Heather Cox Richardson
On May 6, 1882, President Chester Arthur signed into law theChinese Exclusion Act. This hotly contested law was the first in American history to prevent voluntary immigration to the United States. It was also the formal rejection of one of the founding principles of the Republican Party: that the immigration of workers to the U.S. was fundamental to the country’s strength.
|An 1882 cartoon: "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT.|
Enlightened American Statesman.--"We must
draw the line somewhere, you know."
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Chinese immigration to America began with the Gold Rush. Its flood tide in 1849 coincided with the economic catastrophe left in China by the Opium Wars, and young Chinese men came to “Gold Mountain” to earn money to feed their families back home. Chinese miners did well financially in California, but quickly came under fire from native-born Americans, who first passed a “Foreign Miners’ Tax” targeting Chinese miners and then tried to prevent Chinese immigrants from testifying in court.
The attempts to create a legal caste system bothered budding Republicans like William Henry Seward and Abraham Lincoln. The idea that men were not equal in America, but rather could be divided by legal status, echoed the beliefs of the southern Democrats that Republicans opposed. When Republicans took over the national government, they stood firm against that theory. They not only ended slavery, but also promoted immigration. Immigrants, their 1864 platform declared: had “added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations,” that immigration “should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.” Immigrants worked hard, made products that created value, and helped to fuel a rising spiral of economic prosperity. Republicans believed that the more immigrants a country attracted, the more its economy would expand.
The Republican government fostered and encouraged Chinese immigration through the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, which opened both China and America to immigrants from the opposite country. While migrants to China tended to be missionaries and engineers, migrants to America tended to be laborers. The Panic of 1873 and the depression that followed it turned native-born Americans against those same Chinese laborers, and calls to exclude the Chinese from access to America grew loud.
The result of their hostility was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which kept Chinese laborers—but not businessmen, scholars, or diplomats—0ut of America. Over the vehement protests of older Republicans, Americans insisted that America had no place for immigrants who might take jobs from native-born workers. No longer did the nation adhere to the belief that all workers fed a growing economy. Instead, a majority of Americans subscribed to the idea that workers competed with each other, and that certain workers were not welcome to be part of that competition.
The Chinese Exclusion Act marked a major shift in immigration policy, to be sure. But it also marked a seismic shift in the national understanding of the mechanics of economic growth.