Study Guide

John Bigler in Chinese Exclusion Act

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John Bigler

John Bigler was more than just a hilarious name. He was a pretty remarkable guy for his time. A misguided one, sure, but still remarkable. After all, he received no formal education and yet somehow managed to become the editor of a newspaper and a lawyer.

Bigler was a Democrat and the third ever Governor of California, beating the Whig party's nominee Pierson B. Reading. Yes, the old party the Democrats used to contend with were the Whigs. There were even Whig presidents, and we're not talking about Washington and Jefferson either. (They just wore wigs. Totally different.)

In 1854, in the middle of Bigler's tenure as governor, the Democrats tried to change the name of Lake Tahoe to Lake Bigler. Here's the crazy part: they succeeded. At least officially. Though it was "Lake Bigler" on all official maps, the name never caught on. Maybe because it sounds ridiculous. In any case, in 1945, the old name was restored.

Bigler shows up here because he was an early opponent to Chinese immigration. His term was roughly thirty years before the Chinese Exclusion Law was enacted, but his attitudes can be seen in it. He revived an old law that placed a tax on foreign laborers, but modified it so the tax was exclusively on Chinese laborers. Yes, this was somehow legal.

He increased these taxes over his two terms, though eventually his $50 tax per Chinese laborer entering the state was struck down by the California Supreme Court.

After his tenure as governor, Bigler remained a fixture in the Democratic Party. He served in a variety of political posts, but ironically enough his final job was his first. He served as an editor for a paper he founded until his death at the age of sixty-six.

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