The Exclusion of the Chinese
Digital History ID 4053
Article on Chinese exclusion in the North American Review.
From 1882 until 1943, most Chinese immigrants were barred from entering the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the nation's first law to ban immigration by race or nationality. All Chinese people--except travelers, merchants, teachers, students, and those born in the United States--were barred from entering the country. Federal law prohibited Chinese residents, no matter how long they had legally worked in the United States, from becoming naturalized citizens.
The Exclusion of the Chinese
The Chinese bill established as the policy of the United States for a period of ten years the exclusion of Chinese laborers from our territory. But that bill was only a provisional disposition of the question. The permanent policy of the United States is yet to be determined. The present bill was undoubtedly a concession to the clamorous demands of California. Its enactment was secured through party and sectional combination, with a view to party and personal advantage, rather than through conviction. The wisdom and justice of exclusion, and its consistency with the object and spirit of our institutions, are still open questions.
The policy of the Chinese bill seemed illiberal to Eastern statesmen. It appeared to be contradictory of the principles of the Revolution and antagonistic to the spirit and subversive of the ends of our institutions whereas, it is fully in conformity with them. The people of the Pacific coast perceive a national danger which has escaped the perception of the political philosophers of New England, and they now supplicate the assistance of the sentiment which antagonized slavery when it was sapping the manhood of the masses of America. They object to the influx of Chinese laborers because it is calculated to sweep from existence our great middle class, and to reduce the mass of our population to the condition of laborers destitute of property and excluded from the comforts, the refinements, and the means of intellectual and physical culture and of progress which our civilization affords, and because it threatens to overthrow our domestic institutions and the democratic condition of our society. The people of the Pacific coast do not intend a real departure from the policy of the founders of our Government. The fathers embraced the whole human race in their philanthropic sympathy. They adopted the policy that this country should he the “refuge of the oppressed” of all nations, because in its ordinary operation that policy conduces to the welfare of the race, and because at the time it seemed the most direct and unequivocal means of benefiting our people and the race. But the reason for the policy ceases when its operation threatens the destruction of our democratic society and the dissolution of our republican institutions. It does this when it threatens the existence of our domestic institution, and the continuance of the normal industrial and economical condition of our society.
This Chinese labor element is calculated to produce, and has actually set on foot, a destructive social change. It is a change similar to that wrought by slavery. Slavery undoubtedly produced immense wealth both in the North and the South, but it was effecting a fatal change in the structure of society. It was working a division of society into three strongly marked classes: First, a class of white aristocrats, composed of the white land-owners and of the men of the professions and of literature; second, a class of black slaves and, third, a class of miserable whites, who fell from the first class to sink to a level socially little above that of slavery. The aristocratic class was becoming narrower by the dropping out of bankrupt land-owners and by the consolidation of estates. The whites of modest property were becoming steadily impoverished by competition with their slave-owning neighbors. The white laborers were becoming more degraded, their condition more hopeless, and their numbers greater in proportion to the whole white population. They could get employment on such terms only as would make them as profitable to the planters as slaves. The tendency necessarily was toward a compensation which would enable them to maintain the same domestic establishments with the plantation hands, and enjoy the same scale of comforts. It was impossible for them, by labor and frugality, to accumulate wealth to become thus independent, and to furnish their children with refining surroundings and with an education. In such a social state, poverty and ignorance were the lot of the major portion of the white population, or would soon be.
In 1880, an analogous condition of things seemed imminent in the West, owing to the presence of a considerable Chinese laboring population. The Chinese laborers in California number seventy thousand or over. They easily adapt themselves to work requiring no great capacity, and they flock to any manual employment for which they are fitted, making the competition therein extreme. They are submissive laborers, but they are incompetent for positions where managing ability, good judgment, and energy are required. They come from the lowest stratum of Chinese society, and accept as the regular order of nature, poverty, submission to superiors, resignation to stint, and a mechanical pursuit of the vocations of their fathers. They are the only class of Chinese who are disposed, and who need, to come to America. The pressure of the dense population of China concentrating upon the class to which they belong, entailing stint and starvation, overcomes the conservatism of their race, the social disapproval of their society, their superstition, and their attachment to their country. Merchants who find enormous profits in supplying and guiding the labor of the immense body of laborers, and in ministering to their peculiar wants and passions, are the only representatives of the higher classes among them. They are almost exclusively employed in woolen mills, fish canneries, and sugar manufactories; they form a majority of the employees in sack and boot factories, and in fruit-canning establishments. With each year they acquire facility in some operation of industry peculiar to our society. That their serviceableness is due to imitativeness is evidenced by the wages in the woolen mills of California. In New England there are ten or more classes of operatives. Wages vary with each class, and range from $5.34 to $11.00 per week. In California, the Chinese operatives, constituting ninety percent of the workmen in such mills, receive a uniform compensation of $5.25 per week.
These male laborers bring no families with them. However long their stay, no individual of these thousands of laborers shows an inclination to acquire a wife and family. As general is the absence of any intention to acquire property, or of the faintest desire to become more than mere laborers upon this continent. The laborer intends to save a little fortune and then return to China; but the majority spend their earnings in opium and gambling, and die in America. These laborers congregate in Chinatown in the towns, and in the Chinese quarters on the plantations. Except in the cities, where they occupy sections abandoned by the whites, they house themselves in rough huts of five and six rooms. Such huts no respectable white family could occupy without a feeling of social degradation. They sleep in bunks or in lofts, from six to twenty in a house, and cook over a furnace or broken stove. The cellars beneath are either opium dens or the quarters of the only women in Chinatown, the prostitutes who minister to the apathetic passions of this laboring population. In the city of San Francisco, the Chinese population of twenty thousand, with the exception of a few washermen, is crowded into less than twelve blocks. In these habitations they live; from these they go out to work. As a consequence, the cost of lodging is reduced to the utmost minimum for the average Chinese laborer in California, not over half a dollar, certainly not over one dollar, a month. The dietetic habits of the Chinese are upon as low a plane. Mr. Seward, in an article in this REVIEW for June 1882, states that they eat as "good” food as the whites. This may be true in our country in case the word “good” is used in the sense of wholesome; but it is absolutely erroneous if it is meant that their food, either in abundance or variety, is equal to that of white families. The ordinary diet of the vast body of Chinese laborers consists of tea and rice, and a few varieties of vegetables. In California, they consume very generally brandy and pork as ordinary food. With this diet they live luxuriously compared with the style of living enjoyed by the corresponding class in China. The common foods of America, bread, butter, milk, sugar, and coffee, without which the table of the meanest American laborer would be stinted; the dried fruit, the various meats and delicacies which add so much to the well-being and content of our laboring classes, never appear upon the tables in the Chinese quarters. The absence of these ordinary foods is no deprivation which moves the Chinese laborers to discontent; it does not prompt them to exercise self-denying thrift, or to seek to better their condition. Their diet and their mode of life are their deliberate preference. Their dress is scantier than that of the humblest white workman. The Chinese laborer endures such discomforts from the weather as would be intolerable to a white man; but centuries of penury have bred it into his nature to bear such discomfort without thought and without rebellion. It is safe to say that the average cost of food and shelter to the Chinese laborer in California is not more than $5.00 per month, and that this sum enables him to live in a satisfactory manner. The result of this standard of living has been that throughout the State, in all employments in which no other qualities than those of strength, laboriousness, patience, docility, steadiness, and imitativeness are required, the Chinese have underbid white laborers, and have wholly or partially supplanted them. In those employments wages were uniformly lowered in 1880. It is true that wages are higher in most callings in California than in other States, but not much higher in proportion to the cost of living. Chinamen were readily obtained for $20.00 per month the year around, they to board themselves. It is rare that a white man is paid less than $20.00 a month, with board. Reasonable wages are $1.00 a day and board. As a consequence of the cheapness of the services of the Chinese, many of the river-bottom farms had, in 1880, and in many cases still have, their Chinese quarters of from two to half a dozen huts. In these dwelt a small community of Chinese, who did the ordinary work of the farm during all seasons of the year, and who bore the same relation to the industries of the farm which, before the Civil War, was borne by the inhabitants of the negro quarters to the industries of the plantations of the South.
The question arises, what is the significance of this substitution with regard to our industrial, social, and political future what did this substitution mean? Had it continued, would it merely have caused certain fields of labor to be occupied by Chinese and others by whites, without working any effect upon the condition of the white laborer and upon his home life, and upon the distribution of wealth, comfort, and intelligence in our society? Here is a mass of male laborers. The individual intends an indefinite stay in California, limited only by the intention of returning home when he has accumulated a certain amount of money. Those who return are replaced immediately by others from the same class and bent upon the same errand. One-half of them, however, succumb to the fascination of gambling and opium. The superstition of the Chinaman requires that he shall not make a permanent home in California. That alone would have restrained the laborer from binding himself to the soil of this continent by a family; and that alone would have operated as an effectual barrier for a century to come to the introduction of the institution of the family into this population of 70,000 laborers. From 1870 to 1880, these laborers were entering San Francisco at the rate of from 1,000 to 2,000 per month. The price of unskilled labor in the provinces of China is from $3.00 to $4.00 per month, or at the rate of from ten to thirteen cents per day. It is safe to say that in less than ten years Chinese laborers would have to come to America readily for the prospect of getting constant employment at even $10.00 per month, without board, double or triple the wages obtainable in their own laud. Especially would this have been the case when the cost of passage amounted only to the possible savings of a few months. Within that time China could and would have furnished us with from one to three hundred thousand male laborers annually.
It remains to be considered what would be the consequence of the influx of a population of laborers, content to remain mere laborers, unencumbered by families, satisfied with the mode of life described, and willing to work for wages lower than any known to our civilization, at least in England and America. Would it tend to elevate humanity, sustain our civilization, and strengthen the foundations of our institutions? In the solution of these questions is to be found the fundamental and decisive objection to the influx of this laboring class.
This influx would certainly tend to a great and rapid massing of wealth on the Pacific sea-board for a generation or century, at least. Transportation made extremely speedy and cheap, obstructive legislation avoided, demonstrations of popular dislike among the working people prevented, the influx would increase indefinitely to meet any possible industrial development. California would take front rank among manufacturing countries. Chinese laborers now form ninety percent, at least, of the laborers in the few woolen mills she possesses. That fact alone demonstrates the especial fitness and serviceableness of Chinese as the ordinary operatives in manufactories. Manufactures would multiply. Labor abundant, wages approximating near to $10.00 per month, and operatives submissive, never, given to strikes, with few personal aims and ambitions to distract them and to make them independent, the manufacturing establishments of California would underbid the world.
This would be the first and the conspicuous result of the unlimited influx of the Chinese. But, correlatively with this material development, social change would be in progress; a change roughly stated as consisting in the gradual differentiation of classes, attended by the exaltation of one part of society and the hopeless degradation of the other and the greater part. It would consist of the division of society into a class of wealthy owners of land and manufactories with the professional classes they would sustain, on the one hand; and on the other, side by side with the class of Chinese laborers, a class of wretched whites doomed to labor for a pittance sufficient to sustain them and their families in the style of their competitors only, or, in other words, in helpless and gaffing destitution. The process of this change, if allowed to continue, would necessarily be complex. It would appear, however, in two well-defined successive stages. The first stage would be fourfold in its processes. It would consist, first, in the substitution of this laboring class for our own white labor, in existing fields of industry, in whatever employments required only physical exertion and a low grade of skill; second, in the occupation by these laborers of new labor fields opened by the white business classes of California, to the exclusion of the Eastern and European immigrant; third, in dragging down the white laborers who remained in California and also remained manual laborers, to a level, in their standard of living, with the standard of living uniformly adopted by this class-and, fourth, in pushing up the multitude of whites who retained property to the position of a class elevated immeasurably above the class of laborers.
This first stage, with its fourfold processes, had fairly commenced in 1880. In California, the wages of Chinese workmen were less by from ten to forty percent than the wages of whites engaged in the same grade of labor. Where they proved serviceable they were employed, and when once employed they were uniformly retained. Were it a cigar manufactory into which they were introduced, they were never replaced by whites, because in case hard times made it possible to obtain whites at then existing Chinese rates, or on terms that warranted the change, Chinese laborers could always be got at lower rates.
Furthermore, as industries were developed, the new labor fields were being filled more and more generally by Chinese laborers. The white laborers supplanted in the fields of labor successively occupied by the Chinese, were either leaving the State, or were ascending to the ranks of small land and property holders, there to enjoy the advantage of the cheap labor in developing their lands and modest manufactures; or they found other occupations. These classes left their places to be filled, not by the immigrants of their own race, nor yet by their children, but by this Chinese population of male laborers. Of this fact the census of 1870 furnishes evidence. The following table gives the percentage of Chinese in the principal fields of manual labor in that year in California: *
Employees in Cotton and woolen mills…..52 5/10%
Miners…………………………………… .25 %
Agricultural laborers………………………10 %
Nursery-men, gardeners, etc………………25 %
Domestic servants…………………………28 %
Traders, dealers……………………………7 5/10%
Railroad employees………………………...22 8/10%
Employees in boot and shoe manufactories..15 6/10%
Employees in cigar and tobacco factories….89 6/10%
From 1870 to 1880, the number of Chinese in various callings increased, but of the extent the census of 1880 furnishes us no information. That census, as far as published, gives the numbers of those in the various callings born in Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, and British America, but classes persons of all other nationalities together. As persons of other nationalities constitute nearly one-third of the persons of this class, the figures are of little service for this inquiry. However, the census shows that in the manufactories of boots and shoes, forty-seven and nine-tenths of the employees come under the last class. Those are known to be mainly Chinese. In the comparatively undeveloped stage of the industries of California in the year 1870, or not more than ten years after the establishment of extensive manufacturing and agricultural industries upon the Pacific coast, it could not be expected that many fields should be exclusively occupied by Chinese laborers. While the industries were still in process of development,
The figures of the census include in the case of manufactures all engaged in them, whether in the capacity of employers, overseers, clerical employees, or employees in the engine-room and yards, as well as the mere manual operatives. As Chinese are employed in the capacity of manual operatives only, it is clear, therefore, that they made in 1870 a far larger proportion of such operatives than appears on the face of the census. Hence my statements in parts of this article that Chinese form a majority of employees in certain employments is not inconsistent with the census of 1870. It is based on personal observation services were required which could be rendered by white laborers only; but the fact that already in cigar-making and in woolen manufactories the operatives (manual laborers) were almost exclusively Chinese, indicates the tendency in these industries of California at that time, while they were still in their inchoatic stage.
Meanwhile, those of the laboring population who could not emigrate in consequence of insufficient means, or who did not emigrate in consequence of inertia, and who remained common laborers, found themselves in competition with a class of laborers outnumbering them, and a class who could and who did inevitably underbid them. They found the average rate of wages diminishing steadily, and for California, compared to the cost of living, abnormally. The major part of the increase of the whites found new fields for their activity in developing new industries and new mining regions; or in employments where the new country demanded a more active, hardy, and energetic class of laborers than the Chinese. But into these new fie1d the Chinese constantly followed the whites. When these fields were conquered, competition by the Chinese commenced, and the whites were compelled to ascend to the higher ranks, to move away, or, as yet in the minority of cases, to sink to the level of the Chinese in the wages received and in the standard of domestic establishments maintained. Had the immigration of Chinese continued, as the expansion of industries became less rapid and the population more dense, the competition of the laboring classes for work would have forced wages down with reference, not to the cost of living to the white man with his family, but to the cost of living to the Chinaman unencumbered with a family. It is a law of political economy that wages will fall until the demand for labor equals the supply. In case the supply of labor in California should have increased beyond the needs of the existing industry, wages would have declined through competition. But the Chinese would have inevitably obtained employment. They would have diminished their demands until work was given them, and the superior cheapness of their services would have inevitably secured them whatever employment the industries of the State could have afforded. The white laborer, if he still clung to his family, would have been compelled to sink to brutal destitution and to the misery and degradation of ignominious and irredeemable poverty.
The first stage in the social metamorphosis would have been accomplished. An impassable barrier would have been introduced between the manual laborers among the whites and that portion of the white population still in possession of property. On the one side would be the various grades of the property-owning whites, from the man with his modest homestead to the manufacturer with his millions; on the other, the white laborers reduced to the lowest stage of destitution. Side by side with the white laborers would be the swarming multitude of Chinese, keeping wages down to the level they had reached.
Now, however, the second stage in the process would set in. This stage would be characterized, by the relegation of property-holding whites gradually, but inexorably, to the class of propertyless laborers, a corresponding narrowing of the property-holding and affluent classes, and the correlative augmentation of the magnitude of the fortunes of those individuals and families who retained their foothold in those higher classes. The vicissitudes of fortune would steadily lessen the numbers of the property-holding classes. Those who lost their wealth through misfortune, mismanagement, or extravagance, would sink to the class of laborers. If they managed to maintain a precarious foothold upon the higher social level by force of the old connections, sympathies, and habits, their children would inevitably fall to the lower level, there to remain in hopeless and miserable poverty. Coincident with this cause, another would be in operation to the same end. As generation after generation passed, the smaller property-owners would succumb to the competition of those who wielded larger wealth. Small capital cannot compete in any field of industry with large. With this precipitation of individuals and families to indigence, the fortunes of the narrowing class of the wealthy would increase in absolute magnitude. Possessing exclusively the land and the materials to which labor is applied in the creation of wealth, and enjoying unlimited efficient labor of the cheapest character, their wealth would steadily augment. Wages leaving no margin for accumulation, the avenues to property through industry and thrift that now steadily renew the fortunes of the multitudes of citizens who meet with reverses, would be closed. Thus the class of property-holders could not receive recruits from the propertyless laboring classes. Even were small sums accumulated by almost incredible self-denial, there would be little, if any, opportunity for investment. As for real estate, the first field of investment, land would be owned in large tracts by wealthy classes, who, enjoying the fruits of an extremely cheap labor, would feel no such pressure as would cause them to sell their lands, least of all in small parcels, and to plebeian purchasers. Industries, the second field of investment, would be conducted on such a gigantic scale, that the little capitalist could not successfully enter the field of competition. The third field of investment, consisting of the various little trades and callings to which small capital alone is applicable, trades and callings that are requisite to supply the manifold wants of a prosperous laboring and middle class, would be unavailable in consequence of the destruction of the middle classes and the impoverishment of the laboring classes. The middle classes would not exist, while the masses would supply their simplest physical wants only. They would not have the means or the incomes to pay for those satisfactions and to indulge those desires to which the multitude of these little business enterprises peculiar to our industrial society minister. The fall from the property-holding to the propertyless class would be terribly precipitate. Mistakes or misfortunes would be irreparable. The millions of our citizens of little property, citizens possessing homesteads or little fortunes, men who had commenced with their hands alone for capital, would cease to exist as such. They would either pass up by increased prosperity to the higher classes, or sink down, through mistakes, misfortune, or competition, to the propertyless and hence the laboring classes. But of this latter class none would rise to replenish the middle class. Thus, the present great middle class would disappear. Society would consist of a single unbroken rank of aristocratic wealth with the professions, and a common unbroken level of laborers, toilers, and bondsmen in reality. The former class would become smaller in proportion to the whole population, but yet it would become richer and more powerful in its hold upon the regular means of political influence. The latter class would form a majority, and a constantly increasing majority.
This social change, which can now be foreseen as possible upon the Pacific coast, is the natural result of the operation of certain social and economical causes. Were such change to result from the unrestricted immigration of these male laborers to our coast, is it not true that our race would have been dragged down, while the Chinese would not have been elevated? The happy condition of our middle class would have been destroyed. The multitude of small property-holders, who are conservative in consequence of their property, and who preponderate in our society, would have been deprived of their possessions. The mass of our population would have been depressed to destitution. Hard and incessant labor, securing but a bare subsistence, would be their ignominious lot. Even were the only result the reduction of our population of mere manual laborers, consisting of the operatives in the various manufactories and the hands in the harvest fields, to such a level of wages and to such a grade of living, the result would be calamitous. These manual laborers, as society grows denser, must form an immense class in our society. They must in time number one-quarter or more of our population. If the males are to receive for their labor wages approximating to those acceptable to Chinese males, namely, $10.00 or $15.00 a month without board, the condition of the laboring classes of America must become, at least, one of comparative degradation.
It might be that the obverse side of our civilization would be exceedingly brilliant. The class of enormous affluence, possessing ample leisure and enjoying an unstinted use of the multitudinous instruments and sources of culture with which our civilization is equipped, might develop a most exquisite and powerful literature and art. When Roman literature began to produce its masterpieces, its master-workmen were exclusively from among the aristocracy. Their means furnished the leisure and opportunities for the pursuit of literature. The wealth of the republic had long centered in the aristocratic land-holders mainly by force of competition of cheap labor in the form of slave labor. Its artistic and literary career was brilliant, and the fond memories of mankind center around that brilliant passage in human history. Yet on the reverse side of the civilization of the Roman Republic and Empire, the degradation and failure of humanity was found more disheartening by reason of the contrast. In the Augustan age, one-half of the population of the Roman world, according to Gibbon, were slaves. Of the free population, the multitude forming the rabble of the imperial city and the peasantry of the provinces were propertyless. They were in a state of hopeless poverty and of irredeemable ignorance. They formed a majority of the freemen or non-slaves of the republic and afterward of the empire, but of their number we have no definite record. Latin civilization doomed them to poverty arid to degradation, and was itself doomed to inevitable decay. When the members of the aristocratic class became corrupt and enervated through indulgence, no new element took their places. Neither the slave population nor the degraded, propertyless rabble could furnish vigorous recruits.
It may be objected that the mischief produced by this abnormal immigration could not be coextensive with our national territory; that, at most, it must be confined to a single State or section. But, west of the Rocky Mountains, the process could be completed with ease and celerity. Let the change, with its gigantic industries and with all the enterprise and aggressiveness of such wealth, be established in that great territory, equal in area to Western Europe, and the course of social change would soon pass the natural barriers established by those ribs of our continent, the Rocky Mountains. In the South, Chinese laborers would be introduced gradually through the great southern transcontinental railroad lines. It is safe to say that Chinese laborers, who have proved so efficient in the climate of California, would, in the cotton fields pf the South, prove three times as efficient as the unstable and comparatively unindustrious negro. They would, without doubt, stand the climate with equal ease, and would prove swift and steady workers. They would be constant in their work, and submissive to their overseers and employers. The old negro quarters would be reproduced upon the plantations of the South in all their essential features. Quarters would again be established upon those plantations as the habitations of a class of laborers incapable of becoming property-owners in this case in consequence of their apathy, indifference, and want of energy. With abundance of such labor, what fortunes might not be made upon the cotton and sugar plantations of Mississippi and Alabama.
The same process of the abandonment of labor to a swarming class, which attended slavery in the South, would take place in the new South. Wealth would augment immensely, but it would remain in the hands o
Additional information: [The North American review. / Volume 139, Issue 334, Sept 1884]
Copyright 2021 Digital History