Study Guide

Early American Immigration People

  • James G. Blaine

    James G. Blaine (1830–1893) was a prominent Republican politician of the late-19th century. He represented Maine in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives (where he was Speaker), and also served twice as Secretary of State. He was the Republican nominee for president in 1884, but lost the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

    In 1879, Blaine became the first powerful Easterner to embrace the California political issue of Chinese Exclusion. His support would prove crucial in the eventual passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 

    "The question in my mind lies thus," Blaine said, justifying his position. "Either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it. We have this day to choose [...] whether our 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 of a man who can live on rice." 

    Blaine was the first prominent Republican to endorse Chinese Exclusion, his position shocking many since martyred Republican hero Abraham Lincoln had been a strong opponent of the politics of nativism during his lifetime.

  • Charles Crocker

    Charles Crocker (1822–1888) was a failed miner who became a successful shop-owner in the California Gold Rush, then reinvested the profits from his store to become one of the "Big Four" directors of the Central Pacific Railroad. In that role, Crocker oversaw the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Crocker—like his "Big Four" colleagues Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins—earned extravagant wealth from the Central Pacific railroad empire.

    In 1865, when faced with a strike threat from white workers building the transcontinental railroad, Crocker hired a gang of 50 Chinese workers to take their jobs. Within two years, 90% of the Central Pacific's labor force was made up of Chinese immigrants, who worked long hours in backbreaking conditions for very low pay. While white workingmen denounced Crocker for hiring "coolie labor," the railroad work Crocker provided sustained California's fledgling Chinese community.

  • Millard Fillmore

    Millard Fillmore (1800–1874) was the last Whig to serve as President of the United States, holding that office from 1850 to 1853. He was not elected, but rather rose to office from the vice presidency upon the death of his predecessor, Zachary Taylor. Fillmore's undistinguished presidency helped lead to the collapse of the Whig Party, and he failed to win even the Whig nomination to run for a second term in 1852.

    In 1856, however, Fillmore returned to run for president again—this time as the candidate of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings' American Party. In a three-way race against Democrat James Buchanan and John C. Fremont of the brand-new Republican Party, Fillmore finished last, winning just 23% of the vote. Voters apparently didn't find Fillmore and the Know-Nothings' anti-immigration crusade to be politically compelling.

  • Benjamin Franklin

    Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was one of the most celebrated of America's Founding Fathers, a man who enjoyed success as an inventor, scientist, printer, politician, and diplomat. He helped to draft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

    In 1753, Franklin wrote about heavy German immigration into his home colony of Pennsylvania. His basic concerns about the consequences of that immigration for the English language and Anglo-American society have been echoed many times since in American history. 

    "Few of their Children in the Country learn English," Franklin wrote. "They import many Books from Germany. [...] The Signs in our Streets have Inscriptions in both Languages, and in some places only German. [...] In short, unless the Stream of their Importation could be turned [...] they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will not in my Opinion be able to preserve our Language, and even our Government will become precarious."

  • John Marshall Harlan

    Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911) served on the United States Supreme Court from 1877 to 1911. He may be best remembered for writing the lone dissent to the Court's notorious 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that racial segregation was legal and constitutional. Harlan's dissent, a moving invocation of the principle of racial equality under the law, became a beacon of hope to civil rights advocates during the dark days of Jim Crow in America. 

    "In view of the Constitution," Harlan wrote, "in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."

    But even in writing this defense of racial equality, Justice Harlan made one argument that revealed the depths of anti-Chinese prejudice in 19th-century America. Jim Crow was unfair, Harlan wrote, because it was wrong to treat American blacks worse than Chinese. 

    "There is a race so different to our own," Harlan wrote, "that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the State and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by members of the white race."

  • Mark Hopkins

    Mark Hopkins (1813–1878) was one of the "Big Four" directors of the Central Pacific Railroad, which built the western end of the transcontinental railroad between 1865 and 1869. The railroad turned Hopkins into a multimillionaire, and he built himself one of the world's most lavish mansions atop San Francisco's posh Nob Hill.

    In 1877, Hopkins became the target of ferocious anger from San Francisco Workingman's Party leader Denis Kearney. Kearney believed that an unholy alliance of American plutocrats and Chinese "coolie" laborers had combined to deprive white workingmen of the opportunity to earn a decent living. 

    He staged a massive rally on Hopkins' doorstep, shouting, "Central Pacific Railroad men are thieves, and will soon feel the power of the workingmen. When I have thoroughly organized my party, we will march through the city and compel the thieves to give up their plunder. [...] I will give the Central Pacific just three months to discharge their Chinamen, and if that is not done, Stanford and his crowd will have to take the consequences."

  • Denis Kearney

    Denis Kearney (1847–1907) was a charismatic Irish immigrant who became the leader of the virulently anti-Chinese San Francisco Workingman's Party in the 1870s. Kearney believed that unemployment and misery for white workers were the result of unfair competition from Chinese "coolie" laborers, who would work for much lower wages than those typically earned by American workingmen.

    During the 1870s, Kearney turned the Workingman's Party into a force in California politics. Kearney's allies controlled the city government of San Francisco and made up a large majority in the California state legislature. His slogan—"Chinese Must Go!"—carried all the way to Washington, D.C., where the San Francisco Workingmen's agitation raised the issue of Chinese immigration to national prominence. Perhaps no other individual was as instrumental as Kearney in pushing Congress to adopt the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

  • Abraham Lincoln

    Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was the 16th President of the United States during one of the most consequential periods in American history, the Civil War. Before being elected president, Lincoln served in the Illinois legislature and lost an election for the U.S. Senate to Stephen A. Douglas. Nevertheless, his fierce campaign earned him a nomination for the presidency. The first Republican president ever, Lincoln led the Union to victory in the Civil War and ended slavery in America.

    While serving as a state legislator in Illinois, Lincoln wrote a letter strongly condemning the popular anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party. 

    "I am not a Know-Nothing," he wrote. "How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of N****es be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it, ' all men are created equal, except N****es.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, 'all men are created equal, except N****es, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for example, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy." (Source)

  • Thomas Paine

    Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was a radical writer who emigrated from England to America in 1774. Just two years later, early in 1776, Paine published Common Sense, a hugely influential pamphlet that convinced many American colonists that the time had finally come to break away from British rule. No other figure played a greater role in moving the American people from a spirit of rebellion to one of revolution.

    In Common Sense, Paine—perhaps influenced by his own recent experience as an immigrant—celebrated America's unique role in the world as a safe haven for immigrants, describing the colonies romantically as "the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe."