Study Guide

Chinese Exclusion Act Analysis

By Chester A. Arthur

  • Rhetoric

    Pathos...sorta

    Laws aren't themselves arguments, and so don't really need to use rhetoric. The argument, like a party, happened before the law even arrived. The law is just cleaning up the discarded Solo cups and wondering how the couch got unto a tree.

    While proponents of the Chinese Exclusion act would like to claim logos as their source, that's not quite right. Granted, they could easily point to the scarcity of jobs as a reason immigration can't be supported, but if that's the case, why single out only one single country of origin?

    The law's argument fundamentally preys on emotions. Feelings about not getting jobs combined a sense of xenophobia toward a culture utterly dissimilar to the familiar one makes something like this appealing to people worried about the future.

    The law gives people a convenient enemy, one that doesn't have much power. It says. "Those people there are the cause of your problems, and we're going to protect you from them."

  • Structure

    Legal Document

    The Chinese Exclusion Act is a specific Federal law. Later on, other Federal laws would modify it, usually adding provisions or extending its life. It would eventually take World War II to strike it down…because the Chinese were our allies against Japan.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1

    A quick justification for the law, followed by the first provision. For ten years, no Chinese laborers will be allowed into the United States.

    Section 2

    Ship captains who let Chinese laborers onto American soil are guilty of a crime.

    Section 3

    Chinese laborers who were already here don't have to worry. They're cool. They do need to have evidence of their residence to present to the port collector. Also, if a distressed ship has to land in America carrying Chinese laborers, so long as all the Chinese laborers leave with the ship, everything's cool.

    Section 4

    Those Chinese laborers who can stay have to get papers to prove it. Those papers will describe them in upsetting detail. They can use those papers to travel on ships in and out of the country.

    Section 5

    They can also use those papers to travel by land in and out of the country. Not sure why we needed a whole separate section for that.

    Section 6

    Chinese people who aren't laborers need papers, and permission from China to come to America.

    Section 7

    Forging these papers is a serious crime.

    Section 8

    The captain of a ship with Chinese laborers has to have a list of all of them, and they need papers as well.

    Section 9

    To make sure the papers match the passengers, customs inspects both passengers and papers, and compares them.

    Section 10

    If the captain doesn't follow the law, the U.S. government seizes his ship.

    Section 11

    Bringing Chinese laborers in by land is also a serious crime.

    Section 12

    Yep, if you come in by land, you still need papers.

    Section 13

    Chinese government officials get to ignore this law. Their servants, too.

    Section 14

    No Chinese person can become a U.S. citizen.

    Section 15

    Chinese laborer means exactly that, either skilled or unskilled. It also mentions miners.

  • Writing Style

    Late 19th-Century Legalese

    The history of legal writing has been a long struggle toward comprehensibility. Or at least, that's what it seems like. The ironic part is that legal writing is specifically designed to eliminate loopholes and force a single interpretation of the text. If every law had a million interpretations like a Shakespeare play, the world would be a more chaotic, but rhyming place.

    Check it out:

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States. (Sec.1)

    This section is a perfect example, not only containing the simple rule about excluding the Chinese, but absolutely precisely when they had to be here to be exempt from the law. While it makes the whole thing more difficult to parse, it also tells you exactly who is allowed to stay and who has to go.

    The Chinese Exclusion Act, though, takes things almost to the level of parody. The law assumes that the bulk of Chinese immigration is going to come via ships, and in fact the longest section, 4, is all about how that works. This was before planes, after all, and that land bridge that used to link North America and Asia has been gone for 10,000 years.

    Still after the intense language and wrangling over exactly what hoops the Chinese would have to jump through to get here (see Sections 3 and 4), it was like someone raised their hand and was like, "What if they come from Canada or Mexico?" So there are these hastily added on sections that more or less say "What we said about ships, we also mean about horses, or donkeys, or trains, or whatever."

    Here's a bit of Section 5, which says more or less exactly that:

    That any Chinese laborer mentioned in section four of this act being in the United States, and desiring to depart from the United States by land, shall have the right to demand and receive, free of charge or cost, a certificate of identification similar to that provided for in section four of this act to be issued to such Chinese laborers as may desire to leave the United States by water. (Sec.5)

    The most bizarre, though, is in Section 15, where it defines Chinese laborers. It says they mean both skilled and unskilled laborers. Which...if they didn't define laborer more than that, wouldn't we assume they meant skilled and unskilled? Aren't there only two kinds?

    But then it becomes truly funny when it's also, "and miners too." Miners are definitely laborers. No one has ever been mining and then says, "How relaxing was that, Janice? Next year, we should bring the kids. Really relax with all this mining we're doing." No, that's labor.

    But because one of the major markets the Chinese immigrant labor force was coming into was mining, it was mentioned in the law.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The official title is actually, "An Act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese." That sounds a lot better than the Chinese Exclusion Act, doesn't it? We're sort of lucky someone had managed to slap it with that more direct and honest moniker.

    The "treaty stipulations" the act refers to are those in the Angell Treaty negotiated in 1880 by diplomat James Angell. That new treaty was to update the old Burlingame Treaty, which the Chinese Exclusion Act, as it was later written, would ignore.

    The Angell Treaty allowed the United States to limit Chinese immigration, and so they did, with the Chinese Exclusion Act. It's likely the government of China didn't know how much the U.S. would limit immigration. Chester A. Arthur kind of went whole hog with the law there.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore,

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States. (Sec.1)

    The opening lines are likely to make you cringe. Then again, if you were reading something called the Chinese Exclusion Act and didn't expect to cringe at least once, you're probably a pretty scary person.

    The introduction to the law states that the government of the United States has decided Chinese immigrants are bad for the country. It's just stated as a foregone conclusion. They're justifying the need for the law here, but at the same time it's like, jeez, grandpa, you don't want to have a talk about this?

    No, they didn't want to have a talk about it. They wanted to shut California up, and this was the way to do it.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    That the words "Chinese laborers", wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining. (Sec.15)

    The closing lines are Section 15 of the law, which defines what "Chinese laborers" are in the context of the law itself. This is super-important, since the term "Chinese laborers" gets thrown around like a beach ball at a boring baseball game.

    "Chinese laborers" is sort of a term that describes itself, much like "fried potatoes" or "parked car." We know what these words mean: Chinese people who labor. It's not hard. Yet the law feels the need to stipulate that this means skilled and unskilled laborers, and miners too.

    It really shows you the length legal writing will go to eliminate any possibility of misreading. They want every word to matter, and sometimes they might go overboard.

    Then again, you could argue this whole law was a case of going overboard.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    The good news is we're not dealing with 18th-century legalese here. The bad news is that it's 19th-century legalese.

    Every other sentence runs on like a lemming at a cliff. Your best bet is to read it out loud and really try to understand what every word is doing there. That's the best part. Because this is a legal document, the wording is as precise as it gets. If you see a word, it needs to be there. Use that to your advantage.

    Or ask the lawyer in the family. They'll probably say, "Yeah, this law doesn't like Chinese laborers."

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Economics

    The justification for the Chinese Exclusion Act is the basic economic principle of supply and demand. When labor was in short supply, wages would go up. When large amounts of immigrants flooded the market, wages went down. This is the whole reason that the word "laborer" appears after nearly every instance of the word "Chinese." (Sec.1, Sec.11, Sec.12, Sec.15)

    To be clear, there is something to this. In theory, this is how wages are supposed to work. In practice, they're seldom so simple, but at least the principle is there. The unfortunate part is that instead of attempting to go after the people setting the wages, they went after an already marginalized group. That's where the justification breaks down.

    Racism

    You knew it was coming. It's not like you can talk about something called the "Chinese Exclusion Act" and not mention the elephant in the room. It's an elephant with the word "racism" printed on the side. (Sec.1, Sec.2, Sec.4, Sec.8, Sec.9, Sec.14)

    The Chinese Exclusion Act opens with the statement that the Chinese are bad for America: "Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof" (Sec.1)

    If that's not racist, nothing is. While you can justify it somewhat, saying it's not the Chinese themselves but what they do to the labor market, that doesn't withstand scrutiny. The rhetoric spouted by those supporting it, Denis Kearney especially, shows exactly what soil this thing was sprouting in.

    Historical and Political References

    The Panic of 1873

    While the Panic isn't referenced by name, this is where the law gained its legs. Before the Panic, which at the time was known as the Great Depression and started in Austria-Hungary, a glut on the labor market didn't even matter. The Gold Rush was still fueling American industry, and there was that whole railroad thing. 

    After the Panic, well, jobs grew scarce. Less demand, less supply. And to make matters worse, depressions have a spiraling effect. Fewer people spending money means less demand for goods which means less demand for labor which means fewer jobs which means fewer people spending money. You can see how this is a bad thing.

    Look to Section 15: "That the words "Chinese laborers," wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining." This is a clear demonstration that the concern is based in labor, though without understanding the bad labor market of the time, it's hard to see precisely how.

    You know about the Panic, though. So we're not talking about you.

    References to This Text

    Pop Culture References

    Tombstone

    The film doesn't explicitly reference the law, but one character proudly states that he's the "President of the local non-partisan anti-Chinese association." The intent is to show just how casually racist the past could be. It succeeded.

  • Trivia

    Chester A. Arthur's first lady was his sister, but not in a gross way. (Source)

    Chester A. Arthur had no vice president. He was just hanging out there all alone. (Source)

    James Garfield's assassination paved the way for President Arthur. Here's the thing: Garfield would not have died if not for bizarrely terrible medical treatment. (Source)

    The State of California formally apologized for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act...in 2014. Better late than never? (Source)

    Warren Magnuson, the Congressman who proposed the law that would repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, had already gotten special legislation passed to allow a man named Poon Lim to immigrate. Lim was a sailor who managed to survive 133 days of being lost at sea. Everybody figured Lim already had it rough enough without deporting him. (Source)