation can be traced to the political decision-makers in various countries taking cues from one another. However, I think the dominant factor here is that the Chinese were a unique group of migrants that had each of these features:

  • Large population in a country suffering from various forms of war and despotism (the waves of migration to California and Australia occurred around the time of the Taiping Rebellion), and therefore, large numbers of migrants.
  • Very distinct in language and customs from the “natives” of the countries (i.e., whites), more so than Mexicans or Europeans.
  • Clearly foreign to the land, having come to it in large numbers over a short period of time, either voluntarily or as indentured laborers of various sorts. This put them in contrast with indigenous people (the true natives!). It also marked them somewhat distinctly from the population of African descent in the United States that, although non-white, had a substantial proportion that was either slaves or descendants of people who had been brought over as slaves. While immigration of free people of African descent would eventually get people worried in the United States and Australia, this took some time.
  • Factors that tended to make Chinese migrants more noticeably successful and therefore a bigger threat to whites in the receiving countries.

Most migrants from China were from the eastern provinces, close to the ports, in particular Fujian and Guangdong (Fujian would similarly play an important role as a an emigrant source in the wave of human smuggling carried out by Sister Ping and her competitors). The reasons for the skew in emigration sources from 19th century migration are discussed by Pyau Ling in a paper from 1912. I hope to do a separate post discussing emigration and its role in 19th century China, as well as discussing the relative strength of the above points. But that’ll have to wait for a while.

Migration began in 1815, but was negligible till 1848

At the beginning of 1848, the total number of people in the United States of Chinese descent was estimated at 325, according to Wikipedia’s page on the history of Chinese Americans. I’ll quote from the page to give an idea of how negligible the size of the Chinese population was at the time:

In the 19th Century, Sino-U.S. maritime trade began the history of Chinese Americans. At first only a handful of Chinese came, mainly as merchants, former sailors, to America. The first Chinese people of this wave arrived in the United States around 1815. Subsequent immigrants that came from the 1820s up to the late 1840s were mainly men. In 1834 Afong Moy became the first female Chinese immigrant to the United States; she was brought to New York City from her home of Guangzhou by Nathaniel and Frederick Carne, who exhibited her as “the Chinese Lady”.

It began in California

1848 was an important year for California for two distinct reasons. First, the Mexican-American War concluded in February of this year. California had, since 1821, been part of Mexico, and it was as part of the Mexican-American War that Alta California (the northern part of the then-Mexican state of California) was acquired by the United States in 1847. The southern part of California, Baja California, is still a part of Mexico. At the end of the war, in February 1848, the Mexican Cession was formalized, with Alta California forming the bulk of the ceded territory. At the beginning of 1848, San Francisco had a population of about 1,000, barely enough to be called a city. In 1850, the new U.S. state of California formally joined as the 31st state in the United States, as part of the Compromise of 1850. Two other new U.S. states were carved from the Mexican Cession: New Mexico and Utah. There was some interesting and complicated politics surrounding slavery, that does not concern us here.

Second, 1848 marked the beginning of the California Gold Rush. Gold was discovered in California in January 1848. Initially, gold was so plentiful that mining it needed no special technology: early arrivals could simply retrieve gold by panning. As news of the discovery of gold spread, there was significant migration to California from the rest of the United States, other parts of Mexico, and China. As the low-hanging fruit started getting exhausted, it became harder and harder to make money off gold panning, and more sophisticated mining operations became necessary.

A lot has been written about the California Gold Rush, including its effect on how the American Dream is defined, the role of women, and its importance for the development of California and its major cities. Miners formed alliances and rivalries of various sorts. One significant way miners got classified was based on their year of arrival (those arriving in 1848 were called forty-eighters, and those arriving in 1849 were called forty-niners). Race/ethnicity also played an important role in the alliances that would form. Whites had a bit of an upper hand, and state force was used to expel Native Americans (indigenous people) as well as the Mexican and Chinese miners.

The common narrative of immigration as strangers coming to an area where natives have been around for a while thus fails to describe the situation in California in many many ways:

  • California was not even a part of the United States for that long before the first wave of Chinese migration. It was part of Mexico. It became a U.S. state only in 1850, after Chinese migration started.
  • If anybody could claim true native status, it was the indigenous Native Americans. They were, however, not treated well.
  • As a matter of pure geography, at that time, the journey from China to California took less time than the journey from the eastern United States (this would change with the development of the transcontinental railroad system).
  • The vast majority of immigrants to California were Americans, and for urban centers such as San Francisco, the population of natives that existed prior to 1848 was negligible.

According to this source, the initial attitude to the Chinese as a whole (excluding the issue of competition between miners) was positive. Quoting from it:

If the social conditions prevailing in California in the days of ’49 are recalled, it is not difficult to realize how welcome were the Chinese who first came to the country. Here were men who would do the drudgery of life at a reasonable wage when every other man had but one idea—to work at the mines for gold. Here were cooks, laundrymen, and servants ready and willing. Just what early California civilization most wanted these men could and would supply.

The result was that the Chinaman was welcomed; he was considered quite indispensable. He was in demand as a laborer, as a carpenter, as a cook; the restaurants which he established were well patronized; his agricultural endeavors in draining and tilling the rich tule lands were praised. Governor McDougal referred to him as “one of the most worthy of our newly adopted citizens.” In public functions he was given a place of honor, for the Californians of those days appreciated the touch of color which he gave to the life of the country. The Chinese took a prominent part in the parades in celebration of the admission of the state to the Union. The Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper, went so far as to say, “The China Boys will yet vote at the same polls, study at the same schools, and bow at the same altar as our countrymen.” Their cleanliness, unobtrusiveness and industry were everywhere praised.

However, as the low-hanging fruit in mining operations was plucked, life became more challenging, with many people who had come hoping to (literally) strike gold making much less than they had anticipated. There were various kinds of keyhole efforts of various kinds made by the California legislature, some of which were frustrated by California’s own judiciary, while others met with opposition from the federal level. Let’s look at the different kinds of efforts. But before that, a little bit more on the pattern of migration.

Migration patterns: the gender skew and the lack of babies

By the end of 1848, there were over 600 Chinese in the United States, but the number of women was in the single digits. The gender skew would remain similar over the coming years, even as the overall volume of migration increased. Part of the reason was simply that mining was a physically demanding occupation that attracted more men than women, and this gender skew was seen not only among Chinese miners but also among White and Mexican miners. It wasn’t just the direct physical demands of mining, but also the violence between miners (incidentally, a female Mexican miner, Josefa Segovia, became infamous after killing a man who tried to assault her). The violence had a racial component, with Chinese miners being more likely to be at the receiving end of violence. And as the Segovia incident shows, sexual assault was a very real danger in these circumstances. It’s not that surprising that the majority of migrants from China were male.

This isn’t to say that the benefits of the search for gold went only to men. Just as with remittances today, the miners who worked hard to strike gold sent money back to their families, that often saw huge increases in status and wealth as a result, and often didn’t hear much about the challenges their family membes were facing in the United States. PBS says:

When Chinese miners sent their gold home, their families quickly assumed a prominent new place. Women married to successful miners were called “gold mountain wives.” As they built new houses, they were subject to gossip and envy. Rarely did stories about the hard work and the daily discrimination faced by Chinese in America find their way across the Pacific.

Also, interracial marriage between Chinese and whites was so rare at the time it wasn’t even outlawed (it would be outlawed much later, in 1906). So basically the Chinese migrants were males who were either bachelors (and stayed that way) or had wives back home.

The upshot is that there was no such thing as the Chinese family in the United States. There were almost no babies being born to Chinese parents in the United States. The question of whether babies could be United States citizens was almost irrelevant because it occurred so rarely; it was only much later, with United States v. Wong Kim Ark, that this question would be debated widely.

With such a large gender split, there was a demand (both California-wide and among the immigrants from China) for prostitution. In this milieu, a number of brothels came into existence in San Francisco (Chinese and non-Chinese). Ah Toy, the first Chinese madam, who was also approximately the seventh Chinese female to enter the United States, started offering her services in 1849 and hiring young girls from China for her brothel in 1850. None of this was a symbol of Chinese culture per se, but rather of the circumstances and context of the migration that was occurring, and was evidenced both in the Chinese and the non-Chinese population.

An important consequence of the lack of a Chinese “family” and of Chinese descent children being born in America was that being ethnically Chinese was, for practical purposes, almost the same as being a citizen of China who had immigrated from China. In other words, laws based on Chinese citizenship as a criterion were practically no different than laws based on Chinese ethnicity.

Taxes on miners (1850 Act, 1851 Repeal, 1852 Act, gradual increase of license fee till 1870)

In 1850, the year it came into existence, the legislature of the state of California passed a Foreign Miners’ Tax. In line with the modern concept of immigration tariffs, the Act imposed a $20/month tax on foreign miners in California. The initial focus on miners reflected the initial view of the Chinese: their presence in city services was appreciated, but their competition in mining, the most lucrative business (albeit one that was quickly exhaisting its low-hanging fruit) was not appreciated. Initial laws therefore attempted to eliminate competition from the Chinese (and other foreigners) in mining operations, but did not seek to ban them from entering the country, or working, entirely.

The tax was repealed in 1851. It was a rather depressing illustration of Laffer curve effects:

The state legislature was wholly in sympathy with the anti-foreign movement, and as early as 1850 passed the Foreign Miners’ License law. This imposed a tax of twenty dollars a month on all foreign miners. Instead of bringing into the state treasury the revenue promised by its framers, this law had the effect of depopulating some camps and of seriously injuring all of them. San Francisco became overrun with penniless foreigners and their care became a serious problem. The law was conceded to be a failure and was repealed the following year.

Paradoxically, an Act that was supposed to be narrowly targeted at Chinese miners so as to eliminate Chinese competition in mining had the perverse effect of driving them to the cities, penniless, and therefore driving public opinion against them. The “keyhole solution” had the opposite of the narrow, targeted effect that had been hoped for.

Miner taxes were reintroduced in a different form in 1852 as a Foreign Miners License Tax. In the new form, any foreigner who wanted to mine needed a license, that cost $3/month. Even though punitive taxation was recognized as folly, the political value of catering to anti-Chinese sentiment was getting clearer:

By the time this was done, however, the Chinese had become the most conspicuous body of foreigners in the country and therefore had to bear the brunt of the attacks upon the foreign element. Governor Bigler suddenly became inspired with the realization of the value of an attack upon them as a political asset. He sent a special message to the legislature in which he charged them with being contract “coolie” laborers, avaricious, ignorant of moral obligations, incapable of being assimilated, and dangerous to the public welfare. The result was a renewal of the foreign miners’ tax, but in a milder form than its predecessor.

The license fee was gradually increased until it reached $20/month (i.e., same as the original 1850 law) but then ruled unconstitutional in 1870.

As with taxes of this sort in general, the tax had some deterrent effect, but not a complete one. It also created an important revenue stream for the state of California, thereby making them averse to banning the activity entirely.

Testimony, and People v. Hall

California started off as a free state: slavery was not allowed. However, it did not embrace the principle of equality of races before the law. Section 394 of the Criminal Procedure Code explicitly required the courts to not accept as evidence the testimony of a black, mulatto (the term for mixed-race between white and black), or Indian (Native American) person against a white person.

In 1853, George Hall was convicted of murdering Ling Sing, a Chinese miner in Nevada County, based on the testimony of three Chinese witnesses. In 1854, in the famous case of People v. Hall, he appealed the decision in the California Supreme Court, arguing that Section 394 should also be construed as forbidding the Chinese from testifying against whites. He won the appeal, and Chinese were now no longer allowed to testify against whites. The letter of the ruling did not directly allow for violence against Chinese: a white person (or person of any other race) could still be convicted of murdering a Chinese based on the testimony of white people. Nor did it forbid Chinese from testifying against other Chinese. However, as a practical matter, it curtailed the use of the American judicial system by Chinese, and condoned (by reducing the likelihood of punishment) violence against Chinese. One Chinese madam, Ah Toy, who had previously used the threat of suing people in court to deal with unscrupulous clients and extortionists, now shut her doors since these threats no longer worked.

Around 1860, Pun Chi, a young Chinese merchant, wrote an impassioned appeal to the United States Congress, that was translated by William Speer, a Presbyterian minister and missionary in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in 1870. The full translation can be found here. Pun Chi touched on many themes, including the persecution of miners, and the effects of People v. Hall. Here’s what he said on the latter:

Your Supreme Court has decided that the Chinese shall not bring action or give testimony against white men. Of how great wrongs is this the consummation! To the death of how many of us has it led! In cases that are brought before your officers of justice, inasmuch as we are unable to obtain your people as witnesses, even the murderer is immediately set free! Sanctioned by this, robbers of foreign nations commit the greatest excesses. It is a small thing with them to drive us away and seize our property. They proceed to do violence and kill us; they go on in a career of bloodshed without limit, since they find there are none to bear testimony against them….

Why, then, is this burden laid upon us Chinese alone? Suppose there be false witness borne, are the judges of your honorable country blind and stupid, so that they cannot discern it and estimate testimony at its value? Because here and there a Chinese or two has proved a perjurer, shall it prejudice our entire nation? Shall this degrade us beneath the negro and the Indian? This is a great injustice, such as is not heard of in our Middle Kingdom! It injures your fair name. Every nation under heaven mocks at you. Hence it is not alone we Chinese that suffer, but blessings are lost thereby to your own land.

Foiled attempts at outright bans on immigration

By the mid-1850s, California had sufficient public demand for a complete end to Chinese immigration that it became politically desirable to push for it. In 1858, the California legislature passed a law banning all further immigration of Chinese. The law was struck down by the courts, since the regulation of immigration was recognized as a federal matter (and in fact, as noted below, the federal government was, at the very same time, signing treaties with China).

Lack of federal support for restrictions (in the 1850s and 1860s)

It’s worth noting that even as anti-Chinese sentiment was gaining traction in California, the United States federal government did not endorse the sentiment. To the contrary, freedom of movement continued to be a theme of treaties between the United States and China.

In 1858, with the conclusion of the first half of the Second Opium War, the Treaty of Tientsin was signed between China, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. This complicated treaty required Chinese ports to open up to foreigners and allowed Christian missionary activity in China. While the treaty would be regarded by historians as “unequal” (i.e., against China), the part that pertained to migration was based on a theme of reciprocity: the Western powers wanted continued access to the Chinese ports, and in turn the Chinese continued to have access to Western ports of entry. (Interestingly, the failure to close to migration also drove unhappiness in Australia, which was under the rule of the United Kingdom). In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty, a bilateral treaty between the United States and China, established formal friendly relations between the countries, enshrining most favored nation status for trade as well as freedom of movement, while noting that citizens of either country would not be eligible for citizenship in the other. This is consistent with separating open borders from open citizenship, a theme we have discussed on the blog in the past.

Changes in the 1860s: the Transcontinental Railroad and the Civil War

As I noted earlier, when the California Gold Rush began, the journey from the Chinese ports to California took less time than traveling across the United States. The huge time and cost of land travel was a major factor in keeping California and the United States federal government somewhat insulated from one another. Thus, even as public pressure mounted in California to put an end to Chinese immigration, there was no similar agitation at the federal level. Chinese in California weren’t spreading too far and wide to the rest of the United States, and people in the Central and Eastern United States anyway didn’t have much to do with California.

Connectivity in the United States changed greatly in the 1860s with the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad, that ran all the way from the San Francisco Bay Area (specifically, from Sacramento) to Iowa (specifically, Council Bluffs), where it connected with the existing rail network in the Eastern United States. As mentioned above, migrants from China played a key role in building the western part of the railroad, known as the Central Pacific Route. The eastern part of the route, known as the Union Pacific Route, was built largely by Irish immigrants (another immigrant group that would receive a lot of negative attention in the coming decades). The two teams raced toward each other and met at Promontory, Utah. With the opening of the railroad for operation in 1869, the cost of transportation across the United States dropped from $1000 to $150 according to

The building of this railroad allowed for both people and goods to move. In particular, it became easier for both migrants and natives to move to other parts of the country. One immediate consequence of this increased mobility was the movement of large numbers of Chinese to New York City, the place that, to this day, has the largest concentration of ethnic Chinese outside China. As says:

New York City’s Chinatown, the largest Chinatown in the United States and the site of the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere is located on the lower east side of Manhattan. Its two square miles are loosely bounded by Kenmore and Delancey streets on the north, East and Worth streets on the south, Allen street on the east, and Broadway on the west. With a population estimated between 70,000 and 150,000, Chinatown is the favored destination point for Chinese immigrants, though in recent years the neighborhood has also become home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos among others.


As the gold mines began yielding less and the railroad neared completion, the broad availability of cheap and willing Chinese labor in such industries as cigar-rolling and textiles became a source of tension for white laborers, who thought that the Chinese were coming to take their jobs and threaten their livelihoods. Mob violence and rampant discrimination in the west drove the Chinese east into larger cities, where job opportunities were more open and they could more easily blend into the already diverse population. By 1880, the burgeoning enclave in the Five Points slums on the south east side of New York was home to between 200 and 1,100 Chinese. A few members of a group of Chinese illegally smuggled into New Jersey in the late 1870s to work in a hand laundry soon made the move to New York, sparking an explosion of Chinese hand laundries.

The other side of the coin was increased native mobility: people in the Eastern United States could now move to California easily, and what was happening in California became a question of greater national significance. There were now political incentives for federal action against Chinese immigration.

Another change that was not very directly related to the Chinese, but still potentially significant for understanding the evolving moral and legislative framework, was the American Civil War (concluded 1865). The Confederate South was not a directly important player in the debate on restricting Chinese immigration.

The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended the ability to naturalize from free white persons to now also include “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent”. At the time, there was very little voluntary migration from Africa (compared to migration from China and Europe) so the people affected by the Act were primarily former slaves and their descendants. For the purpose of immigration law, one significance of these moves was to shift United States government views (legislative, executive, and judicial) in a more “territorialist” direction. In other words, there was a greater recognition of the idea of fair and equal legal treatment, due process, and constitutional protections for all people within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Indeed, in 1873, the rules that forbade non-whites from testifying against whites were nullified in California, and in particular, the ruling of People v. Hall was reversed. This did not lead to de facto equal treatment of Chinese before the law in California, but at least marked an important de jure recognition of equal rights.

One possible effect of this evolving legal and moral framework was that the urgency and necessity of preventing people from entering in the first place increased. If territorialism entailed equal treatment of all within a territory (an ideal that was still met only partially) that meant that any discrimination was moved to the border, at the point of entry. Also, there were now incentives to develop legal and administrative concepts that gave special importance to one’s immigration status (has one formally been admitted to the country? Is one’s presence in the country legal?). The details of this evolution are for future blog posts.

Miscellaneous remarks

In response to a draft of this post that I circulated, co-blogger Hansjoerg Walther wrote in an email:

One reason I could think of why there was little action on the federal level early on might be that the general tendency in Europe was in the other direction: Borders were opened in the 1850s and 1860s and that seemed natural to many people. The US was a much smaller country (when Germany was unified in 1871, it had more population than the US), so it would have been harder to break away and go against the Zeitgeist. (But then the US was pretty protectionist when all of Europe went for free trade.)

Related reading

In addition to the (numerous) inline links in the post, the following blog posts might be of interest.

4 thoughts on “How did we get here? Chinese Exclusion Act buildup (1848-1872)”

  1. Vipul Naik poses a great analysis on what the Chinese immigrants had to endure before they accepted fully by America. First of all, I really appreciated how he addressed the limitations that he faced when going about his analysis about the Chinese. I found his first paragraph about their arrival to the states demoralizing because they were instantly treated like animals in a sense. The attempts to cage them in with fences is unfair. As we continue on with Naik’s work, it seems as if he did not have a problem with a lack of information on this group. Overall, his analysis intrigued me because racial discrimination is a major problem that is still happening today, and being to read about the history of the first cases of racial discrimination is remarkable.

  2. Vipul Naik analysis reminded me of an Asian American Studies class that went over the Chinese exclusion act. Now that I am taking Economics I am seeing the Chinese exclusion act in new light. The “keyhole solutions” that the author mentioned was an interesting point. Keyhole solutions such as setting taxes and tariffs hurts migrants which means they have a less elastic demand curve. Chinese immigrants who came to America were mistreated and assigned jobs that people normally wouldn’t take. Coal mining and working on the railroads were jobs that immigrants mostly took because of how stressful and labor-demanding it is. We have to remember the amount of racism that happened during this time and many of these immigrants were not offered any compensating differentials like what would be provided today.

  3. Vipul Naik did a great job in analyzing the problems that the Chinese immigrants had to face in the past And how they were mistreated. Most of the jobs that they could get were mining and they were jobs the whites people did not want to take. It is sad to know what the Chinese had to go through in the past. It shows us that we must remember the things that the Chinese immigrants have to go through in the past.

  4. Thanks for a great article! One reason why there might have been little action against immigration before is that the growth of the economy and the military power required a growth of the population. That’s a force in tension with nativist restrictions. Egalitarian ideas of people like Lincoln, that recognized the racism in nativism, probably also worked against restrictions ( The idea of restrictions on immigration was not natural to a country grown largely out of immigration. So for nativist ideas to take effect, it would also take some work and time. Even with all the racism of the time, they could not automatically succeed. It seems like the immigration of Chinese to the East must have been the key to build that national support for restricting migration.

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