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.

Historical Document

An Act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese.

Whereas in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof: Therefore,

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or having so come after the expiration of said ninety days to remain within the United States.

SEC. 2.

That the master of any vessel who shall knowingly bring within the United States on such vessel, and land or permit to be landed, any Chinese laborer, from any foreign port or place, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and on conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars for each and every such Chinese laborer so brought, and maybe also imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.

SEC. 3.

That the two foregoing sections shall not apply to Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the seventeenth day of November, eighteen hundred and eighty, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and who shall produce to such master before going on board such vessel, and shall produce to the collector of the port in the United States at which such vessel shall arrive, the evidence hereinafter in this act required of his being one of the laborers in this section mentioned; nor shall the two foregoing sections apply to the case of any master whose vessel, being bound to a port not within the United States, shall come within the jurisdiction of the United States by reason of being in distress or in stress of weather, or touching at any port of the United States on its voyage to any foreign port or place: Provided, That all Chinese laborers brought on such vessel shall depart with the vessel on leaving port.

SEC. 4.

That for the purpose of properly identifying Chinese laborers who were in the United States on the seventeenth day of November eighteen hundred and eighty, or who shall have come into the same before the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and in order to furnish them with the proper evidence of their right to go from and come to the United States of their free will and accord, as provided by the treaty between the United States and China dated November seventeenth, eighteen hundred and eighty, the collector of customs of the district from which any such Chinese laborer shall depart from the United States shall, in person or by deputy, go on board each vessel having on board any such Chinese laborers and cleared or about to sail from his district for a foreign port, and on such vessel make a list of all such Chinese laborers, which shall be entered in registry-books to be kept for that purpose, in which shall be stated the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, physical marks of peculiarities, and all facts necessary for the identification of each of such Chinese laborers, which books shall be safely kept in the custom-house.; and every such Chinese laborer so departing from the United States shall be entitled to, and shall receive, free of any charge or cost upon application therefor, from the collector or his deputy, at the time such list is taken, a certificate, signed by the collector or his deputy and attested by his seal of office, in such form as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe, which certificate shall contain a statement of the name, age, occupation, last place of residence, persona description, and facts of identification of the Chinese laborer to whom the certificate is issued, corresponding with the said list and registry in all particulars. In case any Chinese laborer after having received such certificate shall leave such vessel before her departure he shall deliver his certificate to the master of the vessel, and if such Chinese laborer shall fail to return to such vessel before her departure from port the certificate shall be delivered by the master to the collector of customs for cancellation. The certificate herein provided for shall entitle the Chinese laborer to whom the same is issued to return to and re-enter the United States upon producing and delivering the same to the collector of customs of the district at which such Chinese laborer shall seek to re-enter; and upon delivery of such certificate by such Chinese laborer to the collector of customs at the time of re-entry in the United States said collector shall cause the same to be filed in the custom-house anti duly canceled.

SEC. 5.

That any Chinese laborer mentioned in section four of this act being in the United States, and desiring to depart from the United States by land, shall have the right to demand and receive, free of charge or cost, a certificate of identification similar to that provided for in section four of this act to be issued to such Chinese laborers as may desire to leave the United States by water; and it is hereby made the duty of the collector of customs of the district next adjoining the foreign country to which said Chinese laborer desires to go to issue such certificate, free of charge or cost, upon application by such Chinese laborer, and to enter the same upon registry-books to be kept by him for the purpose, as provided for in section four of this act.

SEC. 6.

That in order to the faithful execution of articles one and two of the treaty in this act before mentioned, every Chinese person other than a laborer who may be entitled by said treaty and this act to come within the United States, and who shall be about to come to the United States, shall be identified as so entitled by the Chinese Government in each case, such identity to be evidenced by a certificate issued under the authority of said government, which certificate shall be in the English language or (if not in the English language) accompanied by a translation into English, stating such right to come, and which certificate shall state the name, title or official rank, if any, the age, height, and all physical peculiarities, former and present occupation or profession, and place of residence in China of the person to whom the certificate is issued and that such person is entitled, conformably to the treaty in this act mentioned to come within the United States. Such certificate shall be prima-facie evidence of the fact set forth therein, and shall be produced to the collector of customs, or his deputy, of the port in the district in the United States at which the person named therein shall arrive.

SEC.7.

That any person who shall knowingly and falsely alter or substitute any name for the name written in such certificate or forge any such certificate, or knowingly utter any forged or fraudulent certificate, or falsely personate any person named in any such certificate, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor; and upon conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisoned in a penitentiary for a term of not more than five years.

SEC.8.

That the master of any vessel arriving in the United States from any foreign port or place shall, at the same time he delivers a manifest of the cargo, and if there be no cargo, then at the time of making a report of the entry of the vessel pursuant to law, in addition to the other matter required to be reported, and before landing, or permitting to land, any Chinese passengers, deliver and report to the collector of customs of the district in which such vessels shall have arrived a separate list of all Chinese passengers taken on board his vessel at any foreign port or place, and all such passengers on board the vessel at that time. Such list shall show the names of such passengers (and if accredited officers of the Chinese Government traveling on the business of that government, or their servants, with a note of such facts), and the names and other particulars, as shown by their respective certificates; and such list shall be sworn to by the master in the manner required by law in relation to the manifest of the cargo. Any willful refusal or neglect of any such master to comply with the provisions of this section shall incur the same penalties and forfeiture as are provided for a refusal or neglect to report and deliver a manifest of the cargo.

SEC. 9.

That before any Chinese passengers are landed from any such line vessel, the collector, or his deputy, shall proceed to examine such passenger, comparing the certificate with the list and with the passengers; and no passenger shall be allowed to land in the United States from such vessel in violation of law.

SEC.10.

That every vessel whose master shall knowingly violate any of the provisions of this act shall be deemed forfeited to the United States, and shall be liable to seizure and condemnation in any district of the United States into which such vessel may enter or in which she may be found.

SEC. 11.

That any person who shall knowingly bring into or cause to be brought into the United States by land, or who shall knowingly aid or abet the same, or aid or abet the landing in the United States from any vessel of any Chinese person not lawfully entitled to enter the United States, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year.

SEC. 12.

That no Chinese person shall be permitted to enter the United States by land without producing to the proper officer of customs the certificate in this act required of Chinese persons seeking to land from a vessel. And any Chinese person found unlawfully within the United States shall be caused to be removed therefrom to the country from whence he came, by direction of the President of the United States, and at the cost of the United States, after being brought before some justice, judge, or commissioner of a court of the United States and found to be one not lawfully entitled to be or remain in the United States.

SEC.13.

That this act shall not apply to diplomatic and other officers of the Chinese Government traveling upon the business of that government, whose credentials shall be taken as equivalent to the certificate in this act mentioned, and shall exempt them and their body and house-hold servants from the provisions of this act as to other Chinese persons.

SEC. 14.

That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed.

SEC.15.

That the words “Chinese laborers”, wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.

Approved, May 6, 1882.

Glossary

manifest (of cargo): a list of cargo or passengers

prima facie: (lit. at first view): true and authentic, self-evident

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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