Following the Civil War California’s Democratic Party regained control of the state legislature and the governorship through emotional appeals to the voters’ racial and economic fears. The party’s return to power shattered the fragile Union Republican coalition, composed of Republicans and loyal Democrats, which governed California during the war. As a result, in 1870 the legislature overwhelmingly rejected the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the measure designed to give African Americans the vote. This stand against black suffrage echoed the “whites only”voters clause in the state’s 1849 constitution and repudiated the Radical Republican plan to require black suffrage in Union as well as in former Confederate states.

California’s rebuff of the Fifteenth Amendment mirrored opposition to black suffrage in the North, the West, and along the Pacific Coast. In 1860 only Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York permitted blacks to vote. At that time New York required additional property and tax qualifications for blacks. Northern anti-black feelings were located across the southern two-thirds of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, most of Pennsylvania, the southern half of New York, most of New Jersey, and in Connecticut. In 1867 and 1868 state legislatures including Maryland and New Jersey turned down bills that called for putting black suffrage to a vote while Kansas, Ohio, and Minnesota voters also rejected impartial suffrage referenda. Although Nevada was the first state to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, its legislature had repeatedly denied attempts to end discriminatory legislation in the state.[2]

Despite this widespread aversion to expanding suffrage, Radical Republicans knew blacks needed protection in the South. At the same time, they acknowledged that imposing black suffrage only on southern states left the party open to accusations of insincerity or worse. Republicans also recognized their party would gain needed voters when suffrage was given to African Americans in the North. In this case morality and political advantage coincided.[3]

California’s 4,272 blacks, with only 1,731 males over the age of 21, were not the primary objects of prejudice or the main reason for the Democracy’s success in recapturing the legislature. Instead, the 49,310 Chinese immigrants in the state, among whom were 36,890 potential voters, provided the racial target that enabled the Democrats, heavily composed of Irish and German naturalized citizens, to overcome the stigma of disloyalty to the Union. Using the out-party’s classic backlash tactic, in 1869 the Democrats retook control of both houses of the legislature and put California’s emphatic “seal of condemnation” on the Fifteenth Amendment. Not until 1962—ninety-two years after rejecting it—did the legislature belatedly ratify the amendment.[4] .

Between 1865 and 1869 Congress had enacted a series of amendments to the Constitution to free, confer citizenship on, and enfranchise blacks. Loyal to the Union cause throughout the Civil War, the California legislature approved the Thirteenth Amendment, which freed the slaves, but allowed the Fourteenth, which dealt with citizenship, to die in committee.[5]
In February 1869, after weeks of strenuous debate, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which, in its brief two sections, tried to guarantee impartial suffrage for all male citizens:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

As worded the amendment provided no safeguards against poll taxes or literacy and property qualifications later used in Southern states to deny blacks the vote. The amendment was the most conservative of several versions the Congress considered. Yet California not only rejected the measure, but her Congressional representatives, and those from other far West states, successfully resisted the Radical Republicans’ attempts to enact a more effective proposal. Western senators and congressmen reflected the fears of their constituents—fears intensified by Democratic rhetoric—that if Congress changed the naturalization laws, which allowed citizenship only to white immigrants, the Fifteenth Amendment would give Asians the vote. But for the Pacific Coast Republicans’ fear of Chinese suffrage and the moderate Republicans’ well-founded doubts about the popularity of black suffrage in the North, the Fifteenth Amendment might have been a stronger measure, with safeguards against the voting restrictions that disenfranchised Southern blacks in the ensuing century.[7]

The Chinese and African Americans in California faced similar difficulties. Both groups were subjected to social disdain and to criticism from the Democratic press. In 1850 the California legislature passed a bill denying the right of testimony to blacks, mulattoes, and Indians in criminal cases involving whites. The legislature extended that ban to civil cases in 1851. Although strident Democratic opposition to blacks existed in the state both before and after the Civil War, by 1867 the main emphasis had shifted to Chinese labor and immigration. In contrast to the Chinese, blacks were Christians and natives of the country; the “spirit of the times” called for a less hostile, less Southern-tainted attitude toward them. Nevertheless, California’s Democratic press continued to raise the specter of black social and political equality as a sub-theme to the Chinese “menace.”[8]

White opposition failed to intimidate California’s African Americans, however, and upon arriving in the state they agitated for freedom, full privileges as court witnesses and later, for suffrage and other civil rights. In 1856 delegates to a convention of blacks resolved “to use all lawful means’ in their power to secure the vote. Democrats dominated the legislature during the ten years before the Civil War, and they persistently rebuffed these black efforts. Despite the legislature’s attitude, blacks continued to fight, through the means of conventions, newspapers, and petitions to the legislature, for equality regarding testimony in court. Their struggle ended successfully in 1863 during Republican Governor Leland Stanford’s term in office. Blacks avoided making common cause with the Chinese on this issue and urged that they, being Christians and knowledgeable about oaths, should be able to testify, not the Chinese or Native Americans. The legislature agreed, continuing the restriction against the other two minorities.[9]

Having achieved one victory, African Americans moved to gain the vote in California. Those attending the Colored Convention of October 1865 agreed to present a petition to the legislature urging an amendment to the state constitution that would give blacks the franchise. The petitioners declared “we are an industrious, moral and law abiding class of citizens professing an average of education and general intelligence; born upon American soil, and paying taxes yearly upon several MILLION [sic] of dollars. . .” Compared to other American cities, in San Francisco blacks, although limited in job opportunities, did well economically during the 1850s and 1860s when labor was scarce. Nevertheless, when Republican Senator John E. Benton presented the petition and amendment to the legislature, its members never discussed them; they were sent to the Judiciary Committee and not seen again.[10]

Both politicians and voters faulted the Chinese on the grounds of race, religion, morals, and especially on their alleged threat to white workers. Many Californians erroneously thought that Chinese workers were a form of slave or coolie labor. This misconception arose because the Chinese, like many Europeans, often borrowed their fare for the trip to the United States on what was called the credit-ticket system. From time to time individual ranchers or manufacturers also hired groups of Chinese through a contractor for short-term work. The Chinese were not a migrating people as a whole, and most of the Chinese who immigrated to California came from only one province, yet many Californians persisted in believing and fearing that all of China’s 400,000,000 people would migrate to the state.[11] The Democracy never failed to exploit the dread inspired by the thought of the “pagan hordes.” State Senator Philip A. Roach, who was active in the anti-Chinese movement for thirty years, said:

I do not want to see Chinese or Kanaka [Hawaiian] carpenters, masons, or blacksmiths, brought here in swarms under contracts, to compete with our own mechanics, whose labor is as honorable, and as well entitled to social and political rights as the pursuits of designated ‘learned professions.’

From their first appearance in California in 1848, the Chinese were helpless to defend themselves against white animosity, which sporadically erupted in physical violence. Quiet, clannish, isolated by race and language, the Chinese lacked consuls to represent them, and their civil rights were non-existent. With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which extended to “all persons” certain safeguards, and the Burlingame Treaty in 1870, they gained some protections and privileges. At the same time, these measures also increased white hostility. Despite the prevailing sentiments against them among the working classes, the Chinese possessed powerful friends in the farmers, manufacturers, and railroad builders who needed their cheap and reliable labor. Missionaries, ministers, and those impressed with the possibilities of trade with Asia also backed the Chinese.[13]

In 1870, however, the Chinese were not the largest foreign-born group in California. The Irish, with a population of 54,421, held that distinction. Among the poorest of the state’s immigrants, the lower class Chinese and Irish both initially lacked skills and capital. In the late 1860s, the Chinese laborer offered the Irish worker his sharpest competition, and they vied for employment in a number of unskilled fields.[14]

Among the early Irish arrivals in California, all of them born in Ireland, were some well-educated young men from eastern states. They included lawyer William E. Shannon who introduced the successful proposal to ban slavery in California at the 1849 Constitutional Convention; Spanish-speaking Philip A. Roach who acted as an interpreter at that gathering and later served in the state senate; and J. Ross Browne, journalist, who recorded the Convention’s proceedings. Three Irish-born Californians served in the United States Senate in the 1860s: David Broderick, whose brief term was cut short by a duel; John Conness; and classics scholar Eugene Casserly, who was also a lawyer. Lieutenant-Governor John G. Downey, another native of Ireland, became the first Irish Catholic to govern any American state when he took office after Milton S. Latham was elected to the United States Senate in 1860.[15]

Germans formed the third largest foreign-born group in the state in 1870, with a population of 29,701. Generally more skilled and prosperous than either the Chinese or the Irish, some Germans nevertheless competed with the Chinese in various occupations. The Irish-German voting bloc was a tempting prize for politicians and proved susceptible to the Democracy’s racist appeals. Before long, the Republicans, too, had to cater to the prejudices of the urban workers.[16]

The elections of 1867 and 1869 brought triumph to the Democrats under the leadership of politically safe former Union-Republican Henry H. Haight. A shrewd choice, Haight was not tainted with secession and thus attracted other Unionists like himself who refused to accept radical or even moderate Republicanism. Haight’s Union-Republican Party opponent in 1867, George C. Gorham, suffered from an affiliation with the Central Pacific Railroad and from the political manipulations that led to his nomination. He might have survived those handicaps if he had not been foolhardy or honest enough to say that he sympathized with the Chinese workers and favored dropping the word “white” from the naturalization laws. A split between Republicans and former Democrats in the Union Party sealed the Democracy’s return to power in 1869.[17]

In 1868 and 1869, widespread unemployment in the cities, especially during the winter, aroused white anxiety and increased resentment of the Chinese. A decline in mining, growing urban concentration, and increased white and Chinese immigration all contributed to the social and economic tensions afflicting Californians. As a result of the transcontinental railroad’s completion in May 1869, California no longer was an isolated frontier area, and an economic boom was expected. Instead the railroad’s completion marked the start of keen competition with manufacturers in the East and a decade of general depression. Not only did immigrants from eastern and southern states arrive
in greater numbers than before, but the release of approximately 4,000 skilled Chinese railroad builders swelled the labor force as well. In addition, the opening of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys to agriculture stimulated a larger than normal immigration from China. Although Central Pacific president Leland Stanford claimed that the railroad had helped to break monopolies of several companies, the merchants and farmers who depended on train transportation found that the railroad charged rates as high as it could short of bankrupting the shipper. The railroad quoted different rates for the same service for different shippers and sometimes examined their books to see how much the shipper was able to pay. For years Californians blamed the Chinese and the railroads for the state’s economic troubles.[18]

Like African Americans, the Chinese at first had been prevented from competing in many of the skilled trades in San Francisco, and early on the majority of the skilled white workers did not actually compete with the Chinese; their fear was based on an anticipation of Chinese competition. The Chinese worker’s adaptability, quickness to learn, and willingness to work hard marked him as a powerful competitor. These very characteristics, his racial and ethnic differences, and especially his acceptance of lower wages than whites received—the despised “cheap labor”--all made the Chinese laborer unacceptable to California’s white trade unionists. This animosity increased as the Chinese moved from menial occupations into more demanding work. When some of the Chinese became manufacturers themselves they also alienated portions of that class.[19]

Thus Governor Haight transmitted the Fifteenth Amendment to the California legislature during a period of economic depression, unemployment, racial hatred, and fear of Chinese suffrage. Shortly after the legislative session opened, news came of China’s ratification of the Burlingame Treaty with its new privileges (and by implication, status) for the Chinese in the United States. Overwhelmingly Democratic, few legislators favored the Fifteenth Amendment, and the governor indicated his disapproval of the measure in a lengthy special message to the legislature.[20]

The debates on the amendment in the California legislature revealed the significance of place of origin and family background in determining prejudice or its lack in a legislator. The majority of the California legislators who spoke against the Fifteenth Amendment came either from northern and border states known to be anti-black or they shared a Southern or Irish family background. Political ambition also obviously influenced the speeches of a number of the legislators. Of the few men who spoke for the amendment, three were New Yorkers, and one a native of Massachusetts, the birthplace of abolitionism.

The anti-Chinese movement in the 1860s in California is by no means completely explained by theories based on economic exploitation or economic envy of the Chinese. White immigrant groups have been exploited as cheap labor and discriminated against, but in the end they found a place in American society and were not excluded from the country. The foundation of the anti-Chinese movement was racial, with psychological overtones, and thus closely resembled white America’s feelings toward African Americans. Both groups were discriminated against and denied a place in the white social structure. Socially and psychologically their position was lower than that of the poorest whites. In the 1860s most Americans found it easier to blame race for differences in behavior, customs, and values than to examine the complex web of social, cultural, and economic causes for these differences. Most of the men who came to California in its early days and who, many of them, were still there in the 1860s and 1870s, seldom questioned their profound beliefs in the ideology of white supremacy and the inferiority of colored races.[21]

Following President Ulysses S. Grant’s announcement that the Fifteenth Amendment had received the necessary state ratifications, blacks in California joyfully celebrated the event with speeches, fireworks, and parades. They immediately tried to register so they could vote in upcoming elections. Initially they found resistance to this registration from clerks in several different counties, resistance aided by the state attorney general, Jo Hamilton. Hamilton challenged the validity of the Fifteenth Amendment and the Federal government’s right to impose black suffrage on the country, especially as the amendment lacked any legislation to enforce it. He also questioned whether African Americans in California legally possessed the right to vote because the state constitution limited registration to white adult male citizens. Responding to this kind of opposition in a number of other states, Congress passed an enforcement act on May 31, 1870, designed in its Sections 3 and 4 to compel registration through fines and penalties on those who tried to deny any male citizen the right to vote. Faced with such punishment, Democratic opposition to black suffrage withered, and African Americans in California at last attained the right to vote.[22]

Notes: Introduction

[1] Thomas E. Malone, “The Democratic Party in California, 1865-68,” (M.A. thesis, Stanford University, 1949), 111-112; Eugene H. Berwanger, The West and Reconstruction (Urbana, Il.: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 180, 202; William F. Swindler, ed. Sources and Documents of United States Constitutions (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., Oceana Publications, Inc., 1973), Vol. I: 448-449; California Constitution (1849), art. 2, sec. 1.
[2] Lawanda and John Cox, “Negro Suffrage and Republican Politics: The Problem of Motivation in Reconstruction Historiography,” Journal of Southern History, 33 (August 1967), 303; Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971) 26-27; Forrest G. Wood, Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 13, 82, 85-87; William Gillette, The Right to Vote; Politics and the Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1965), 25-27, 80; Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 179-80; Phyllis F. Field, The Politics of Race in New York: The Struggle for Black Suffrage in the Civil War Era (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982), 29, 96-97.
[3] James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964), 333; Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 53-54, 127, 130, 173-176, 181-183; McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 545-546; William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction 1869-1879 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), 7, 19; Gillette, Right to Vote, 114-115.
[4] Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 175-176; U.S., Census, Ninth Census, Vol. I, The Statistics of the Population of the United States, embracing the tables of race, nationality, sex, selected ages, and occupations, 1870 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), I: 15; Hubert H. Bancroft, History of California (Santa Barbara: Wallace Hebbard, 1970), Vol. VI, 694; California. Senate. Senate Joint Resolution No. 9, April 5, 1962. According to the 1870 U.S. Census, 1:14, 15, the total white population in California was 499,424 and the aggregate population was 560,247.
[5] Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 120-121; U.S. Constitution, amend. 13, secs. 1 and 2; and amend. 14, sec. 1.
[6] U.S. Constitution, amend.15, secs. 1 and 2; McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 546.
[7] McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 545-546; Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 18-19; Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 173-74; Gillette, Right to Vote, 70-72; Congressional Globe, 40th Cong., 3d Sess., Dec. 7, 1868-March 3, 1869, 1030-35; Cornelius Cole, Memoirs of Cornelius Cole, Ex-Senator of the United States from California (New York: McLoughlin Brothers, 1908), 285-287; Federal Naturalization Act of January 29, 1795. With this act Congress modified the Naturalization Act of 1790, which also restricted citizenship to free white persons, and increased the residence period from two years to five years before application could be made for naturalization.
[8] Statutes of California, 1850, 275; Ibid, 1851, 113; Stanford M. Lyman, “Strangers in the Cities,” in Charles Wollenberg, ed., Ethnic Conflict in California History (Los Angeles: Timon-Brown, Inc. Book Publishers, 1970), 91; San Francisco Daily Examiner, June 14, 1865, p. 2, col. 1; June 20, 1865, p. 2, col. 1; Sept. 5, 1865, p. 2, col. 1; Mary Roberts Coolidge, Chinese Immigration (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 179. California contained a number of Southerners with strong Southern views, and they dominated state politics between 1850 and 1860. See J.W. Ellison, California and the Nation, 1850-1869 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1927), 179 and Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 21.
[9] Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens, held in Sacramento on the 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th of October, 1865, (San Francisco: R & E Research Associates, 1969), 51;Coolidge, Chinese Immigration, 76; James A. Fisher, “A Social History of California Negroes, 1850-1900” (M.A. thesis, Sacramento State College, 1966), 29-30; Charles J. McClain, In Search of Equality; the Chinese Struggle against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 42; San Francisco Pacific Appeal, May 17, 1862, p. 2, col. 1; Norman E. Tutorow, Leland Stanford: Man of Many Careers (Menlo Park, Calif: Pacific Coast Publishers, 1971), 55.
[10] Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens, 87; Douglas Henry Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 16-17, 26-29, 107, 120-121; Fisher, “California Negroes,” 87-88; Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 94; A. Odell Thurman, “The Negro in California Before 1890” (M.A. thesis, College of the Pacific, 1945), 54-55.
[11] Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 16-18, 25-26, 30-31; California, Legislature, Report of the Joint Select Committee Relative to the Chinese Population of the State of California, Appendix to Journals of the Senate and Assembly, Part I, 13th Sess. 1862, 1-12; McClain, In Search of Equality, 289, note 8.; Elmer C. Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 1939), 25.
[12] California, Senate Journal, 3rd Session, March 20, 1852, Appendix, “Minority Report of the Select Committee on Senate Bill No. 63, for an Act to Enforce Contracts and Obligations to Perform Work and Labor,” 672; Lyman, “Strangers in the Cities,” 90.
[13] California, Legislature, Report of the Joint Select Committee Relative to the Chinese Population of the State of California, Appendix to the Journals of the Senate and Assembly, Part I, 13th Sess., 1862, 7; Chan, Bittersweet Soil, 39-40; Sandmeyer, Anti-Chinese Movement, 79-80; Lyman, “Strangers in the Cities,” 88- 89; U.S., Congress, Senate, Treaties, Conventions, International Acts, Protocols and Agreements between the United States of America and Other Powers, 1776-1909, Sen. Doc. 357, 61st Cong. 2d Sess., 1910 (2 Vols. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1910), 1:234-236; McClain, In Search of Equality, 30-31; Bancroft, History of California, VII:343; James J. Rawls and Walton Bean, California: An Interpretive History, (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 177-178.
[14] U.S., Census, Ninth Census, 1870, I: 340; Saxton, Indispensable Enemy, 27-30; Rawls and Bean, California, 178.
[15] Thomas F. Prendergast, Forgotten Pioneers in Early California (San Francisco: The Trade Pressroom, 1942), 155-160; Patrick J. Dowling, California, The Irish Dream (San Francisco: Golden Gate Publishers, 1988), 26-28, 51, 58; Patrick J. Dowling, Irish Californians: Historic, Benevolent, Romantic (San Francisco: Scottwall Associates, 1998), 203-204, 212-213; James P. Walsh, ed., The San Francisco Irish, 1850-1876 (San Francisco: The Irish Literary and Historical Society, 1978), 5-6; Bancroft, California, VI:287; See also;; and
[16] U.S., Census, Ninth Census, 1870, Compendium of the Ninth Census, Vol. IV, compiled pursuant to a concurrent resolution of Congress and under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 394; Saxton, Indispensable Enemy, 28-29.
[17] Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 107-108, 175-176, 203-205; George C. Gorham, speech delivered Aug. 13, 1867, contained in a broadside at the California State Library, Sacramento.
[18] Ira B. Cross, A History of the Labor Movement in California (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1935), 60-64; Dr. Ping Chiu, personal interview by Sheila Skjeie, Sacramento, California, Dec. 9, 1971; William Deverell, Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 4-6, 18-19, 29-31, 35-36, 38; Eaves, California Labor Legislation, 135; Rawls and Bean, California, 165-166, 169-170; Tutorow, Leland Stanford, 130.
[19] Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites, 17, 30-35; Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 176; Lyman, “Strangers in the Cities,” 90-92; Rawls and Bean, California, 177-179; Cross, Labor Movement in California, 73-77, 78-81, 83-85.
[20] California, Assembly Journal, 18th Sess., 1869-70, “Special Message of Governor Henry H. Haight on the Fifteenth Amendment,” Jan. 5, 1870, 168.
[21] Saxton, Indispensable Enemy, 2; McPherson, Struggle for Equality, 134, Wood, Black Scare, 2-5.
[22] Fisher, “California Negroes,” 97-100; Berwanger, West and Reconstruction, 180-182; Alfred H. Kelley and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origin and Development (New York: W.W. Norton: 3d ed., 1963), 483.