“A distinct people . . . whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development . . . for them is claimed, not only the right to swear away the life of a citizen, but . . . administering the affairs of our Government.”

Summary Overview

George Hall was arrested and convicted for the 1853 murder of a Chinese immigrant miner in Nevada County, California. The Chinese immigrants who witnessed the murder provided the essential testimony that led to Hall’s conviction. However, Hall appealed the court’s decision, claiming that a Chinese immigrant should not be able to testify against a white man and citing a law that denied black individuals and Indians the right to testify. The case ultimately ended up in the California Supreme Court, where the justices were asked not only to consider the original intent of the law as it applied to Chinese immigrants but also, by default, to deliberate on the status of Chinese immigrants as members of American society. Chief Justice Hugh Murray delivered the majority opinion of the court, which concluded that Chinese immigrants were not entitled to the same rights and privileges as white people and therefore did not have the right to testify against a white man in court.

Defining Moment

After the discovery of gold in California, Chinese immigrants were among countless other immigrant groups who flocked to the gold mines seeking their fortune. Poverty, wars, and oppressive government policies pushed many Chinese families to send their sons looking for economic opportunities abroad. Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs recognized the lucrative potential of moving to California to establish businesses that provided goods and services for Chinese immigrants living and working in the goldfields. By 1852, approximately twenty-five thousand Chinese lived in the state. Initially they were welcomed by politicians and business owners, who saw their presence as a sign of the future wealth and prosperity of the state. Labor recruiters eagerly sought Chinese laborers to work in mining, manufacturing, and agricultural industries.

The initial welcome quickly faded, however. By the early 1850s, the placer deposits had dwindled, and mining became big business. Only those individuals with the capital to purchase heavy equipment and hire laborers to mine for gold were profiting. Companies employed Chinese immigrants partly because they were viewed as especially industrious workers and partly because they could pay them lower wages than white workers. Exasperated by limited job opportunities, white workingmen looked for scapegoats. Economic frustrations combined with rising racial tensions led to a backlash against foreign miners. This backlash manifested itself in the form of laws such as the Foreign Miner’s Tax, which sought to force the Chinese from the mining camps by imposing a tax on them. Further oppressive laws followed. In some cases, tensions culminated in outright violence through efforts to forcibly remove Chinese immigrants from California towns and physical attacks on individual Chinese miners.

In 1853, George Hall and two other white men attempted to assault and rob a Chinese gold miner living and working along the Bear River in Nevada County, California. Ling Sing, another Chinese miner in the camp, was coming to the aid of his neighbor when Hall shot and killed him. Hall was promptly arrested and taken to court. The testimony of three Chinese witnesses led to Hall’s conviction. The judge sentenced Hall to death by hanging. However, Hall challenged the conviction on the grounds that section 14 of California’s Criminal Proceedings Act prohibited the testimony of “blacks, mulatto persons, or Indians” against a white person, insisting that the ban also extended to the Chinese. Hall appealed his case all the way to the California Supreme Court.

Author Biography

Chief Justice Hugh C. Murray, who delivered the majority opinion for the court in the case of People v. Hall, had a rather short but infamous career in law. Murray was born in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1825. He was raised in Illinois and began to study law there in the 1840s. Murray served for a brief time as a second lieutenant in the United States infantry during the war with Mexico. Shortly after his admittance to the bar, he traveled to California to practice law. Murray reached San Francisco during the height of the gold rush in 1849 and found ample opportunities for personal and professional growth. The social connections he forged in San Francisco helped to build his career. Before long, he was serving as a justice of the Superior Court of San Francisco.

Murray continued his meteoric rise. In 1851, he was appointed to the State Supreme Court. The following year, he became chief justice after the resignation of H. A. Lyons. Murray was only twenty-seven years old when he became chief justice of the California Supreme Court and only twenty-nine years old when he rendered the decision in Hall, one of his most infamous decisions and the case for which he is perhaps most well known. Murray’s career was cut short by consumption, which claimed his life in 1857.

Murray had a reputation for nativism as a member of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party (also referred to as the Know-Nothing Party). This organization, composed primarily of Anglo-American Protestants, gained support and influence in the 1850s following a rapid increase in immigration to the United States. The gold rush only exacerbated the party’s fears of an immigrant invasion. The party platform sought to limit immigration and naturalization, especially of Germans and Irish, who were perceived as more loyal to the Catholic Church and the Pope than to democratic values. The American Party further sought to inhibit the power and political influence of all foreigners already living in the United States, including the Chinese. Murray’s American Party background and his nativist sentiments are clearly reflected in the Hall decision. His zeal for protecting white Americans from the potential harmful influences of inferior races is clear in the language of the majority opinion.

Document Analysis

The majority opinion handed down by the California Supreme Court in the case of People v. Hall reflected not only the attempt of the court to provide a clear definition of racial categories in order to protect the interests of the white race but also reveals the racial anxieties and virulent anti-Chinese hostilities that existed in the United States at the time. The bulk of the testimony in the case against George Hall was provided by Chinese witnesses. The question before the court was whether or not such testimony should be admissible given that it was provided by nonwhite individuals. Section 14 of California’s Criminal Proceedings Act, an 1850 act of the legislature that regulated criminal proceedings, had already established that “no Black or Mulatto person, or Indian,” would be allowed to testify against a white man in a court of law. Since the law never specifically excluded the testimony of a Chinese individual, the justices sought to determine whether or not the law was intended to apply to the Chinese as well. Thus, they struggled first to define what the creators of the law intended by the terms black, white, and Indian. Second, they reflected on the implications of expanding rights and political power to nonwhite races. The text of the majority opinion clearly reflects the racial tensions and fears of the era and provides insight into the history of American race relations.

Defining Racial Categories

In the first section of the majority opinion, Murray turned to historical and scientific evidence to help deconstruct the meanings behind the racial categories defined by the 1850 law. Murray begins by making the argument that since the time of Columbus’s first contact with the native people of San Salvador, the term Indian historically has been used to imply American Indians as well as Asians. Murray points out that Columbus, who was attempting to locate a passage to the Indies, assumed that the island was located in the Chinese sea near India and that its inhabitants were of Asian descent, and so he referred to the island’s native people as Indians. Although Columbus’s assumption was incorrect, the term Indian was henceforth applied generically to both Asians and American Indians.

Murray then moves to provide scientific evidence to buttress his argument. He claims that anthropological theories about the Asian origins of the ancestors of American Indians further seemed to validate the association between the two groups. Murray summarizes the ideas of ethnologists who had previously concluded that American Indian groups had originally migrated across the Bering Strait into North America. Although he admits that this theory had recently been challenged, Murray concludes that historical and scientific evidence confirms that “the name of Indian, from the time of Columbus to the present day, has been used to designate, not alone the North American Indian, but the whole of the Mongolian race.”

Murray further defines the intent behind the use of the words black and white in the original 1850 legislation. The court argues the broadest definition of the terms. The word black is defined as “the opposite of ‘white.’” Thus the court insists that the specific phrasing of the original legislation that denied any “Black or Mulatto person, or Indian,” from testifying against a white person was intended “to embrace every known class or shade of color.” Murray therefore concludes that the intent of the use of the term Indian in the law prohibiting Indians from testifying against white individuals was anticipated to apply to the Chinese as well. His intent here is to validate historically and scientifically the notion that white people have always viewed Chinese people as nonwhite and therefore not entitled to the same rights and privileges as white people.

Racial Anxieties

Clearly underlying the court’s decision are the racial anxieties at play in American society at the time. An influx of immigrants from around the world contributed to heightened nativist sentiments. Heated discussions over the future of slavery and the question of the status of American Indians in American society raged in the political arena, and sectional tensions threatened to divide the nation. The case of People v. Hall reflected an overall concern about the future status of white people in the United States. The opinion clearly suggests that the court is concerned not only with protecting white people from the potentially damning testimony of untrustworthy “others” but also about the broader, potentially devastating implications of the decision to allow nonwhite individuals to testify in a court of law. Murray argues, for instance, that if the court allowed groups other than white people to testify in court, they might also be allowed the right to vote, serve on a jury, or gain positions of political power.

The potential of these groups to gain equal rights as citizens is imagined as a great threat to all of American society, in part because of the perception that these groups represented “inferior races.” Murray argues,

The anomalous spectacle of a distinct people, living in our community . . . whom nature has marked as inferior, and who are incapable of progress or intellectual development . . . differing in language, opinions, color, and physical conformation: between whom and ourselves nature has placed an impassable difference . . . is now presented, and for them is claimed, not only the right to swear away the life of a citizen, but the further privilege of participating with us in administering the affairs of our Government.

Here, Murray clearly outlines the type of scientific racism implicit in his overarching argument, which justifies racist laws by suggesting that anthropology has delineated the distinctions between the races and ordered them hierarchically. He uses this pseudoscientific theory to legitimize his decision to deny these groups access to the exercise of full social and political equality, arguing that the “scientifically” proven racial inferiority of certain groups necessitates the interpretation of laws to shield the superior race from the potential harm of too much power in the hands of intellectually incapable races. Murray’s fear was that allowing nonwhite groups to testify against white people would open the door to allowing these same groups to gain “equal rights of citizenship” and participate in the administration of “the affairs of our government.”

The immediate implication of the court’s decision was the reversal of Hall’s conviction. Hall literally got away with murder because the testimony of the three Chinese witnesses had to be disregarded. The broader implication was effectively to make the Chinese a target. The ruling itself seemed to encourage acts of violence against the Chinese, with perpetrators fully aware that their actions would likely go unpunished. Denied equal protection under the law, the Chinese immigrant community responded with outrage at the court’s decision. They objected to being categorized the same as other racial groups. Letters of protest sent to the governor pointed out the racism of the majority opinion and demanded equal protection of the law. A letter written by Lai Chun-Chuen representing the Chinese merchants in San Francisco countered anti-Chinese arguments that labeled the Chinese as primitive and barbaric. Lai argued that the history of Chinese civilization pointed to the superiority of the Chinese over less developed races such as black people and Indians. Although grounded in some of the same racialized rhetoric espoused by Murray and the court, the argument effectively countered stereotypes of the Chinese as less civilized then Caucasians. This attempt to distance themselves from black people and Indians and more closely associate themselves with white people would prove to be a common and somewhat successful tactic of the Chinese American community when challenging future racist laws. Similarly, the merchant class recognized an advantage in pointing out their class status and distancing themselves from common laborers as a means of arguing against discriminatory laws and for greater political power in the years to come.

Despite the ruling in People v. Hall, the Chinese immigrant community continued to take their cases before the court in hopes of obtaining justice. Their efforts sometimes proved successful, depending in large part on the judge, the jury, and the acumen of their lawyers. Calling upon an extensive transnational network of support, Chinese immigrants relied on family, friends, and kinship and district organizations to protect their rights and freedoms. They persisted in their protests and efforts to reverse discriminatory laws. White allies, including big business leaders and Christian missionaries who supported Chinese immigration, often came to the aid of the Chinese and spoke out publicly on their behalf. Reverend William Speer, a Presbyterian missionary, publicly insisted that the Hall decision violated principles of democracy, Christianity, and common humanity. The political influence of white community leaders like Speer helped gain some degree of public support for the Chinese cause.

Although People v. Hall would be effectively overturned by federal civil rights legislation in the 1870s, by that point the anti-Chinese movement on the Pacific coast was gaining significant political momentum. Anti-Chinese lobbyists would succeed in lobbying Congress to pass significant measures to curb Chinese immigration and ultimately exclude Chinese laborers, culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Chinese people living in the United States suffered countless acts of violence in a concerted effort to drive them out of towns throughout the West Coast. Even large urban ethnic enclaves provided limited protection against anti-Chinese hostilities. San Francisco’s Chinese community fought extensive legal battles against efforts to drive them from certain industries, segregate their children in the schools, and prevent their families from joining them in the United States. The era of anti-Chinese exclusion and hostility continued well into the twentieth century. It was not until China became a US ally in World War II that Chinese exclusion as an immigration policy was repealed. Even then, the institutionalized discrimination established substantial barriers to social, political, and economic progress that would require decades to overcome.

Essential Themes

The case of People v. Hall highlights not only the extent of the racial tensions between Chinese immigrants and white miners but also the ways in which the judicial branch established a racialized system of justice that privileged white persons above all other groups. Justice Murray’s opinion in People v. Hall echoed the racist rhetoric of the era and reflected larger tensions at play in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century as the nation struggled to come to terms with who would be allowed access to citizenship. Murray’s writing reflects a common attitude held by white American nativists, who feared that the influx of large numbers of “inferior” classes of foreigners would lead to the ultimate downfall of the nation. Although it is clear that not all white Americans shared in this viewpoint, the political power exerted by individuals of Murray’s status had far-reaching implications. The justices of the California Supreme Court had the power to validate discriminatory laws and extend the application of other laws, which ultimately codified racist sentiments into the US legal system, thus making the task of battling racism and injustice even more difficult for the generations of Chinese Americans that followed.


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Additional Reading

  • Aarim-Heriot, N. Chinese Immigrants, African Americans & Racial Anxiety in the United States, 1848-82. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2006. Print.
  • Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. New York: Twayne, 1991. Print.
  • Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Print.
  • Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991. Print.
  • Takaki, Ronald. A History of Asian Americans: Strangers from a Different Shore. Boston: Little, 1998. Print.
  • Yung, J., G. H. Chang, and H. M. Lai, eds. Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present. Berkeley: U of California P, 2006. Print.