The Calm Before the Federal Storm

The late 1850s saw the Chinese government attempting to intervene in the treatment of Chinese immigrants in the Western states. American officials weren’t unresponsive, but the American consul in Kwangtung differentiated between the “coolie trade” and “voluntary emigration of Chinese adventurers.” He opined that regulations regarding voluntary labor could be addressed in future treaties, but that coolie traffic should be condemned “as a matter of humanity and policy.” But in 1859, the U.S Attorney general declared that any remedies had to come from congress.[1] It would take a mutiny involving involuntary Chinese laborers for Congress to enact a law prohibiting their transport on American ships and subjecting Chinese ports to inspection.[2] In essence, this meant that from that day forward, any Chinese laborer arriving in the US had been certified as free by the American government. But instead of really benefiting the laborers, it simply made acquiring them that much easier.

There was still fierce opposition to Chinese laborers in the West, especially California, but Western capitalists and business owners continued to promote their advantages as “womanlike labor.”[3]In 1862, the California Joint Select Committee of the Assembly recommended that all resistance to Chinese labor be dropped since the coolie problem had been “solved” and all laborers were now free. To the surprise of probably no one, the Assembly rejected the resolution, choosing instead to send a long letter to Congress warning of the unassimilable Chinese immigrants and the dangers of bringing laborers who were so close to slave-like into California. The Senate blocked the letter.[4]  

The demand for Chinese laborers, though, was intense. Even though Governor Leland Stanford claimed, in his inaugural address of 1862, that the “settlement among us of an inferior race should be discouraged by every legitimate means…” railroads continued bringing in more Chinese workers. In fact, as the demand rose, merchants in California started to directly recruit laborers from China.[5] But this was the far West. Most of the country was kinda busy in the early 1860s. Even so, in Abraham Lincoln’s December 1863 address to Congress, he shows a fairly keen interest in immigration. (Ok, he talks about a lot of stuff in the speech, but for our purposes, its immigration that matters.) In his speech, Lincoln tells Congress that “I again submit to your consideration the expediency of establishing a system for the encouragement of immigration. Although this source of national wealth and strength is again flowing with greater freedom than for several years before the insurrection occurred, there is still a great deficiency of laborers in every field of industry…” Lincoln believes “that under the sharp discipline of civil war the nation is beginning a new life.”[6] He clearly sees that the War is leading to the necessity of an influx of workers. While not specifically mentioning it, the War is having a heavy toll on the country’s male labor pool and clearly they will not be replaced naturally. Lincoln does not mention Chinese laborers, but since the country will certainly be needing workers when it is reconstructed after the War, there must be a place for the Chinese, right? Maybe. Probably. But no.

Heather Cox Richardson writes that the mid- 1800s “was a complicated story in which sectional animosities, racial tensions, industrialization, women’s activism, and westward expansion cut across party lines to create both a new definition of what it meant to be an American and a new vision of the government’s role in the lives of its citizens.”[7] Reconstruction was exactly that: an attempt to reconstruct the country and redefine roles and relationships that had been destroyed. So many aspects of the country changed. Relationships were redefined and those who formerly had no voice began to find theirs. Everything was different. Almost. It would be disingenuous to say that nothing much happened regarding Chinese immigrants from 1848 to 1882. Quite a bit did. But what did not happen is Chinese laborers finding a voice. Events unfolded around them. Americans argued for and against their presence, even the Chinese government spoke up. Mostly though, they continued to work, they continued to arrive (although never in the numbers that California sinophobes claimed). This is not to say that Reconstruction would not play a role in Chinese exclusion. In the congressional debates, Southern politicians would use the language of Reconstruction to push for exclusion and it would get ugly.

Another thing that didn’t happen was that the federal government did not show any interest in Chinese immigrants. Local governments did. Western state governments did. But the federal government stayed mostly uninvolved. The Burlingame Treaty would be the beginning of all that changing. Hatred of Chinese people would prove to a unifying force in a country fragmented in so many ways.

[1] Lucy M. Cohen, Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People Without a History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984),35-39

[2] Edward Prince Hutchinson, Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 44, 48

[3] Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008), 179

[4] Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer and Roger Daniels, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 43

[5] Zolberg, 180

[6] Lincoln, Speech to Congress, December 8, 1863

[7] Heather Cox Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 2

Primary Documents

Abraham Lincoln, December 8, 1863: Third Annual Message

<object class="wp-block-file__embed" data="; type="application/pdf" style="width:100%;height:600px" aria-label="Embed of The American Emigrant Company (<em>New York TimesThe American Emigrant Company (New York Times, September 6, 1863, Page 3 Download

American Emigrant Company, chartered for the purpose of procuring and assisting emigrants from foreign countries to settle in the United States ; statement of the object and mode of operation of this company, addressed to the employers of labor in all parts of the United States

Leland Stanford, 8th Governor of California (R) Inaugural Address, January 10, 1862

Author: theprogressivehistorian

Immigration historian

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