Chinese Exclusion Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the spring of 1882, the Forty-Seventh Congress approved and President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which strictly limited the ability of Chinese citizens to immigrate to the United States for a period of ten years. This law represented the first time the United States would restrict a particular ethnic group from immigrating to American shores. It also opened the door to other, similar acts targeting other ethnic groups. The act was seemingly a confluence of two major political forces. On one side were American- and European-born laborers, who lamented the influx of Chinese laborers that began during the California Gold Rush several decades prior. On the other side were leaders who wished to halt what they believed amounted to the importation of slave labor to work in the mines and in the manufacturing sector.

Summary Overview

In the spring of 1882, the Forty-Seventh Congress approved and President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which strictly limited the ability of Chinese citizens to immigrate to the United States for a period of ten years. This law represented the first time the United States would restrict a particular ethnic group from immigrating to American shores. It also opened the door to other, similar acts targeting other ethnic groups. The act was seemingly a confluence of two major political forces. On one side were American- and European-born laborers, who lamented the influx of Chinese laborers that began during the California Gold Rush several decades prior. On the other side were leaders who wished to halt what they believed amounted to the importation of slave labor to work in the mines and in the manufacturing sector.

Defining Moment

During the late 1840s, after gold was discovered in the western United States, laborers flocked to the region to work in the mines. Among them were the Chinese, many of whom came overseas to escape the violence, poverty, and instability of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64). Chinese laborers, however, came in two general groups: individual immigrants and “coolies” (unskilled or semiskilled laborers brought overseas on a contract).

After the Civil War, the United States began its Reconstruction efforts. The Republican-dominated Congress, wary of creating any environment in which slavery could return, pressed for civil rights for all races. In 1870, Senator William Stewart of Nevada, for example, offered legislation that guaranteed legal rights for all immigrants, including Chinese laborers who came to the United States voluntarily. His proposal was tabled at the time, largely because Republicans wavered on whether to regulate both importation and voluntary immigration. Ironically, wartime abolitionists were also divided on this issue, with some active opponents of slavery openly referring to the Chinese as “barbarians.” Meanwhile, Chinese immigration and importation continued to increase in the western states. By 1870, even as the Gold Rush came to an end, Chinese workers comprised about a quarter of California’s unskilled labor force, engendering animosity among the region’s other laborers.

In 1870, the issue of Chinese importation and immigration reached the East Coast, where most of the nation’s population (and political power) was based. In North Adams, Massachusetts, seventy-five Chinese laborers were brought in to break a strike at a large factory. The ensuing union protests against Chinese importation, though not immigration, were repeated across several eastern cities. The spotlight cast on the Chinese in the East only helped fan the flames of conflict in the West, where anti-Chinese violence and rhetoric surged as white laborers attacked Chinese workers. One of the chief voices against Chinese workers was labor leader Denis Kearney, himself an Irish immigrant, who raised the cry, “The Chinese must go!”

Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party of California began the push to ban Chinese labor in 1878, arguing that Chinese labor (which was cheaper than white labor) was forcing down wages in the country. At the same time, the “coolie trade” also remained under scrutiny, after the US consul general to Hong Kong, David Bailey, issued a report that claimed that coolies were frequently tricked or coerced into signing contracts to work in the United States for low wages and in inhumane conditions.

By 1880, anti-Chinese rhetoric had entered the national stage, as aspiring politicians sparred with one another in pursuit of support from the increasingly influential western states. That year, American diplomats successfully renegotiated a long-standing treaty with China regulating Chinese immigration to the United States. The Angell Treaty, as it was known, opened the door for Congress to pass a ten-year moratorium on Chinese laborers. The Chinese Exclusion Act, as the law was known, extended far beyond the decade, remaining in place until 1943.

Document Analysis

The Chinese Exclusion Act establishes a broad set of strict regulations on Chinese laborers on two main fronts. First, it places strong restrictions on the Chinese government to prevent Chinese citizens from either immigrating to the United States or accepting contracts from would-be employers. Second, it places strong sanctions on the employers themselves (and/or the ship captains who carry the laborers to the United States), threatening prison and fines for bringing Chinese laborers to the United States. The Act does not clearly define who the laborers are in relation to other workers, however, leaving employers and relevant government officials to make the distinction themselves. The Chinese, the Act alleges, cause discord and disruption in the places in which they work. It is, therefore, deliberately short on such details, expecting workers’ employers to take heed of the threat and altogether avoid exploring the use of Chinese workers.

The Act begins with a clear statement that Chinese laborers represent, in the view of the government, a threat to the order of the communities in which they work. The government does not state the basis for this assertion, although the protests (and violence associated with them), such as that which took place in North Adams, could be seen as examples of such disorder. Nevertheless, the Act clearly identifies Chinese laborers as a disruptive presence in the American economy.

In light of this perceived danger to the order of American society, Congress applies a ten-year moratorium on Chinese laborers. In an earlier draft of the bill, the ban actually extended to twenty years, although the president vetoed that version in light of the risks it posed to Sino-American relations. The moratorium would be enforced on two major fronts. The first of these fronts were the merchants who would recruit, contract, carry overseas, and put to work the laborers in question. The “master of any vessel” on which laborers would usually be delivered would receive a fine of up to five hundred dollars per illegal laborer found aboard their ships, for example. The merchants would also need to obtain proper paperwork to present to the customs officials from the ports from which they disembarked and the ports at which they unloaded their cargo. Merchants who brought Chinese laborers across the US border with either Canada or Mexico would receive a similar sanction.

On the second front were the government officials. In the United States, the responsibility of locating and capturing illegal laborers as well as examining the documentation of every merchant vessel would fall to the customs officials. China, too, would bear responsibility for ensuring that laborers would not emigrate or sign a contract that would take them to the United States. US negotiators spent a great deal of time working with Chinese officials on this point. Fourteen years earlier, the United States and China signed the Burlingame-Seward Treaty, which was designed to ease immigration restrictions between the two countries and mitigate perceived American interference in China. The Act references this treaty in section six, taking care to underscore the relationship between the two countries that was improved under that treaty. Additionally, although the Act does not clearly define the term “laborer” (except in section fifteen, where it identifies both “skilled” and “unskilled” laborers and those involved in mining), section thirteen ensures that the term would not apply to any Chinese diplomat or government official.

The Act does not attempt to reconcile the differences between immigration and importation of Chinese laborers. Rather, it strongly regulates both immigrants and workers, threatening illegal Chinese laborers with jail sentences and fines if caught approaching or on American territory. Furthermore, the Act does not attempt to define groups that might be exempted from the law (except the aforementioned diplomats). Instead, the Act requires that any individual who would be exempted from the law be able to produce comprehensive documentation, sanctioned by Chinese authorities, that clearly states in English the lawfulness of his or her presence. Under the Act, any exemption certificate must be approved by both the US and Chinese governments before the Chinese individual in question could enter the United States. Such bureaucracy is deliberate–most potential Chinese immigrants who might be worthy of exemption would undoubtedly be deterred by the certification process.

Terms for Chinese laborers already residing in the United States became harsher as well. Their travel in and out of the country was likewise restricted and monitored with the use of certificates issued by the US government. Under the Act, they were also deemed ineligible for US citizenship.

Essential Themes

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 represents the first government policy designed to prevent certain racial or ethnic groups from entering the United States. Born of pressure from organized labor groups in the western states (where Asian laborers, particularly those of Chinese origin, were rapidly becoming the largest group of minority laborers) and specific incidents of violence, the Act took a bold step that would be repeated with regard to other racial and ethnic groups in the decades leading up to World War II.

The Act, extended repeatedly in the late nineteenth century and repealed in 1943, worked to prevent Chinese laborers from entering the United States, as such laborers allegedly posed a threat to local economies. However, the Act deliberately avoids providing a clear definition of “laborers” and, with the threat of imprisonment and/or fines, provided enough of a deterrent for any possible candidates for exemption to proceed with immigrating to America.

Additionally, the Act does not wade into the immigration-versus-importation issue that vexed previous attempts to curtail the influx of Chinese laborers. Rather, it simply halts both immigration and commercial importation of Chinese nationals, empowering American customs officials and relevant law enforcement entities to investigate and capture Chinese laborers. Those who were found in the United States ninety days or more after the law’s implementation would need to produce a certificate, officially issued by the Chinese government and validated by American customs, proving that the holders were exempt from the law. With the amount of bureaucracy involved in obtaining such documents, few Chinese seeking to enter the United States would carry such certificates. Lacking such information, any persons of Asian origin–a race that Reconstruction-era Americans still found alien even in comparison to recently freed blacks–would be considered criminals and subject to prosecution.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998. Print.
  • Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Print.
  • Mills, Charles. The Chinese Exclusion Act and American Labor. Alexandria: Apple Cheeks, 2009. Print.
  • Soennichsen, John. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Westport: Greenwood, 2011. Print.
  • Tian, Kelly. “The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Its Impact on North American Society.” Undergraduate Research Journal for the Human Sciences 9 (2010): n. pag. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.
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