Did you know that the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first Congressional act to restrict immigration to the United States? Keep reading to understand the what, why, and how of this important piece of legislation for the APUSH exam.
What was the Chinese Exclusion Act?
In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that would simultaneously halt Chinese immigration to the United States and bar this group from becoming citizens. However, to truly understand this policy, you have to look further back in history.
Chinese immigrants came to the United States in significant numbers during the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855. These immigrants were important laborers, building the infrastructure that made the increase in Western migration possible, including the First Transcontinental Railroad.
The Chinese laborers were frequently scapegoated during economic downturns – and during the period of westward expansion (where monied men speculated wildly and the government had few, if any, regulations on their behavior), economic downturns were common – and white workers made their distaste for the Chinese known.
Additionally, the Chinese were often seen as outsiders and not true Americans: the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, but the events leading up to it were happening at the same time as slavery, so the concept of a non-white American citizen was not popularly held.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to appease workers economic concerns, as well as to pacify any concerns that non-whites would “overrun” white people; the idea of racial purity was incredibly important at this time for whites. This mix of racist fears, stoked by economic scarcity, led to the Chinese Exclusion Act being renewed for another 10 years in 1892. Finally, in 1902, the Chinese were permanently barred from immigrating to the United States; this ruling would not be overturned until 1943. In that year, Congress passed the Magnuson Act that finally allowed Chinese immigrants to become citizens (in part because China was an ally during World War Two against Imperial Japan).
How did people feel about the Chinese Exclusion Act at the time?
Let’s look at two perspectives on the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Although both of these sources were written after 1882, they provide valuable insight into the various perspectives regarding the Act.
“We have met here in San Francisco tonight to raise our voice to you in warning of a great danger that seems to us imminent, and threatens our almost utter destruction as a prosperous community. The danger is, that while we have been sleeping in fancied security, believing that the tide of Chinese immigration to our State had been checked and was in a fair way to be entirely stopped, our opponents, the pro-China wealthy men of the land, have been wide-awake and have succeeded in reviving the importation of this Chinese slave-labor. So that now, hundreds and thousands of Chinese are every week flocking into our State.”
– Excerpt from a speech given to the workingmen of San Francisco on August 16, 1888
“The treatment of the Chinese in this country is all wrong and mean. . .There is no reason for the prejudice against the Chinese. The cheap labor cry was always a falsehood. Their labor was never cheap, and is not cheap now. It has always commanded the highest market price…There are few Chinamen in jails and none in the poor-houses. There are no Chinese tramps or drunkards. Many Chinese here have become sincere Christians, in spite of the persecution which they have to endure from their heathen countrymen. More than half the Chinese in this country would become citizens if allowed to do so, and would be patriotic Americans.”
– Excerpt from Lee Chew, “The Biography of a Chinaman,” Independent, 15 (19 February 1903), 417–423.
In both excerpts, the themes of who is allowed to become an American intertwine with economic concerns that are central to that American identity. Chew, a Chinese immigrant, is making an argument about his virtue; these qualities, he believes, make him fit to be an American. However, the workingmen of San Francisco – white, working class men – describe Chinese immigration as being (a) at the request of the wealthy to drive down labor costs and (b) a direct threat to the “prosperity” they have accumulated.
These two excerpts are helpful in understanding how people at the time viewed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
If you want to know more about this time period in United States history, check out this list of resources.
And happy studying!
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About Allena Berry
Allena Berry loves history; that should be known upfront. She loves it so much that she not only taught high school history and psychology after receiving her Master's degree at Stanford University, she is now studying how students learn history at Northwestern. That being said, she does not have a favorite historical time period (so don't bother asking). In addition to history, she enjoys writing, practicing yoga, and scouring Craigslist for her next DIY project or midcentury modern piece of furniture.
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