James D. Phelan, “Why the Chinese Should Be Excluded” (1901)

James D. Phelan, “Why the Chinese Should Be Excluded” (1901)

James D. Phelan, the mayor of San Francisco, penned the following article to drum up support for the extension of laws prohibiting Chinese immigration.

[The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, and again in 1892.] The Exclusion Acts then passed were limited to ten years’ duration. In May next the latest act will expire by limitation, and Congress will be asked to renew it, because, until now, Chinese exclusion has been regarded in diplomatic circles and elsewhere as the settled policy of the country. Has there been any change in the nature of the evil, or in the sentiments of the people? Certainly not on the Pacific Coast, where the lapse of time has made still more evident the non-assimilative character of the Chinese and their undesirability as citizens.

The Exclusion Act has been reasonably effective, although the Chinese, with more or less success, have employed their well-known cunning in evading its provisions by surreptitiously and fraudulently entering the United States. The law, however, has opposed a barrier to the great volume of immigration which threatened this country for many years prior to 1880….

The influx having been checked, the danger to California has been averted, and, consequently, during the last decade industrial conditions indicate comparative prosperity; whereas it is well known that prior to the Exclusion Laws the State of California suffered acutely from labor troubles and business derangement. Unemployed men, hungry from want of work, marched the streets of the cities, inaugurated political parties, disturbed the peace of communities by riotous outbreaks which threatened at times the foundations of law and order; and these facts gave to James Bryce a fruitful theme for speculation on democracy in his excellent work, “The American Commonwealth.” He devoted two chapters to the anti-Chinese crusade in. California and looked upon it as a race, labor and political question, which sooner or later, unless solved, would menace American institutions. Accusations were made at that time, which Ho Yow repeats, that the opposition to the Chinese came from demagogues alone. To show the unanimity of the people, I may point out that the Legislature submitted by referendum the question of Chinese immigration to a popular vote. For Chinese immigration 883 votes were polled, and against Chinese immigration 154,638 votes. In the City of San Francisco, representing the wealth and intelligence and containing the skilled-labor organizations of the State, only 224 votes were cast in favor of the immigration and 41,258 votes against it. This result demonstrated clearly that the resident population of California, taking the broad ground of self-preservation, refused to suffer themselves to be dispossessed of their inheritance by Chinese coolies. That is what the verdict meant.

A select committee of Congress, after investigating the question and taking testimony in California, reported in favor of Chinese exclusion, and that policy has been regarded ever since as a peaceful preventive of serious disorders affecting the body politic which would have inevitably ensued had the National Legislature failed to protect the white population of the country. …

The Chinese, by putting a vastly inferior civilization in competition with our own, tend to destroy the population, on whom the perpetuity of free government depends. Without homes and families; patronizing neither school, library, church nor theatre; lawbreakers, addicted to vicious habits; indifferent to sanitary regulations and breeding disease; taking no holidays, respecting no traditional anniversaries, but laboring incessantly, and subsisting on practically nothing for food and clothes, a condition to which they have been inured for centuries, they enter the lists against men who have been brought up by our civilization to family life and civic duty. Our civilization having been itself rescued from barbarism by the patriots, martyrs and benefactors of mankind, the question now is: Shall it be imperilled? Is not Chinese immigration a harm?

If the Chinese are admitted, whence are the ranks of the free population to be recruited? Who shall preserve our civilization and who shall fight our battles? The Chinese may be good laborers, but they are not good citizens. They may in small numbers benefit individual employers, but they breed the germs of a national disease, which spreads as they spread, and grows as they grow.


[Source: James D. Phelan, “Why The Chinese Should Be Excluded,” The North American Review 173 (November, 1901).]