{ subscribe_url: '/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/law.php' }

The Chinese Exclusion Act, Part 1 – The History

The following is a guest post by Caitlin Connelly, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the Master of Information program at Rutgers University.

The United States made its first attempt to restrict immigration by race in the 1880s, influenced by a combination of racial tensions, labor unrest, and an increase in Chinese immigration in the previous decades. Passed in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act set the tone for nearly a century of legal measures designed to limit Asian immigration to the country.

Black and white illustration of groups of Chinese men working on mountains of rock to lay the last mile of the Pacific Railroad. An explosion cloud is visible in the background.

Waud, Alfred R. , Artist. Work on the last mile of the Pacific Railroad–Mingling of European with Asiatic laborers / sketched by A. R. Waud. 1869. Photograph.

While Chinese immigration to the U.S. began with the California Gold Rush of 1849, the population of Chinese immigrants in the country increased in the following years due to the “open door” provisions of the 1868 Burlingame-Seward Treaty (Peace, Amity, and Commerce, Ta-Tsing Empire (China)-U.S, July 24, 1868. 48 U.S.T. 608). This treaty granted citizens of both the U.S. and China the rights to unrestricted travel and immigration. In 1860 there were 35,565 Chinese immigrants in the U.S., and by 1880 that number had increased to 105,613. Many of these immigrants were men who intended to return home to their families after earning some money in the U.S., where wages were higher than in China.

Thus, many Chinese immigrants were contracted laborers who worked in West Coast industries like mining, agriculture, and railroad construction. Because they could be paid significantly less than white laborers, they were often favored when companies looked to cut costs or replace workers on strike. This practice led to a widespread sentiment that Chinese laborers were stealing jobs from white laborers. Moreover, white Americans saw Chinese immigrants as unsuitable for assimilation. In his dissenting opinion in Chew Heong v. United States, Justice Stephen J. Field summed up this sentiment:

“…[Chinese immigrants] have remained among us a separate people, retaining their original peculiarities of dress, manners, habits, and modes of living, which are as marked as their complexion and language… They do not and will not assimilate with our people; and their dying wish is that their bodies may be taken to China for burial.” (Emphasis added) (112 U.S. 536 (1884), p. 566)

Black and white illustration of a Chinese man, wearing a hat over his queue, seated on a crate outside doors marked "Golden Gate of Liberty." "No admittance to Chinamen" is written on the wall beside the doors.

The only one barred out Enlightened American statesman – “We must draw the line somewhere, you know.” United States, 1882. [New York: Frank Leslie] Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.11861

California was among the first states to try to pass exclusion legislation. As early as 1858, California attempted to pass “An Act to Prevent Further Immigration of Chinese or Mongolians to This State.” That Act was immediately challenged and ruled unconstitutional (but not officially repealed until 1955), but other laws designed to inconvenience or humiliate were not. For example, between 1873 and 1875, San Francisco passed several ordinances against firecrackers and Chinese ceremonial gongs, items associated with cultural practices. A controversial law in San Francisco, known as the “Queue Ordinance,” was successfully challenged in 1873. An attempt to reinstate the law came in 1875, and would have required arrested Chinese men to shave off their queues, but was vetoed by the mayor.

Anti-Chinese sentiment became more widespread after an economic downturn in the 1870s, which prompted the question of how to deal with the Chinese laborers who were supposedly stealing jobs and depressing wages. For many white Americans, the answer to the “Chinese Question” could be found in Chinese Exclusion, which intended to force Chinese laborers from their jobs, their communities, and the country, either through litigation or violence.

These efforts were championed by the anti-Capitalist, anti-Chinese Workingmen Party, led by orator and agitator Denis Kearney, who was known for ending his speeches with the phrase “The Chinese Must Go.” Though the Workingmen lost influence as the economy improved in the early 1880s, they had already significantly influenced state legislation and the state’s 1879 Constitution. Section XIX of the Constitution, titled “Chinese,” discourages Chinese immigration and seeks to prevent both the state and private companies from hiring Chinese laborers, declaring:

“No corporation now existing or hereafter formed under the laws of this State, shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, employ directly or indirectly, in any capacity, any Chinese or Mongolian.” (Constitution of California, Art. XIX, Sec. 2, p. xli)

Part 2 will be published on Monday, May 16, to discuss the Act in question and its legacy. Stay tuned!

Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.

Education in Early Modern Spain: Whose Responsibility?

The following is a guest post by Katie DeFonzo, who served as a fall 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress. Es la Educacion vna segunda vida; que se da al hombre, ò por major dezir, la mas comoda conservacion de […]

Watch Recordings of Law Library Webinars and Events You May Have Missed

Over the past six months, the Law Library has held many webinars on topics concerning foreign, comparative, and international law, Law Library collections, as well as our recurring orientations on how to research U.S. case law, federal statutes, and federal regulations. The Law Library also presented its annual Supreme Court Fellows Lecture and Human Rights Day events, as well […]

Presidential Proclamation 10000

While looking for information in the Code of Federal Regulations over the last couple of years I noticed that we were getting close to the 10,000th presidential proclamation and I thought it would be fun to locate that 10,000th proclamation. But what are proclamations and where are they published? The Law Library’s research guide, Executive […]

New Law Library Report Explores “Golden Visas” and “Golden Passports” in Various Countries

Last month, the Law Library of Congress published a new report titled Investment Migration Programs of Visa Waiver Program Countries. The report consists of a table and map showing which countries that are part of the United States visa waiver program provide residence visas or citizenship to eligible applicants who undertake to make certain investments in […]

Congress.gov May 2022 New, Tip and Top

In April, Andrew wrote about the addition of Alerts to member pages so users can be notified when a member in whom they are interested has sponsored or cosponsored a bill. This month, we are releasing another enhancement to Member pages. Now users can directly access their member’s contact information in Congress.gov. simply by clicking […]

A Congress.gov Interview with Cassidy Charles, Legislative Data Specialist

Today’s interview is with Cassidy Charles, a legislative data specialist in the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress. Describe your background. I joined the Congressional Research Service in 2020. I earned a B.A. in Political Science Pre-Law from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania and an M.L.I.S. from Rutgers, the State University of New […]