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Labor in Early American Immigration

"Chinese Must Go!"

The Civil War and Reconstruction temporarily moved the immigration issue to the back burner of American politics. Catholics and immigrants served in the Union Army by the hundreds of thousands, winning a measure of acceptance into American society through blood sacrifice. The next flashpoint of nativist sentiment would be found not in the teeming immigrant cities of the east, but rather in the west. And the target of the nativists' ire would not be Irish or Germans or Catholics, but instead Chinese.

Chinese immigrants began arriving in California in 1852, fleeing famine at home and seeking fortune in the gold mines of the Sierra Nevada. White miners, jealous of competition for increasingly scarce placer gold, soon drove most Chinese miners out of the goldfields through intimidation and unfair taxation, and most Chinese workingmen settled into a life of low-wage labor. In the late 1860s, the Central Pacific Railroad's labor force in building the transcontinental railroad was 90% Chinese.16

White workers in California always resented the Chinese laborers' willingness to work for very low wages, but California's economy was strong enough that anti-Chinese sentiment did not become a dominant force in local politics until the 1870s. By 1876, however, California's economy plunged into the depression that had begun in the east three years earlier as the Panic of 1873. Thousands of white workers—including more than a few Irish immigrants—could find no work. They blamed Chinese "coolie labor" for stealing their livelihoods.

In 1877 Denis Kearney, a charismatic Irish demagogue in San Francisco, launched the California Workingmen's Party to represent white workers' interests against both the Chinese and the big businessmen who employed them. Kearney's incendiary rhetoric frequently included threats of violence: "The only way to get laws passed in our favor," he once declared, " is to surround the Capitol with bayonets and shoot those who vote against us."17 On another occasion, he promised thousands of supporters that "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, then enact new laws for the workingmen."18 In July 1877, Kearney's supporters led an anti-Chinese riot, smashing and burning dozens of businesses in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Kearney's raw politics appalled California's political establishment, but not even the temporary union of the state's Democrats and Republicans into an anti-Workingman "Nonpartisan Party" could prevent the Workingmen from passing a new state constitution that included both anti-corporate and anti-Chinese measures.

Adopting the slogan "Chinese Must Go!", Kearney traveled east in 1878 in an attempt to win support for a federal solution to California's Chinese problem. His crass style offended many; the Chicago Times called him a "flatulent little brat."19 Still, Kearney succeeded in making Chinese exclusion a national issue. In 1879, Senator James G. Blaine of Maine became the first prominent easterner and the first prominent Republican to support a national policy of outright Chinese exclusion. "Either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope," Blaine warned, "or the Mongolians will possess it. We have this day to choose... whether 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 a man who can live on rice."20

Just three years later, in 1882, a strong bipartisan majority in Congress would pass the Chinese Exclusion Act. For the first time in American history, an entire class of people—all Chinese, in this case—would be barred outright from immigrating into the United States. Within months, Congress added more categories of immigrants who would now be denied entry: criminals, "lunatics," "idiots," and anyone the immigration agents deemed "unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge." In practice this last category would soon come to include most unmarried women. Congress would soon create an immigration service to enforce its new, restrictive laws; the era of free immigration into the United States was over.

The anti-Chinese Workingmen of California succeeded where the Know-Nothings had failed, setting a precedent of discriminatory, categorical exclusion that would, by the 1920s, be applied to other "undesirable" immigrants who began to arrive in droves from Southern and Eastern Europe almost immediately after the Chinese Exclusion controversy was settled.

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