The Chinese formed the tip of the iceberg on which the Fifteenth Amendment foundered in California, but a more important cause for failure to ratify was the almost forgotten lower portion—white racism. In the nineteenth century the majority of white Americans believed they were superior to the non-white people in the United States and in the world. Native-born white Americans accepted immigrants from Northern and Western Europe, the so-called Nordic or Teutonic groups. They discriminated against other white groups with varying degrees of intensity and they reserved a special scorn for American Indians, blacks, and Asians.[1]

In 1850 the foreign-born population of the United States numbered 2,250,000; eleven years later the figure had risen to 4,000,000. Included in the latter number were 1,500,000 Irish and 1,225,000 German immigrants. Unless the new immigrants were of a favored group or religion, most Americans received them with anxiety, contempt, and hatred. The California nativist agreed with Easterners and Midwesterners that foreigners threatened the country both economically and morally. From the beginning of the gold rush, white Americans in the diggings resented almost every foreign or colored group—the French, Chileans, Peruvians, Spanish, and African-Americans. Almost immediately the whites took particular exception to the Mexicans and Chinese, two of the largest foreign groups. Although only 962 blacks lived in the state, the miners feared that whites who owned slaves would bring them into the mining areas and offer what was, in the miners’ opinions at least, unfair competition. There were grounds for this fear in the appearance at Rose Bar on the Yuba River of a group of Texans and their slaves. The miners lost no time in asking them to leave and in electing William E. Shannon their delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Shannon introduced the anti-slavery provision that became part of the Constitution. The miners fervently believed that California’s mineral wealth should be reserved for free white citizens of the approved “Anglo-Saxon” strain.[2]

As the gold seekers surged into the state, California gained close to 100,000 new residents in two years. They overwhelmed not only the native Californios, but the native Indians as well. In their rush to the gold fields, the prospectors crushed the Indians, who in reality had a far more legitimate claim to citizenship than the newly naturalized Germans, Irish, English, and Scandinavians. California’s Indians numbered 250,000 in 1769; by 1870 disease, destruction of their lands, and violence had reduced them to 30,000. Californians, and no doubt most Americans, evidently agreed with Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who, in 1855, observed that if the Indians died out “the canvas [would be] ready for a picture of manhood a little more like God’s own image.” Anti-black delegates to the 1849 California Constitutional Convention made serious but vain efforts to exclude African Americans from the state, and before long the legislature also attempted to ban blacks.[3]

In 1850 approximately 10,000 Mexicans returned to their country under threats of violence. By 1852 the 20,000 to 25,000 Chinese formed the largest minority group in the state. In a letter written in 1852 from Rich Bar on the Feather River, Louise Clappe told her sister, “they have passed a set of resolutions for the guidance of the inhabitants during the summer; one of which is to the effect that no foreigner shall work in the mines on that Bar.” “Dame Shirley,” as Mrs. Clappe called herself, was probably one of the few early California settlers who believed such laws to be “selfish, cruel and narrow-minded in the extreme.” Agitation for Chinese exclusion from the mines and from the state began early and continued up to and beyond 1882 when Congress passed the first Chinese exclusion act.[4]

Although Californians displayed intense prejudice, they were by no means unique in nineteenth century America. In support of white superiority, Americans relied on the Bible and on the “scientific” evidence that bolstered their prejudiced views. Racist Americans found proof of black inferiority in the Old Testament story of Noah and the curse of perpetual servitude placed on Canaan and his descendants. Other racists saw their prejudice as being either a natural instinct or one implanted by God. Less thoughtful racists simply based their bias on physical differences and assumed that black features were inferior. Prejudiced Americans faulted blacks on social and economic grounds and seldom stopped to reflect that white-imposed restrictions might account for the condition of African-Americans. Some Americans also believed that God had ordained the position of blacks, and so interfering with it meant rejecting the Bible.[5]

White supremacists who doubted the Biblical sanction of slavery or of black inferiority could turn to the many anthropological studies that supported racist views. A book that went through nine printings between 1854 and 1900 was Dr. Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon”s Types of Mankind. Nott was a physician who had received a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and practiced medicine in Mobile, Alabama. Gliddon was an Englishman and lecturer who was a student of Egyptology. The authors’ main idea was that no black or Indian or other non-white showed high intelligence unless he possessed at least one white ancestor. Nott and Gliddon claimed to have scientific evidence of Caucasian superiority.[6]

In 1867 Hinton R. Helper, a North Carolinian, published his strongly anti-black book, Nojoque. “We should so far yield to the evident designs and purposes of Providence,” Helper wrote, “as to be willing and anxious to see the Negroes, like the Indians and all other effete and dingy-hued races, gradually exterminated from the face of the whole earth.” In his White Supremacy and Negro Subordination (1868), John Van Evrie expressed similar views. He believed that educating the “Negro” would do “irrevocable damage to his brain.” Both men denounced white advocates of black equality, and Helper warned against accepting African-Americans as citizens, saying “God forbid that we should ever do this most foul and wicked thing.”[7]

At least as damaging as the books of these men were the anti-black views of well-known Harvard University naturalist Louis Agassiz. At various times after his arrival in the United States in 1846, Agassiz expressed beliefs that blacks were innately inferior and could never equal whites. Agassiz continued to hold his racist position although he remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War and numbered New England abolitionists among his friends. The prevailing belief in white supremacy influenced even those who fought for black rights. Most Republicans who favored freeing the slaves (and at the beginning of the Civil War not all Republicans favored that) could not support complete political equality for blacks when the war was over. To many Northerners the blacks seemed as unknown and strange as the Chinese did to Californians. In both cases, knowledge on the part of the whites was superficial and what they did know about the blacks’ condition aroused fear and anxiety. In addition, more than 200 years of a traditional belief in the superiority of the white race proved difficult to overcome.[8]

It was a strong belief of Western thought in the nineteenth century that race could explain character. If traits of temperament and intelligence are hereditary, the men who explored the subject said, then environment and education can only make slight changes. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, spurred the already vigorous attempts to measure racial differences. Darwin’s conclusion that all races belonged to a single species answered the much-discussed question of whether man had originated from a single or from multiple sources. But his theory of evolution encouraged new ideas about racial superiority. Caucasians seized the idea of natural selection and changed it to the idea of a struggle between individuals, classes, nations, and especially races. Nature uses conflict, the new racial doctrine said, to produce superior men, nations, and races[9]

Linked with ethnic and racial prejudice was the feeling that Anglo-Saxons were a chosen people with a “divine mission” to populate the continent and even the world. In 1846 Senator Thomas Hart Benton predicted that the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts would reach the Pacific and go on to colonize Asia. Benton explained that “these two branches of the Caucasian race had alone received the divine command to subdue and replenish the earth and they would become the reviver and the regenerator of the inferior and torpid yellow peoples.” In California the San Francisco Alta California echoed the manifest destiny theme and admitted, “We have developed a happy faculty for breeding family disturbances among our neighbors; it is our manifest destiny to assist them in governing themselves.” More directly the Alta asserted, “That the United States are bound finally to absorb all the world and the rest of mankind, every well-regulated American mind is prepared to admit. . . . When the fever is on, our people do not seem to know when and where to stop, but keep on swallowing so long as there is anything in reach. To use a popular Californianism, we ‘go for everything that is in sight.’” United States Senator William M. Stewart (Nevada), a former Californian, was equally expansionistic. In 1869 he concluded a Fourth of July oration by saying, “The motto of Douglass [sic] must prevail. ‘This must be an ocean-bound republic.’ British colonies cannot exist on our northern frontier. Mexican anarchy must fall on the south. Their destiny must be with us. The wisest of their statesmen see this.” The Sacramento Daily Union agreed, and envisioned not only British Columbia, but also all of Canada, Mexico, the West Indies, and Cuba coming under American control. [10]

It was Republican Frank M. Pixley, a former California attorney general, who uttered one of the most thoroughly chauvinistic statements of a chauvinistic century. Bitterly anti-Chinese, in 1876 Pixley told the United States Congressional Committee investigating Chinese immigration:

In relation to their [the Chinese] religion, it is not our religion. That is enough to say about it; because if ours is right theirs must necessarily be wrong. . . .Ours is a belief in the existence of a Divine Providence that holds in its hands the destinies of nations. The Divine Wisdom has said that He would divide the country and the world as the heritage of five great families; that to the blacks He would give Africa; to the whites he would give Europe; to the red man he would give America, and Asia he would give to the yellow races. He inspires us with the determination not only to have preserved our own inheritance but to have stolen from the red man America; and it is settled now that the Saxon, American or European group of families, the white race, is to have the inheritance of Europe and America and that the yellow races of China are to be confined to what God Almighty originally gave them; and as they are not a favored people they are not to be permitted to steal from us what we robbed the American savage of.

Later in the investigation Pixley testified that his brother had been forced out of his broom handle business by Chinese competition, a personal event that at least partially explains his hostility to the Chinese. [11]

The forty-niners and the white immigrants who followed them to California carried strong feelings of ethnic and racial prejudice with them. To say that the customs of the Chinese or the lawless environment were largely to blame for the prejudice and discrimination the Chinese received is to ignore the obvious racism that so many white nineteenth century Americans took with them wherever they went. Prejudice in California, however, was not entirely confined to whites. In a sense the Chinese contributed to the movement against them because for many years the majority disdained naturalization, they left their families at home, and they themselves were prejudiced against the white “barbarians.” Yet even the reluctance to be naturalized, which was forbidden by law anyway, need not have been a barrier to acceptance; many a European delayed changing citizenship, or when he had become an American still returned as soon or as often as he could to his native land.[12]

Had the white Americans been able to read the minds and hearts of the Chinese there would have been much more friction between the two groups. For the Chinese, too, considered themselves the “chosen people” and thought anyone who was civilized would realize that China possessed the finest culture in the world. Although the Chinese concept of manifest destiny was not as aggressive or all encompassing as the American version, feelings of Chinese superiority were implicit in their refusal to adopt foreign institutions or customs. The Chinese would give up territory to an aggressor in preference to changing their institutions.[13]

The Chinese believed that anyone who adopted the Chinese way of life became Chinese. They also thought if a Chinese person adopted a foreign way of life, he would then be foreign; few, if any, Chinese would make such a change, however, as they then would be following the ways of “barbarians.” Race was not a major issue in China. Minority members who spoke Chinese well blended into the Chinese population easily. Ninety percent of the Chinese had approximately the same skin and eye color. Although light skin was important to the Chinese, this preference reflected a class prejudice as much as a racial prejudice.[14]

If the Chinese had been Europeans, the story that follows would be quite a different one. Not only was there a racial difference, but also strong feelings of nationalism and a reverence for traditional ways prevented the Chinese from integrating themselves into American society. At first, like many other immigrants, they did not intend to stay; they hoped for quick fortunes and an early return to their homes. Later, language and customs hindered communication and fostered alienation. As the Chinese so aptly described themselves in “An Address to the American Public,” dated April 5, 1876, they were indeed “strangers in a strange land.” Partly because of the prejudice against these not easily assimilated Chinese immigrants, whom Californians feared would become citizens, in 1870 the state legislature refused to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.[15]

Notes: Chapter I

[1] Forrest G. Wood, Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 2.
[2] Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 12; Ray Allen Billington, The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1956) 238; John Walton Caughey, California (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1940), 449; Leonard Pitt, “The Beginnings of Nativism in California,” Pacific Historical Review , 30 (February 1961); U.S., Census, Seventh Census, 1850 (Washington: Robert Armstrong, Publisher, 1853), xliii; J. Ross Browne, Report of the Debates in the Convention of California on the Formation of the State Constitution, in September and October, 1849 (Washington: Printed by J.T. Towers, 1850), 43-44; James Rawls and Walton Bean, California: An Interpretive History, (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993), 98-99, 120-121.
[3] Sherburne F. Cook, “The California Indian and Anglo-American Culture,” in Charles Wollenberg, ed., Ethnic Conflict in California History (Los Angeles: Tinnon-Brown, Inc., 1970), 26-27, 29; Rawls and Bean, California, 131; Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967), 66-67, 70-72, 76; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. quoted in Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), 243; Browne, Report of the Debates, 48-50, 137-152, 339-340.
[4] Rawls and Bean, California, 120-121, 125-126; Louise Clappe, The Shirley Letters from the California Mines, 1851-1852 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971), 127; Ping Chiu, Chinese Labor in California, 1850-1880 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin for the Department of History, University of Wisconsin, 1963), 14, 18; Ira B. Cross, A History of the Labor Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1935), 76; Elmer C. Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1939), 94-95; Saxton, Indispensable Enemy, 177-178.
[5] Wood, Black Scare, 2, 5, 6, 10, 11.
[6] Ibid., 8; Gossett, Race, 64-65; Wood, Black Scare, 8. See Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1854).
[7] Gossett, Race, 262-263. Hinton R. Helper, Nojoque: A Question for a Continent, (New York: G.W. Carleton & Co., 1867). See also Dr. John Van Evrie, Negroes and Negro“Slavery:” The First an Inferior Race; The Latter Its Normal Condition (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1861) and White Supremacy and Negro Subordination (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1868), 94. The latter book can be found in Vol. 3 of the 11-volume series Anti-Black Thought, 1863-1925, (New York: Garland, 1993).
[8] Gossett, Race, 59-60, 254; Wood, Black Scare, 4, 8, 13, 86-87, 89.
[9] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species and the Descent of Man (New York: The Modern Library, 19--), 909-911; Gossett, Race, 66-69, 145, 244.
[10] Gossett, Race, 179; San Francisco Daily Alta California, Aug. 22, 1868, p. 2, col. 1, Feb. 3, 1869, p. 2, col. 1, July 7, 1869, p. 2, cols. 3-4; Sacramento Daily Union, Aug. 7, 1869, p. 4, col. 2.
[11] Congress, Senate, Report of the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, Sen. Report No. 689, 44th Cong., 2d Sess., 1876 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1877), 27-28, 366-367.
[12] Sandmeyer, Anti-Chinese Movement, 22; Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 36.
[13] Dr. Ping Chiu, personal interview by Sheila Skjeie, Sacramento, California, Jan. 11, 1972.
[14]Ibid.; Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971), 210.
[15] Stanford M. Lyman, “Strangers in the Cities,” in Wollenberg, ed., Ethnic Conflict in California History, 63; Congress, Senate Report No. 689, 39.