"Justice for the Chinese"

March 27, 1886

Thomas Nast

"Justice for the Chinese"

Chinese Americans; Immigration; Labor; Symbols, Justice; Women, Symbolic;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

American West; Oregon; Wyoming;

"It seems to be high time for all good people to come out and show the disreputable outlaws that the local authorities will be sustained by the people, and that law and order must and will be maintained in Portland."--Mayor Gates, of Portland, Oregon.

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the gruesome violence in the American West resulting from the eruption of anti-Chinese hysteria in 1885-1886. Justice wields her mighty sword, as her scales demand the hanging of the perpetrators to avenge the deaths of the Chinese-immigrant victims. In the caption, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, calls for law and order to prevail against the "disreputable outlaws" who participated in the bloodbath.

Ever since the Chinese came to the United States, the prejudice against them sometimes culminated in violence. The physical hostility became particularly virulent in the 1880s. During this period, Chinese communities were harassed, attacked, or expelled in 34 towns in California, three in Oregon, and four in Nevada. Property of the Chinese immigrants in America, worth millions of dollars, was damaged or destroyed in mining regions in Alaska, Colorado, South Dakota, and other states or territories. The worst occurrences of violence were in Denver, Los Angeles, Rock Springs (Wyoming), and Tacoma and Seattle (Washington).

Labor disputes were often the spark for anti-Chinese riots. In 1875, the Union Pacific Railroad Company initially hired Chinese as strikebreakers in its Rock Springs mines in the Wyoming Territory. The bitterness this caused between the (largely immigrant) white miners and the Chinese festered for a decade before exploding in the fall of 1885. The attack on September 2 by 150 armed white men against the Chinese miners had calamitous results for the Chinese community: 28 deaths, 15 wounded, the expulsion of hundreds100s, and property damage of nearly $150,000.

After the Rock Springs riot, anti-Chinese violence quickly spread to other areas in the West. On September 11, Chinese were attacked in Coal Creek, Washington; on October 24, Seattle’s Chinatown was burned; on November 3, a mob of 300 expelled the Chinese in Tacoma before moving on to force similar expulsions in smaller towns. The Washington governor requested federal assistance to restore law and order, and on November 7, 1885, President Grover Cleveland sent the U.S. military to Seattle and Tacoma to suppress the riots.

In Wyoming, the territorial government established an investigating committee, but it was controlled by the anti-Chinese labor union, the Knights of Labor. The Chinese government sent their own officials on a fact-finding mission, guarded by federal troops, and demanded reparations from the U.S. government. President Cleveland believed that the federal government was not responsible, but agreed to the compensation as a gesture of good will. In 1887, Congress approved the indemnity legislation.

The Chinese government concluded that the American government was unable or unwilling to protect Chinese living in America; therefore, in August 1886, the Chinese foreign office proposed to the U.S. State Department that a new Sino-American treaty be drafted. An amenable President Cleveland wanted to strengthen the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of Chinese to the United States. He believed that cultural differences made the Chinese unassimilable and that anti-Chinese hostility made the West unsafe for them.

In January 1887, the difficult negotiations began as American politicians geared up for the 1888 presidential election campaign. (Grover Cleveland had won a razor-thin victory in 1884, while losing the electoral votes of California, Oregon, Nevada, and Colorado.) The Bayard-Zhang Treaty, signed in March 1888, prohibited Chinese immigration or the return of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for twenty years, unless the workers had assets worth at least $1,000 or immediate family living in America. The United States government agreed to protect Chinese people and property in America. Intense opposition to the treaty in China and by the Chinese in America, however, forced the Chinese government to reject the accord.

Congress then acted unilaterally by passing the Scott Act, signed by President Cleveland on October 1, 1888 (a month before the election). Introduced by Congressman William Scott of Pennsylvania, chair of the Democratic National Campaign Committee, it permanently banned the immigration or return of Chinese laborers to the United States and ended the exit-visa process. The bill passed the House unanimously and met only slight resistance in the Senate (for legislatively undermining diplomatic negotiations). Mass demonstrations in California celebrated the new law. About 20,000 Chinese had left the U.S. temporarily for China and were refused reentry (including about 600 who were already traveling to America when the legislation was enacted). The Supreme Court later upheld the Scott Act. The Chinese government, however, refused to recognize its legitimacy.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Justice for the Chinese"
July 14, 2024

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