Posted: February 18th, 2022

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 sought to limit the number of Chinese immigrants in the United States due to racial, political and economic reasons. Anti-Chinese sentiment in the nineteenth century led to widespread animosity towards the Chinese, which compelled the United States to change its immigration laws. Moreover, American workers in California and other states felt Chinese presence in the country caused low wages, making it harder for them to earn fair wages for various jobs they performed. Thus, politicians used anti-Chinese sentiment to attract new voters who were opposed to the large numbers of Chinese laborers performing various tasks across the nation. They also spread propaganda against the Chinese immigrants to justify punitive measures targeting them, which significantly reduced Asian population in the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 resulted from social, political and economic tensions in the United States, reinforcing the nation’s intolerance towards nonwhite populations. 


After the American civil war, more Chinese immigrants sailed to the United States in search of employment opportunities. Since they were willing to work for low wages, they made it harder for white Americans to get jobs in California, leading to high unemployment rates. Hart reveals San Francisco working men agitated for changes in immigration and employment laws, which resulted in riots. Hart reveals “anti-Chinese mob rioted for three nights, destroying many Chinese wash-houses.”[1] Consequently, many Chinese businesses were vandalized, and the anger motivated political and labor union leaders to take action to restrict Asian immigration into the United States. Different legislative measures enacted in California made it harder for Chinese immigrants to access social services and also denied them freedom of movement in various places. Moreover, the legislature introduced fines targeting Chinese who lacked good character certificates in the state. Therefore, such measures highlight the white working class’ overall discontent with Chinese immigrants in the United States. 

Some politicians also felt that they needed to restrict Chinese population in the United States to limit racial tensions that could occur in the future. They felt an increase in Chinese migration would weaken Caucasians’ social, economic and political power in the United States. Further, it was cheaper for Chinese immigrants to sail from their country’s ports to the United States, which made politicians and other members of the working class fearful of their intentions. Consequently, James G. Blaine and other senior politicians anticipated a race trouble in the United States that could destabilize the country’s social and political stability in the long-term. Blaine notes “we should regard the race trouble as the one thing to be dreaded, the one thing to be avoided.”[2] Therefore, they were reluctant to cede more power to the Chinese immigrants because an Asian majority would diminish Caucasian control in the Pacific region of the United States. 

The lifestyles of many Chinese immigrants also made American citizens wary of their motives because they felt they were unwilling to adopt the nation’s social and cultural norms. For instance, senior politicians described the immigrants in unfavorable terms due to their ability to subsist on meager resources in their residences. Thus, they insisted that the Chinese were more interested in extracting maximum gains during their stay in the country while giving little in return. Kearney argues “These cheap slaves fill every place. Their dress is scant and cheap. Their food is rice from China.” [3] Consequently, the issue caused many white working class people to form negative attitudes towards them. In many instances, white working class people used dehumanizing terms to describe the Chinese, depicting them as violent savages who threatened America’s social and economic stability. Such depictions encouraged the general public to agitate for legislative changes that would ensure the Chinese did not enjoy similar rights to white people. Therefore, such problems illustrate how the Chinese Exclusion Act created severe challenges for Chinese immigrants.

The Anti-Chinese sentiment demonstrated how racial, political and economic tensions shaped American domestic and foreign policies after the Civil War. The discriminative laws demonstrated how America was keen to preserve the Caucasian hegemony; a nation where people from other racial backgrounds could not be considered citizens. Further, the punitive measures made it easier for senior politicians to direct the working classes’ hatred towards the Chinese and other minority groups. The act stipulated that “That the words “Chinese laborers,” whenever used in this act, shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.”[4] Many speeches by politicians and union leaders described the Chinese laborers as the source of economic and social ills in California and other surrounding regions. Such propaganda reinforced negative prejudices in the nation and led to the enactment of laws that allowed federal and state agencies to discriminate the Chinese in various locations. 


The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 illustrated how multiple racial, social, economic and political influenced American domestic and international policies. Further, the tensions between white working classes and Chinese laborers contributed to the problem, which motivated state and federal politicians to implement laws that discriminated against the Chinese. Popular stereotypes depicted the Chinese as inhuman, miserly and unwilling to conform to the dominant social and cultural norms in America. Thus, the issues encouraged union leaders and politicians to limit the numbers of Chinese immigrants entering the country.


[1]. Hart, Jerome A., In Our Second Century: From an Editor’s Notebook (San Francisco: The Pioneer Press, 1931), 1.

[2]. Blaine, James G., Political Discussions: Legislative, Diplomatic, and Popular, 1856–1886 (Norwich, CT: Henry Bill, 1887), 218.

[3]. Kearney, Denis and H. L. Knight, “Appeal from California. The Chinese Invasion. Workingmen’s Address,”, Indianapolis Times, February 28, 1878, n.p.

[4]. “Chinese Exclusion Act, Chapter 126, 1882”, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, n.p.

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