Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A new wave of nativist xenophobia generated the first U.S. immigration law to discriminate on the basis of national origin. The act, which was renewed several times, severely restricted Chinese immigration—and barred immigration of Chinese women—and naturalization until 1943.

Summary of Event

In 1886, the United States dedicated the Statue of Liberty, a monument that stands in symbolic welcome to the “huddled masses” from foreign shores. However, even as the statue was dedicated, the citizenry had allowed its vision of the country as a refuge for all people to grow dimmer instead of brighter. Four years earlier, in 1882, the United States had taken the first steps to exclude immigrants from China and to restrict certain classes of immigrants from all foreign countries. Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 Congress, U.S.;Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 Immigration;to United States[United States] Nativism, U.S.;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants] China;and United States[United States] Arthur, Chester A. [p]Arthur, Chester A.;and China[China] [kw]Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act (May 9, 1882) [kw]Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act, Arthur (May 9, 1882) [kw]Chinese Exclusion Act, Arthur Signs the (May 9, 1882) [kw]Exclusion Act, Arthur Signs the Chinese (May 9, 1882) [kw]Act, Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion (May 9, 1882) Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 Congress, U.S.;Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 Immigration;to United States[United States] Nativism, U.S.;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants] China;and United States[United States] Arthur, Chester A. [p]Arthur, Chester A.;and China[China] [g]United States;May 9, 1882: Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act[5210] [g]China;May 9, 1882: Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act[5210] [c]Immigration;May 9, 1882: Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act[5210] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 9, 1882: Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act[5210] [c]Social issues and reform;May 9, 1882: Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act[5210] Angell, James Burrill Miller, John F. Kearney, Denis Li Hongzao Baoyun

The closing of the door to Chinese immigrants had begun during the early 1850’s. Responding to the thousands of Chinese workers who had crossed the Pacific Ocean after 1849 to seek their fortune in the California gold rush, the California state legislature enacted a series of discriminatory laws to discourage settlement and further immigration. The foreign miners’ tax of 1852, immigration head tax of 1855, Chinese fishing tax of 1860, and police tax of 1862 imposed discriminatory fines on Chinese laborers, making it difficult for them to continue working in California. By the early 1860’s, increased taxation, coupled with the discovery of gold in Australia, reduced the number of Chinese immigrants entering the United States from more than twenty thousand in 1852 to only twenty-seven hundred in 1864.

Editorial cartoon depicting President Rutherford B. Hayes standing on an ice drift representing the United States as he vetoes the 1879 Chinese exclusion bill of California senator Denis Kearney, who is shown standing on a piece of the ice drift, labeled “Kearneyfornee,” that is breaking away from the United States.

(Library of Congress)

Precisely at that time, however, a new source of employment was opening for Chinese in the United States. In 1865, the Central Pacific Central Pacific Railroad Railroad Company began employing Chinese laborers to lay track for the western portion of the transcontinental railroad. Within three years, the company hired ten thousand Chinese workers. The promise of good pay and steady work, far from city taxes and prejudice, again drew Chinese to the United States. Between 1868 and 1870, nearly thirty-five thousand Chinese immigrants passed through San Francisco customs, many directly recruited by U.S. railroad agents in China. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, however, these thousands of Chinese laborers returned to the West Coast to seek work. Competition for jobs between Chinese and Euro-American workers in San Francisco and other Pacific coast cities led American workers to intensify their demands for restrictions on Chinese immigration.

Workers in California rallied for stricter control over Chinese immigration. They argued that the growing population and alien customs of the Chinese constituted a threat to basic American institutions. They claimed that Chinese houses and shops were opium dens in which innocent native Californians were debauched. They accused the Chinese of being a race of “coolies” "Coolies"[Coolies] (a derogatory term used to name unskilled laborers) who threatened the wages and dignity of native California labor. In San Francisco, “anti-coolie clubs” and “light hour leagues” organized anti-Chinese demonstrations.

Under the leadership of Denis Kearney Kearney, Denis , a firebrand orator from the sandlots of San Francisco San Francisco;Sandlot Riots Race riots;anti-Asian[antiAsian] , the Workingmen’s Party of California became a potent exclusionist force in state politics and in anti-Chinese riots and demonstrations. Kearney’s racist harangues incited workers all along the Pacific coast to rise up against the Chinese. Mob violence against the Chinese escalated throughout the 1870’s, exemplified by a Los Angeles Los Angeles;Chinese residents attack in which a mob of about five hundred assaulted and killed a score of the residents of the city’s Chinatown.

During the early 1880’s, California exclusionists turned the Chinese problem into a national issue, demanding that Congress enact a law that would prohibit Chinese immigration. Party politics gave added weight to the exclusionists’ demands on the national level, as both Republicans and Democrats vied for western constituencies, which they believed to be crucial. In 1879, Congress responded to western pressure and passed a Chinese exclusion bill. President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the measure because it violated the terms of the Burlingame Treaty Burlingame Treaty (1868) China;Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which permitted unlimited Chinese immigration to the U.S.

Chinese plenipotentiaries Li Hongzao Li Hongzao and Baoyun Baoyun agreed to renegotiate the Burlingame Treaty to include the possibility of limiting Chinese immigration. In 1880, they concluded a treaty with the U.S. representative, James Burrill Angell Angell, James Burrill , that granted the United States the right to regulate, limit, or suspend the immigration of Chinese laborers, but not absolutely prohibit such immigration.

The Angell Treaty opened the door for the creation of federal legislation restricting Chinese immigration. Without delay, California senator John F. Miller Miller, John F. introduced a bill calling for the suspension of immigration for all Chinese laborers, skilled or unskilled, for a period of twenty years. The Senate heatedly debated the bill. New England senators argued that a founding tenet of the United States—free immigration from all nations for all peoples—was at stake. West Coast senators countered that the future of American laborers was in jeopardy. The bill finally passed the Senate but was vetoed by President Chester A. Arthur because it violated the spirit of the 1880 negotiations with China.

Congress immediately drafted another bill, which suspended immigration and naturalization of Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, for ten years. On May 9, 1882, President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. The Exclusion Act was renewed for another ten-year period in 1892, again in 1902, and in 1904 was made permanent. The act was not rescinded until December 17, 1943, during World War II, when it became a source of embarrassment between the two allied nations.


Chinese exclusion initiated a trend toward the passage of increasingly restrictive immigration legislation. President Arthur had signed into law the Immigration Act of 1882, the first general immigration law. This act imposed a tax on every immigrant and prohibited the entry of any convict, “lunatic,” “idiot,” or person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge. Well into the twentieth century, Congress continued to pass legislation limiting the immigration of certain “undesirable” groups.

By 1882, the United States had excluded one nationality and had imposed limitations, however slight, on all potential immigrants. The Chinese question in California had been an explosive one, fueled by racism toward Chinese immigrants who could not and, exclusionists believed, would not assimilate. The interaction of social pressures, economic changes, and opportunistic politics in the United States closed the Pacific door to Chinese laborers. By prohibiting these Chinese from entering the United States, Congress had turned away “huddled masses” even before Emma Lazarus’s poetry on the Statue of Liberty had bid them welcome.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barth, Gunther. Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Although it does not treat events after 1870, this book is important to an understanding of anti-Chinese sentiment in California.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Sucheng, ed. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. Explores the legal ramifications of the Exclusion Act and the act’s effects on Chinese who were living in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coolidge, Mary Roberts. Chinese Immigration. 1909. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1969. A dated but comprehensive book. Argues that the Exclusion Act was necessary to prevent unchecked Chinese immigration from undermining the U.S. economy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peffer, George Anthony. If They Don’t Bring Women Here: Chinese Female Immigration Before Exclusion. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. A study of the special problems faced by female Chinese immigrants in the years leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LeMay, Michael C. From Open Door to Dutch Door: An Analysis of U.S. Immigration Policy Since 1820. New York: Praeger, 1987. Examines underlying causes of the anti-immigration movement in the United States in response to European and Chinese immigration since 1820.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Stuart Creighton. The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785-1882. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Countering Coolidge’s argument of an economic basis for the Exclusion Act, argues that racism was at the root of Californian and U.S. hostility toward Chinese immigrants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 1989. Rev ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Chapter 3 succinctly examines the early years of Chinese immigration. Other chapters explore the Asian immigrant experience in detail. A comprehensive work.

American Era of “Old” Immigration

California Gold Rush Begins

Chinese Begin Immigrating to California

Burlingame Treaty

First Transcontinental Railroad Is Completed

Congress Enacts the Page Law

Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act

San Francisco’s Chinese Six Companies Association Forms

America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins

Anti-Japanese Yellow Peril Campaign Begins

Chinese Californians Form Native Sons of the Golden State

United States v. Wong Kim Ark

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Categories: History