How We Sold Our Soul-Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The Articles in the Category cover a vast range of history not only in our country but in the world as well. The category is entitled “How We Sold Our Soul”. In many cases our history has hinged on compromises being made by the powers at be. They say hind-sight is 20/20, which is why I am discussing these land mark decisions in this manner. The people that made these decisions in many cases thought they were doing the right thing. However in some instances they were made for expediency and little thought was given to the moral ramifications and the fallout that would result from them. I hope you enjoy these articles. The initial plan is to discuss 10 compromises, but as time progresses I am sure that number will increase.

Life Before Exclusion

From 1850 to 1900, more than 100,000 Chinese, mostly men, came to the United States. Nearly all of them came from the southern province of Guangzhou in China to seek wealth to support their families. They initially came to the United States in search of “guam suan” (gold mountain), but later found occupations in other fields such as laundries, restaurants, and railroad construction.

Not wanting to make the United States their permanent residence, these men traveled without their wives and children. However as they settled in and wanting to start families, or bring their existing family over, a barrier came in by way of the Page Law in 1875. This law prohibited forced laborers and prostitutes from entering the United States. Being as it was extremely difficult for Chinese women to prove that they were not prostitutes, there weren’t many Chinese women able to immigrate to the U.S. Bachelor societies, communities made up of predominantly male populations, formed and soon became some of the first Chinatowns in the United States. Shops, restaurants, and community spaces developed to provide resources to local Chinese residents living without their families.  In Los Angeles, the population of Chinese living in the region grew from 172 in 1870 to approximately 3,000 by the late 19th century.

Outside of the Chinese community, anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant. Chinese were blamed for the moral decay of society; racist propaganda in popular magazines, newspapers, and advertisements depicted the Chinese as pests polluting the nation. A wave of violence against Chinese throughout the United States led to massacres and the forced removal of Chinese residents in their homes. Racist organizations, including the Workingman’s Party of California, formed to sanction these efforts.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. Many Americans on the West Coast attributed declining wages and economic ills to Chinese workers. Although the Chinese composed only .002 percent of the nation’s population, Congress passed the exclusion act to placate worker demands and assuage prevalent concerns about maintaining white “racial purity.”

Chinese Immigration in America

The Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) of the mid-nineteenth century between Great Britain and China left China in debt. Floods and drought contributed to an exodus of peasants from their farms, and many left the country to find work. When gold was discovered in the Sacramento Valley of California in 1848, a large uptick in Chinese immigrants entered the United States to join the California Gold Rush.

Following an 1852 crop failure in China, over 20,000 Chinese immigrants came through San Francisco’s customs house (up from 2,716 the previous year) looking for work. Violence soon broke out between white miners and the new arrivals, much of it racially charged. In May 1852, California imposed a Foreign Miners Tax of $3 month meant to target Chinese miners, and crime and violence escalated.

An 1854 Supreme Court Case, People v. Hall, ruled that the Chinese, like African Americans and Native Americans, were not allowed to testify in court, making it effectively impossible for Chinese immigrants to seek justice against the mounting violence. By 1870, Chinese miners had paid $5 million to the state of California via the Foreign Miners Tax, yet they faced continuing discrimination at work and in their camps.

Purpose of The Chinese Exclusion Act

Meant to curb the influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States, particularly California, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. President Chester A. Arthur signed it into law on May 6, 1882. Chinese-Americans already in the country challenged the constitutionality of the discriminatory acts, but their efforts failed. It was the product of about 30 years of racial tensions and resentments; it was injustice for the assiduous Chinese Americans. The Exclusion Act ranks among one of the most irrational and overall ineffective laws to ever be promulgated by the national government.  The xenophobic sentiments that arose during the late 18th century around the time of the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act epitomize America as a nation’s constant willingness to blame others in times of need. As pointed out, from 1849 onwards until the Exclusion Act, the Chinese and Americans worked cohesively and generally respected one another. But, during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, the American economy plunged as the nation was trying to recuperate after one of the bloodiest and costliest battles in U.S. History. Economic damages were particularly damaging to the South, where entire cities laid in ruins 

Geary Act of 1892

In 1892, the Exclusion Act expired, but in its place came the Geary Act that extended the ban on Chinese immigration for another ten years. This act continued to prohibit Chinese laborers from migrating into the United States and also forced those already living in the country to register for a certificate with the government within one year to prove their lawful residency. If caught without this certificate, they would immediately be deported. Furthermore, the act denied Chinese immigrants bail in habeas corpus cases.

Proposed by California congressman Thomas J. Geary, The Geary Act went into effect on May 5, 1892. It reinforced and extended the Chinese Exclusion Act’s ban on Chinese immigration for an additional ten years. It also required Chinese residents in the U.S. to carry special documentation—certificates of residence—from the Internal Revenue Service. Immigrants who were caught not carrying the certificates were sentenced to hard labor and deportation, and bail was only an option if the accused were vouched for by a “credible white witness.”

Chinese Americans were finally allowed to testify in court after the 1882 trial of laborer Yee Shun, though it would take decades for the immigration ban to be lifted.

The Geary Act expired after ten years, but was replaced by the Scotts Act in 1902 and extended the ban on Chinese immigration for an additional ten years. Two years later, in 1904, the ban on Chinese immigration was extended again – this time indefinitely, until its repeal in 1943.

Impact of Chinese Exclusion Act

The Supreme Court upheld the Geary Act in Fong Yue Ting v. United States in 1893, and in 1902 Chinese immigration was made permanently illegal. The legislation proved very effective, and the Chinese population in the United States sharply declined.

The Chinese Exclusion Act negatively impacted the entire society of America, not just the Chinamen; the economic health of the nation dwindled; wage labor quickly became the most common form of employment, as opposed to the slavery, indentured servitude, and apprenticeship that took place in years prior. The labor force swelled through large-scale immigration, most notably by the Chinese; and workers thrown out of work in periods of industrial depression could no longer be expected to manage for themselves. Because the Chinese were so willing and able to perform labor at lower wages than their Caucasian counterparts, jobs involving manual labor were often relinquished from the Caucasians and granted to the Chinese.

Such animosity and resentment amongst white Americans led to uprisings, and anti-Chinese feelings became politicized by the Workingman’s Party’s Dennis Kearney.  With prominent political figures against them, the Chinese had their freedoms severely limited. For example, in several states after the Civil War, interracial marriage between Asians and whites was prohibited. Also, immigrants who left the country and wanted to return had an extremely difficult time in obtaining a certificate of residence.

The effects of the Act were visibly apparent; with the addition of several even more stringent acts following the Exclusion Act of 1882, already existing Chinese communities were restricted. It was difficult for them to expand; with constant discrimination from fellow residents, assimilation proved even more difficult. However, because no such ban existed for any other ethnic group, other foreign societies, most notably those of European immigrant groups, merged into American society with fewer problems.

Around twenty years after the United States declared the Exclusion Act permanent, Canada followed suit. In 1923, Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which was described as Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act by the Chinese Canadian communities.  Thus, not only did the Exclusion Act signed by President Chester A. Arthur negatively impact Chinese Americans but Chinese Canadians were affected too. The Canadian government, prior to 1923, already placed a head tax to restrict Chinese immigration to Canada, but the restriction became full scale, largely in part the influence of the United States. It is interesting to point out that although within the last two decades there have been roughly 50 million or more overseas Chinese living in approximately 80 different countries, few of whom placed such total restrictions on immigration from China.

As with any lesson about history, the United States, as a pluralistic society, can learn how to function more cohesively and how to take proper courses of action to ensure well-being of all its people. The Exclusion Act caused much distress, not only for the Chinese but also for the Caucasians, because the entire American economy was harmed.

American experience with Chinese exclusion spurred later movements for immigration restriction against other “undesirable” groups such as Middle Easterners, Hindu and East Indians, and the Japanese with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. Chinese immigrants and their American-born families remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act. By then, the U.S. was embroiled in World War II and seeking to improve morale on the home front.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was a bold yet cowardly law. It was the brainchild of bitter and irrational resentment and contradicted America’s policy of caring for the tired, the poor, and “the huddled masses yearning to be free.” This section of the essay will investigate the results of the Exclusion Act and how it impacted North American society.

The effects of the exclusion laws were not confined to the borders of the United States; Chinese immigrants moved to many locations across several nations, thus helping to shape the entire Exclusion Era. Dr. Guang Tian (1999) asserted that Chinese migrants usually maintain significant socioeconomic, political, and cultural ties with their native heritage, including families and homeland in spite of the pressing legal barriers that placed limitations on Chinese immigration to North America. As such, the Chinese immigrants lived their lives across international borders; one relative lived in China while another lived in America. They were rarely able to see one another for fear of being denied entry or reentry into the United States. The exclusion laws as well as increased regulation of Asian immigration severely damaged transnational relations.

Ultimately, the need for a scapegoat led to America’s economic woes. As aforementioned, the post-Civil War reconstruction required much money and resources, and few people other than the Chinese were willing and able to provide the manual labor and hard work. Thus, by limiting Chinese immigration, Americans were suffocating their own economy. From this incident, perhaps Americans can learn not to be so eager in finding scapegoats and seek to solve problems at the actual source, not by blaming others. If this path is taken, perhaps the United States will thrive even more as one of the great political and economic powers of the world.

In 2012, a bipartisan resolution formally expressed regret from the House of Representatives for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the following legislation that continued to discriminate against people of Chinese origin in the United States.

Alternate Viewpoints Concerning the Act

It should come as no surprise that not everyone agreed that The Chinese Exclusion Act was a product of irrationalism, especially those proponents who were around during the economic slump period at the time. Although nowadays most people consider the Act ethically and morally questionable in addition to being counterproductive, throughout history there were those who were in favor of the act. Among the first who supported it include Dennis Kearney, a populist political leader, who is remembered for his nativist and xenophobic views toward Chinese immigrants; sinophobic California state governor John Bigler who blamed the Chinese for lower than usual wage levels across the state; and the anti-Chinese group known as the Supreme Order of Caucasians, who also favored the deportation of all Chinese.

Dennis Kearney, a populist leader of Irish background, openly denounced organizations such as the Central Pacific Railroad for hiring large numbers of Chinese to do the labor, and often led violent attacks on the Chinese. His slogan eventually came to be simply that, “the Chinese must go”.

John Bigler, who, as previously stated, was the sinophobic third governor of California and the third to successfully serve one full term in office. Governor Bigler aimed to implement a policy in California to target the Chinese “coolies,” like the policies of Davis Kearney, asserting that the Chinese refused and would never be able to assimilate into the society of America. Their eagerness to work for whatever wage, no matter how low, would damage the economy. He openly advocated a tax that was exclusively reserved for Chinese laborers to serve as a deterrent for the Chinese. Although ruled unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court, Bigler’s head tax delineated the racist and deprecating views held by many Californians during the Exclusion Era.

Sinophobic concerns were not limited to individuals. Such groups, including The Supreme Order of Caucasians, in California held similar perspectives to both John Bigler and Dennis Kearney. With 64 chapters across the state of California, The Supreme Order of Caucasians’ strong influence in California’s legislation is incontrovertible. It was organized in Sacramento in April of 1876 with the primary intention of running the already pervasive Chinese population entirely out of the United States.

In Dennis Kearney’s views, the Chinese were an “alien” group and were taking jobs meant for “native” Americans, thus destroying the economy. Although his concerns are important, Kearney’s perspective is flawed in that few American-born people were even willing to work on the transcontinental railroad, let alone for such meager wages. Thus, by hiring the Chinese, the transcontinental railroad helped to facilitate trade across the nation, increasing productivity and expediting communication.

John Bigler’s concern that the Chinese would never be fully able to assimilate into American society proves to be valid as well. It may be true that the Chinese culture is a collectivist one, in contrast with the individualistic emphasis of the United States, but with collectivism comes high adaptability. Bigler’s head tax was unnecessary; the Chinese would have had little difficulty in assimilating had it not been for the legal barriers presented by the national and state governments. In spite of these legal restrictions, the Chinese still made great contributions to the state of California as well as the entire nation.

Another argument presented by critics of the Chinese Exclusion Act was that altough the Chinese specifically were targeted, people from other descents were free to immigrate to the United States without limitations. One conclusion that can be drawn from this fact is that the Chinese Exclusion Act was an act largely driven by racism; there was a multitude of other immigrants willing to perform labor at low wages, which once again contradicts America’s goal of being a free and accepting nation.


 As we delve deeper and deeper into the twenty-first century, America should become more accepting and embrace differences in background or creed. Although Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans have contributed much to the U.S. economy, racial tensions still do exist. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 remains even today as one of the most racially induced legal limitations in the history of the United States. Although strides have been made since then, including the U.S. Supreme Court Case of United States vs. Wong Kim Ark, which established that the Chinese Exclusion Act could not overrule the fourteenth amendment. A person born to Chinese parents could not be denied citizenship if he or she was born in America. The Act serves as a reminder of the failure induced by blind racism and eagerness to deflect blame onto other groups.

The Act has had a significant impact on both the Chinese people and Americans.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was implemented during a time of great prejudice and blind racism. America as a whole tends to, in desperate economic times, target minority groups or other certain groups to blame, such as in this case when the Chinamen were credited with depressing wages. As presented above, the Chinese people were not the ones at fault; the Civil War left America in ruins and the Chinese were there to expedite the recovery with their inexpensive and diligent labor.

Its controversies and immediate effects reflect that the Act was racially spurred; in general, most people believe that the Act ruined the relationship between Chinese community and Americans. Parallels can be made to other episodes in history. For example, the Japanese Internment camps in the United States after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Consider the business demographics of several American states; at the present California has the most Chinese-owned firms with 110,823 or 38.7 percent of California’s total and with receipts of $56.2 billion or 53.5 percent of total state revenue. Coming in second place is New York with 57,673 Chinese business firms, comprising 20.2 percent, with receipts of $10.2 billion or 9.7 percent. Texas was third in number of Chinese-owned firms with 13,735 or 4.8 percent with receipts of almost $5.2 billion or 5.0 percent.

Minorities are, especially during the modern era, too influential in terms of politics, communities, and economics, to dismiss. With each historical parallel, lessons can be learned, and only by recognizing the mistakes of racial tensions can America truly be an all-inclusive democracy.

we have had a lot of dark moments in our history, but this was a time when we really hitrock bottom. The Chinee people were instrumental in our settlung the west via their work on the railroads. Without their labor the progress of the railroads would have been a lot slower. What is really sad is that it took so long for us reverse the act. We kept on extending it.

Resources, “Chinese Exclusion Act.” By staff;, “Life Before Exclusion.”;, “The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Its Impact on North American Society.” by David Tian;

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