The Civil War and Reconstruction periods in United States’ history confronted white Americans with a series of profoundly important issues, issues requiring intense soul-searching on their part. Should black people be enslaved within a free, democratic society, one that based its philosophy on the Declaration of Independence and on Christianity? If freed, how might African Americans be protected? Though deprived of education in the South and parts of the North, could they be effective voters?

In California racial prejudice and fear of Chinese economic competition led to the defeat of the Fifteenth Amendment by paving the way to complete political power for the Democratic Party. Charging in 1869 that the amendment would be followed by Chinese naturalization, the Democrats secured majorities in both houses of the legislature. As Democrats disliked the idea of African American suffrage and even more intensely disliked the possibility of Chinese citizenship and voting rights, there was no question that one of the legislature’s early acts would be rejection of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Western prejudice against the Chinese had already influenced the amendment’s wording. Western Congressmen and moderate Midwestern Republicans, the latter with little enthusiasm for black suffrage, had combined to hold the amendment to a negatively worded statement omitting office holding, but most damaging of all, failing to forbid poll taxes, literacy tests, and other voting restrictions, many of which whites later used to disfranchise Southern blacks. Thus the active prejudice against the Chinese in California, Oregon, and Nevada, harmed not only the Asians, but helped deny the vote to future African American generations.

From the beginning of the gold rush, the forty-niners took particular exception to the Mexicans and the Chinese. But after the majority of the Mexicans left the state under threats of violence, whites aimed the main thrust of their prejudice against the Chinese in the “diggings.” Centuries of differing traditions, customs, and religion separated the Caucasians and the Asians. Neither group accepted the other’s ways. Whites saw the Chinese as an economic threat—first in the mines—and then increasingly in other fields. In addition, whites harbored a long list of social, moral, and religious grievances against the Chinese. Although in California’s social structure the Chinese were in no position to retaliate, traditionally they had viewed whites in general as barbarians. The treatment they received in the United States reinforced this opinion.

Like so many other immigrants to California, in the beginning the Chinese came to make a quick fortune and return home. White Americans accepted Caucasians who came and went in this fashion but criticized the Chinese, who were prevented from becoming citizens by law and who would not have done so by choice. Whites also disliked the Chinese because they believe they were a form of “coolie” or slave labor, a belief not substantiated by creditable evidence. Contractors did hire groups of Chinese from time to time, yet the workers did not come under duress, nor were they held to lengthy contracts. The majority of the Chinese workers were independent and free to move from job to job as they pleased. Contracts were difficult to enforce in California, and the Chinese laborers left jobs if they were not paid regularly.

Whether they came to California in 1849 or 1869, most white Americans brought with them an unqualified belief in Caucasian superiority and an equally deep belief in the inferiority of all colored races and at least some white ethnic groups. Prejudiced whites buttressed their racism by references to the Bible or resorted to the “scientific” findings of the day, which usually supported white supremacy. Predictions of the extinction of the black and Indian races were commonplace as what the San Francisco Examiner termed “the great white car of Progress” rolled across the country.

Many national and state leaders believed that “Anglo-Saxons,” a loose term covering immigrants and Americans from Northern and Western Europe, had received a “divine command,” as Senator Thomas Hart Benton called it, to take over the continent and even the world. Senator William M. Stewart thought that at the very least the United States would absorb Canada and Mexico. One of San Francisco’s newspapers, the Alta California, an enthusiastic booster of trade with Asia, also favored “manifest destiny,” and in 1869 the Sacramento Union thought most of the nation’s neighbors would come under American control.

While willing to take over the people of other countries, white Americans were not so eager to accept native-born Americans of differing colors. Almost from their first appearance in California, African Americans in California had fared well economically. Yet they suffered from the uncertainty of their civil and legal position, which was then and had been for years, unequal and separate from that of whites. The California Constitution of 1849 forbade slavery, but until 1858 the position of fugitive slaves or slaves brought to the state by their masters was not always clear. The federal government treated free blacks as a special category, neither citizen nor alien.

Long before Congress moved to clarify the status of blacks, California’s African Americans energetically worked to improve their civil and political position. A series of conventions, the first held in 1855, brought the state’s black leaders together. They concentrated their efforts on achieving the right to testify in civil and criminal cases involving whites. In 1850 and 1851 the California legislature denied these rights to African Americans, mulattoes, and Indians. In the face of humiliating indifference and outright insult, California’s blacks persisted in their efforts to wring the right of testimony from the prewar Democratic legislatures. These bodies not only rejected all black petitions, but made several attempts to ban both blacks and Chinese from the state altogether. The exclusion attempts failed, yet the prejudice that prompted them remained. In 1854 the State Supreme Court also denied the Chinese the right to testify in cases involving whites. Finally, in 1863 a Republican-dominated legislature changed the laws to give African Americans the right to testify in both civil and criminal cases involving Caucasians. It was ten years later, however, before the Chinese and Native Americans obtained the same rights.

Blacks and Chinese never joined forces to improve their civil status. The Chinese were as different from the African Americans by reason of customs, religion, and traditions, as they were from the whites. And the blacks criticized Chinese “paganism” just as the whites did. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, California’s blacks began to agitate for the right to vote, a campaign hampered by the prejudice against the Chinese. In addition, some economic competition existed between the two groups, although it did not compare to that between the Irish and the Chinese. In Eastern and Midwestern states, Irish immigrants had clashed with blacks because both groups were on the lowest end of the economic scale. In California the Chinese competed most sharply with the Irish, and the latter concentrated their traditional dislike of African Americans on the Asians.

The Irish immigrant’s hatred of blacks and the Chinese was one means by which the Democrats returned to political power in California at the end of the Civil War. The post-bellum period found the Democracy struggling to reassert its place in the political scene. Some of the most prominent prewar Democrats had left the state during the war, and those who stayed now found themselves in an uneasy coalition with the Union-Republicans. The growing radicalism of the national Republican Party helped the Democrats and weakened California’s Unionists, who were squarely on the horns of the black-Chinese dilemma.

The Democracy made some small gains in 1865 by raising the issue of African American suffrage. The Democrats triumphed, however, under the leadership of former Republican Henry H. Haight. In 1867 Haight, who might be described as a “gentleman demagogue,” made Chinese suffrage and immigration his basic campaign issues. The 1867 election completed the dissolution of the Union-Republican Party and gave the Democrats a majority in the Assembly.

The Chinese question also played a prominent part in the Congressional debates on the Fifteenth Amendment. Critics of Radical Republicans already had accused them of hypocrisy in enfranchising the Southern, but not the Northern blacks; now they also accused Western Congressmen of hypocrisy in opposing Chinese suffrage, arguing that the Asians were at least as well qualified for the ballot as the newly-freed slaves. Familiar charges and countercharges filled the long hours and days of debate on the amendment. The Democrats claimed African Americans were unfit to vote because they were innately inferior to whites and possessed no capacity for self-government. Western senators fought any wording that might possibly include the Chinese, asserting they could never be assimilated and would never become good citizens. They also worried that Senator Charles Sumner would succeed in removing the word “white” from the naturalization laws, which indeed he later attempted.

The treatment of aliens and naturalized citizens has often depended on the status of America’s diplomatic relations with their original countries. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868, which heralded a new degree of cooperation with the Chinese government, failed to materially help the Chinese in America, except by discouraging discriminatory legislation. If anything, the treaty increased hostility and prejudice against the Chinese, whose main supporters in 1868 were missionaries, manufacturers, farmers, shippers, and railroad builders.

Chinese immigration to California traditionally had responded to the available economic opportunities, and in 1868 the great Central Valley offered such work. Farmers needed large numbers of cheap laborers for the work of clearing, ditching, diking, planting, and harvesting. When Chinese immigration increased to meet this demand, much of the blame fell on the Burlingame Treaty. Inevitably, the treaty became one of the issues of the 1869 election.

Chinese laborers were willing and adaptive. With the exception of the union-dominated skilled trades, by 1870 they worked in many occupations. Initially, the Irish and the Chinese were the poorest and least well equipped to survive in California’s frontier society. As the 1870 Census showed, they competed with each other in a number of unskilled fields. The Chinese also competed with some of the less skilled German immigrants. Whites believed the Asians had an unfair advantage in the labor market because for the most part they seldom brought their families with them and thus could afford to work for less money.

The Chinese were always interested in bettering their economic situation, however, and seldom stayed in underpaid work longer than necessary. Economic competition between the Irish and the Chinese became much more intense during depressions, and the Irish could be counted on to support the party that promised to do something about Chinese immigration. Between 1865 and 1870, the so-called Chinese question was, in its narrowest sense, a matter of economic competition between approximately 30,768 Irish in the labor force and the approximately 33,768 Chinese vying with them. Few if any of the skilled white workers in trade unions competed with the Chinese, but the unions joined the Anti-Coolie Associations’ campaign against them. The hostility of California’s skilled white workingmen was based on an anticipation of Chinese competition—an angry fear the Democrats shrewdly encouraged and exploited.[1]

In 1869 the Democracy again resorted to the politics of prejudice and won large majorities in both houses of the legislature. According to the Sacramento Bee, foremost among the causes of the Democratic triumph was the Fifteenth Amendment. The Democrats had coupled the possibility of Chinese suffrage and citizenship with the amendment, and that argument impressed both Democratic and Republican voters. An impressive number of Republicans failed to vote at all, thus indicating their reservations about the Radical program, black suffrage, and the future effects of the Fifteenth Amendment. The Republican platform had tried to ignore the African American suffrage issue, but did recognize the federal government’s right to restrict or prevent Chinese immigration.[2]

In collaboration with the Anti-Coolie Associations and the trade unions, Haight and other Democratic speakers maintained a continuous attack on the Chinese. The San Francisco Daily Examiner charged that the Burlingame Treaty and the Fifteenth Amendment were parts of a scheme to “introduce and fasten upon the country cheap labor.” Few whites ever mentioned the fact that Chinese immigration was very low in comparison to immigration from Europe, or that the Chinese who immigrated came primarily from one province, Kwangtung, in China.[3]

The anti-Chinese movement in California, with its far-reaching impact on national policy, was not however, simply an economic conflict between groups on the lowest end of the economic scale. If the Chinese had been white they would have found their place in American society much sooner, just as other despised immigrant groups, including the Irish, had done. Equally important, Caucasians would have recognized more quickly the rights of the Chinese to immigrate and earn money in the United States. Instead, Californians unfairly taxed the Chinese, enacted other discriminatory laws against them, and displayed anxiety and fear about their presence in the state. Finally, when California’s votes, together with those of Washington and Oregon, came to hold the balance of power in national elections, they forced the federal government in 1882 to exclude the Chinese from the country for ten years. In 1902 the exclusion became permanent.

The 1869 legislature was chosen for the purpose of defeating the Fifteenth Amendment. A wide variety of motives including family background, place of origin, and personal ambition influenced the legislators who spoke on the measure. The Democrats clearly reflected the wishes of their constituents as they echoed the party line. But in 1869-70, the small group of Republican legislators lacked confidence in the loyalty of their party members.

From the first days of statehood, the ideology of white supremacy had dominated the thinking of most white Californians and their Democratic leaders. There was a brief respite during the years of Republican ascendancy in the Civil War period. Yet prejudice and fear of economic competition prepared the way for the Democracy’s return to power, and the California legislature, urged on by racist demagogues and labor leaders, rejected the moral and political challenges the Fifteenth Amendment offered.

Faced with the consequences of slavery, the North had been forced to fight a bitter war with Southerners who refused to abandon a system clearly at odds with the country’s ideals. With victory secure, Congressional Radical Republicans led the country through the passage of what one historian has called “two of the greatest monuments to human rights,” the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Although justice was delayed far too long, and African Americans clearly held the moral high ground, these amendments to the Constitution laid the foundation for the civil rights advances at last achieved in the 1960s.[4]

Notes: Conclusion

[1] U.S., Census, Ninth Census, the statistics of the Population of the United States, embracing the tables of race, nationality, sex, selected ages, and occupations, Vol. I, 1870 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), I:722.
[2] Sacramento Daily Bee, Sept. 2, 1869, p. 2, col. 1.
[3] San Francisco Daily Examiner, July 13, 1869, p. 2, col. 1.
[4] Forrest G. Wood, Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 92; Anticipating Rodney King’s twentieth century plea, the San Francisco Elevator stated in April, 1865, “. . . the races will have to live together on this continent and all parties might just as well make up their minds to it now as at any other time.” See p. 2, col. 5.