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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!


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