As usual, I present this post with the caveat that I am neither a scholar nor a specialist in this field; I’m merely providing an overview for those who wish to have a cursory explanation and enough information to enable continued research on one’s own. For the parenthetical part of the title of this post, I chose the less-common, but contemporaneously-accurate, reference to the Chinese Restriction Act, although today it is most often called the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was a conscious choice, guided by my desire to show the fluidity and evolution of the immigration restrictions directed at the Chinese, and later other Asian immigrants.
Before addressing the nuts and bolts of the 1882 act and its successors, it’s important to understand what immigration was and was not before 1882. The United States effectively had open borders for immigrants: there were no quotas; there were limited restrictions which usually had to do with naturalization rather than immigration; and it wasn’t until 1875 that the Supreme Court declared that regulation of immigration was a Federal responsibility (in response to attempts in California to limit Chinese immigration through what were, frankly, extortionate practices).
The passage of laws which concern the admission of citizens and subjects of foreign nations to our shores belongs to Congress, and not to the States. It has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations: the responsibility for the character of those regulations, and for the manner of their execution, belongs solely to the national government. If it be otherwise, a single State can, at her pleasure, embroil us in disastrous quarrels with other nations. CHY LUNG v. FREEMAN, (1875)
Immigration was most often an issue addressed as through diplomatic avenues, and in the case of the Chinese, immigration was covered in the 1868 Burlingame Treaty.
American treaties with European nations routinely granted the free movement of people between nations, along with free movement of goods. In 1868 the United States negotiated a similar relationship with China in the Burlingame Treaty, whereby it recognized China as “an equal among nations” and agreed to “free migration and emigration” between the two countries. The surprisingly egalitarian nature of the treaty derived from American economic anxiety. As U.S. territorial expansion slowed and industrial expansion increased in the mid-nineteenth century, industrialists believed that finding overseas markets for their products was imperative. Through this agreement with China, U.S. diplomats curried favor with the Chinese in order to secure a vast market, provide U.S. capitalists with a flow of inexpensive labor, and give U.S. missionaries access to millions of potential converts. At the time, the treaty had widespread support: The Senate unanimously ratified it, and the press lauded “its vast commercial importance.” (Before Restriction Became Exclusion: America’s Experiment in Diplomatic Immigration Control, Beth Lew-Williams. Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Feb., 2014). (p. 29)
Most Chinese had only started arriving in the United States in response to the 1849 California gold rush, whether as would-be miners or as merchants building on the need for goods and services. Initially, there was little controversy in their arrival, but it did not take long for white miners to view them as usurpers who did not belong. In addition, the Chinese who had settled on the West coast were heavily recruited to work on the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1865; Central Pacific even recruited thousands directly from China. But with the completion of the railroad in 1869, most of these workers returned to California, where they were viewed as a direct threat to the “American” laborer. Finally, Chinese immigration became a political pawn with the collapse of Reconstruction, the return of Southern legislators to Congress, and the marginalization of Radical Republicans. The quid pro quo offered to West Coast legislators effectively became, “Turn back the progressive actions initiated by the Radical Republicans, and we’ll support the efforts to restrict Chinese immigration and rights.”
The virulent racism against the Chinese was not to be held in check by Congressional action for long. Chinese immigrants were variously described as “pagans,” “orange-colored Mongolians,” (and those are among the nicest slurs I found) and generally viewed as incapable of ever being a contributing member of [white] society.
His almond eyes are not large; he can subsist on rice and water, and feast on rice and ‘tea and water. And thus he becomes a source of competition, with whom no ordinary
laboring man can compete. It is sickening to hear men praise the unquestioning obedience and servility of the Chinese workman. What article of our political creed, pray, makes blind animal docility a virtue. Had the earlier settlers of this country possessed this detestable Asiatic attribute they would have left their children subjects of the British throne forever…
…We are forty millions —Saxon, Norman, Dane and Celt—liberty loving people all. The struggles- of the Germanic tribes against tyranny form part of our traditions ; the victory of Runnymede, Cromwell’s Protectorate, the long fight between Round-heads and Cavaliers—these things are not more England’s history than ours.The long-suffering of Ireland—her devotion to liberty—her ‘fidelity to religious conviction which oppression could not alter, are all woven into our legends. Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, Quaker and Rationalist are we, and yet with all this diversity of belief we agree on the essential point that a moral life, and a moral life only, can win the favor of an overruling Providence. But here is a country, vast in extent, occupied by 400,000,000± people, whose traditions contain no sentiment of liberty, and whose religion inculcates no rule of morality. It is not a savage people. In fact, its enervated civilization is of such antiquity that the love of freedom—the impatience of restraint, which is the strongest instinct of the untrained, natural man, withered and died within the breast of the Chinese so long ago that no memory of it remains…
…They never can nor will become American citizens. They would no more leave their bodies
on American soil than cut off their cues [sic]. They could no more comprehend ‘what a love of liberty means, than they could eat comfortably with a knife and fork. It took the world a thousand years to pierce the stubborn wall of China and let a ray of enlightenment shine within ; it will perhaps, take a thousand more to entirely batter it down. In the interim, let the Mongolians handle their chop-sticks on some other than American soil. (Should the United States Encourage Chinese Immigration? Hamilton Literary Monthy, Vol. VIII. Hamilton College, June 16, 1873). (pp. 11-12)
By the late 1870s, aided and fanned by the presidential aspirations of Sen. James Blaine (R-ME), Congress was willing to consider abrogating a treaty that it had ratified less than a decade before.
In the late nineteenth century, the three-time presidential hopeful sought to make his second attempt in 1880 a shoe-in by pandering to a xenophobic and fearful population of Euro-centric Americans. Blaine sought to abrogate a treaty protecting Chinese immigration. Needing the support of white labor in the west in order to achieve his presidential aspirations, Blaine encouraged their chants of “The Chinese Must Go!” and promised support of their demands. Before Trump, There Was Blaine
(Blaine lost the 1880 Republican nomination after the 28th ballot at a split convention, and James Garfield became the nominee. Blaine became his Secretary of State.)
An attempt in 1879 to pass a bill limiting immigration was vetoed by Rutherford Hayes, however, because it would violate the existing treaty, but abrogated only a small portion of the overall treaty. Hayes, recognizing the congressional right to abrogate a treaty, argued that it must abrogate all or none. He instead pushed for a new treaty, and in 1880, the Angell Treaty was negotiated. In contrast to the wide-open provisions of Burlingame, this treaty enabled the United States to “regulate, limit, or suspend” Chinese immigration but could not altogether prohibit it. The closing of the door was now on the table.
Shortly after the Angell Treaty was ratified, Senate Bill 71 was proposed, which sought to suspend the immigration of Chinese laborers for twenty years. It was strongly supported by most Democrats and western Republicans, who couched their support in terms of support for the American workingman, as well as raising fears of “contamination” of American civilization by the Chinese. However, a minority (but a sizeable one) of Republicans from eastern and mid-Atlantic states thought the bill was too extreme and would breach the new treaty. Their objections were largely based on concerns about what this would say about American honor and how it would imperil future negotiations; as a result, they fought to weaken the bill with (unsuccessful) amendments that included shortening the suspension to ten years. The bill eventually passed the Senate and House, but newly-elected Republican president Chester Arthur vetoed the bill.
The examination which I have made of the treaty and of the declarations which its negotiators have left on record of the meaning of its language leaves no doubt in my mind that neither contracting party in concluding the treaty of 1880 contemplated the passage of an act prohibiting immigration for twenty years, which is nearly a generation, or thought that such a period would be a reasonable suspension or limitation, or intended to change the provisions of the Burlingame treaty to that extent. I regard this provision of the act as a breach of our national faith, and being unable to bring myself in harmony with the views of Congress on this vital point the honor of the country constrains me to return the act with this objection to its passage. April 4, 1882: Veto of the Chinese Exclusion Act
In his statement, Arthur did provide a blueprint for a bill that he would sign, suggesting a shorter period of suspension as an “experiment.” Although Senate Bill 71 had pertained only to Chinese laborers (merchants and students were still free to come and go) as a way to maintain some semblance of diplomacy, a new version was introduced which shortened the suspension to ten years; eliminated the previously-proposed system of internal registration and passports; and discontinued the provision from S.B. 71 which made illegal immigration a crime punishable by imprisonment and a fine. Chester Arthur signed this new bill into law on May 6, 1882. With this weakened legislation, recent studies have shown that Chinese immigration was NOT, in fact, impacted in any appreciable way. What it did change, however, is how Chinese immigrants were viewed. With a passport system and internal registration eliminated from the final law, a negative presumption was made that if you were Chinese you were, or could be legitimately suspected of being, an illegal alien. No other immigrants to the United States faced this same suspicion.
Within a few years, it became clear that the 1882 act was virtually unenforceable. The funds for enforcement were low ($5000/year), and with pre-1880 Chinese immigrants allowed to travel freely between China and the United States, there was no way to track who was a legal immigrant and who was not. Violence against Chinese workers increased, and ultimately, it was that violence which paved the way for actual exclusion. Chinese diplomats called repeatedly for punishment of the perpetrators of the violence, as well as financial compensation for the victims. When that didn’t work, they proposed a new treaty where they would self-prohibit the immigration of new workers, in the hopes this would gain American trust and respect. The Bayard-Zhang Treaty would allow the prohibition of Chinese workers for twenty years, unless the laborer had a return certificate AND either $1000 in property or a direct relative (wife, child, parent) in the United States. Despite the negotiations, the Chinese indicated at the last moment that they would not ratify the treaty without further changes; Ambassador Zhang was felt to have bowed to American interests too completely and was recalled to China. But the U.S. government felt that the Chinese had opened the door to exclusion, not just restriction, so President Grover Cleveland pushed for a new bill in 1888 (not coincidentally, an election year). In 1888, he signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1888 (known as the Scott Act), which
was part of a series of legislation passed which intended to curb then ultimately ban any and all immigration to the United States from China. Introduced by Representative William Scott of Pennsylvania, chair of the Democratic National Campaign Committee, the Scott Act aimed the permanently ban the immigration and or return of Chinese laborers to the United States also ending the certification or exit visa process. …The passing of the Scott Act left 20 to 30 thousand Chinese who had temporarily left the United States to visit China unable to reenter the United States as it left their reentry certificates null and void. These people were left stranded in China having already built a life in America only to find themselves unable to return. The Chinese Government refused to recognize the bills legitimacy. Scott Act 1888
There can be no question that the seeds of our broken immigration system were planted with the Acts of both 1882 and 1888 (and beyond). Immigration became a political football then, and it has continued ever since. So the next time you hear someone say, “This isn’t who we are…”, suggest that they read up on the Chinese Restriction/Exclusion Act of 1882.
Bonus video: For those who wish to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend the PBS American Experience special, The Chinese Exclusion Act. It prompted this dive into immigration history. The Chinese Exclusion Act
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