Study Guide

Denis Kearney in Chinese Exclusion Act

By Chester A. Arthur

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Denis Kearney

Denis Kearney had likely never heard of irony. This is probably a good thing…because he was an immigrant who spent his life hating other immigrants. He would probably have something to say on the subject, and it would likely be peppered with curse words. At the time, a few people did notice, including writer Hubert Bancroft, who was not a fan of the workingmen's movement.

Kearney was born in one of the worst places and times possible: the height of the potato famine in Ireland. This was when a lot of the Irish decided they might like to go to where the food was, and went to America. The Kearneys stuck it out in Ireland, however. Denis' dad died in 1858, and little Denis, at eleven years old, signed onto a ship as a cabin boy.

He settled in San Francisco ten years later, married and had a couple kids. He made his living in the draying business, which either means he was hauling things in a sledge, or he was building sledges to haul things with. (Source)

He started to get active in the labor movement, and by today's standards, he held a weird combination of what would today be called far left- and right-wing views. For one thing, he hated "Capitalists," a term for rich factory-owners, and for another, he hated the Chinese. By 1877, he was knee-deep in the labor movement, being elected president of the Workingman's Union. He was arrested that year for inciting a riot, but the charges were dropped.

By 1878, he was completely of the opinion that the Chinese were to blame for pretty much everything. His catchphrase at the end of speeches was even, "The Chinese Must Go." (As catchphrases, we're going to say it's not as good as "Hulk smash," though it's about as nuanced.)

The Workingman's Union had a significant amount of political power. There were a lot of workingmen. Kearney got his protégé, Reverend Isaac Kalloch elected mayor. Despite the name, Kalloch was not in any way related to Kylo Ren.

Ironically enough, the economy in California improved by 1882, which made the Workingman's Party no longer "necessary." It stopped existing, but the damage had been done. The Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed.

As for what happened to him after that, the records are spotty. We have a death date in 1907, but that's about it. He'd already had more of an effect on history than most people born into his humble circumstances.

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