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Chinese Exclusion (1898)

Robert Green Ingersoll

The average American, like the average man of any country, has but little imagination. People who speak a different language, or worship some other god, or wear clothing unlike his own, are beyond the horizon of his sympathy. He cares but little or nothing for the sufferings or misfortunes of those who are of a different complexion or of another race. His imagination is not powerful enough to recognize the human being, in spite of peculiarities. Instead of this he looks upon every difference as an evidence of inferiority, and for the inferior he has but little if any feeling. If these "inferior people" claim equal rights be feels insulted, and for the purpose of establishing his own superiority tramples on the rights of the so-called, inferior.

In our own country the native has always considered himself as much better than the immigrant, and as far superior to all people of a different complexion. At one time our people hated the Irish, then the Germans, then the Italians, and now the Chinese. The Irish and Germans, however, became numerous. They became citizens, and, most important of all, they had votes. They combined, became powerful, and the political parties sought their aid. They had something to give in exchange for protection -- in exchange for political rights. In consequence of this, they were flattered by candidates, praised by the political press, and became powerful enough not only to protect themselves, but at last to govern the principal cities in the United States. As a matter of fact the Irish and the Germans drove the native Americans out of the trades and from the lower forms of labor. They built the railways and canals. They became servants. Afterward the Irish and the Germans were driven from the canals and railways by the Italians.

The Irish and Germans improved their condition. They went into other businesses, into the higher and more lucrative trades. They entered the professions, turned their attention to politics, became merchants, brokers, and professors in colleges. They are not now building railroads or digging on public works. They are contractors, legislators, holders of office, and the Italians and Chinese are doing the old work.

If matters had been allowed to work in a natural way, without the interference of mobs or legislators, the Chinese would have driven the Italians to better employments, and all menial labor would, in time, be done by the Mongolians.

In olden times each nation hated all others. This was considered natural and patriotic. Spain, after many centuries of war, expelled the Moors, then the Moriscoes, and then the Jews. And Spain, in the name of religion and patriotism, succeeded in driving from its territory its industry, its taste and its intelligence, and by these mistakes became poor, ignorant and weak. France started on the same path when the Huguenots were expelled, and even England at one time deported the Jews. In those days a difference of race or religion was sufficient to justify any absurdity and any cruelty.

In our country, as a matter of fact, there is but little prejudice against emigrants coming from Europe, except among naturalized citizens; but nearly all foreign-born citizens are united in their prejudice against the Chinese. The truth is that the Chinese came to this country by invitation. Under the Burlingame Treaty, China and the United States recognized:

The inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from one country to the other for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents.

And it was provided:

That the citizens of the United States visiting or residing in China and Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States should reciprocally enjoy the same privileges, immunities and exemptions, in respect to travel or residence, as shall be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation, in the country in which they shall respectively be visiting or residing.

So, by the treaty of 1880, providing for the limitation or suspension of emigration of Chinese labor, it was declared:

That the limitation or suspension should apply only to Chinese who emigrated to the United States as laborers; but that Chinese laborers who were then in the United States should be allowed to go and come of their own free will and should be accorded all the rights, privileges, immunities and exemptions, which were accorded to the citizens and subjects of the most favored nations.

It will thus be seen that all Chinese laborers who came to this country prior to the treaty of 1880 were to be treated the same as the citizens and subjects of the most favored nation; that is to say, they were to be protected by our laws the same as we protect our own citizens.

These Chinese laborers are inoffensive, peaceable and law- abiding. They are honest, keeping their contracts, doing as they agree. They are exceedingly industrious, always ready to work and always giving satisfaction to their employers. They do not interfere with other people. They cannot become citizens. They have no voice in the making or the execution of the laws. They attend to their own business. They have their own ideas, customs, religion and ceremonies -- about as foolish as our own; but they do not try to make converts or to force their dogmas on others. They are patient, uncomplaining, stoical and philosophical. They earn what they can, giving reasonable value for the money they receive, and as a rule, when they have amassed a few thousand dollars, they go back to their own country. They do not interfere with our ideas, our ways or customs. They are silent workers, toiling without any object, except to do their work and get their pay. They do not establish saloons and run for Congress. Neither do they combine for the purpose of governing others. Of all the people on our soil they are the least meddlesome. Some of them smoke opium, but the opium- smoker does not beat his wife. Some of them play games of chance, but they are not members of the Stock Exchange. They eat the bread that they earn; they neither beg nor steal, but they are of no use to parties or politicians except as they become fuel to supply the flame of prejudice. They are not citizens and they cannot vote. Their employers are about the only friends they have.

In the Pacific States the lowest became their enemies and asked for their, expulsion. They denounced the Chinese and those who gave them work. The patient followers of Confucius were treated as outcasts -- stoned by boys in the streets and mobbed by the fathers. Few seemed to have any respect for their rights or their feelings. They were unlike us. They wore different clothes. They dressed their hair in a peculiar way, and therefore they were beyond our sympathies. These ideas, these practices, demoralized many communities; the laboring people became cruel and the small politicians infamous.

When the rights of even one human being are held in contempt the rights of all are in danger. We cannot destroy the liberties of others without losing our own. By exciting the prejudices of the ignorant we at last produce a contempt for law and justice, and sow the seeds of violence and crime.

Both of the great political parties pandered to the leaders of the crusade against the Chinese for the sake of electoral votes, and in the Pacific States the friends of the Chinese were forced to keep still or to publicly speak contrary to their convictions. The orators of the "Sand Lots" were in power, and the policy of the whole country was dictated by the most ignorant and prejudiced of our citizens. Both of the great parties ratified the outrages committed by the mobs, and proceeded with alacrity to violate the treaties and solemn obligations of the Government. These treaties were violated, these obligations were denied, and thousands of Chinamen were deprived of their rights, of their property, and hundreds were maimed or murdered. They were driven from their homes. They were hunted like wild beasts. All this was done in a country that sends missionaries to China to tell the benighted savages of the blessed religion of the United States.

At first a demand was made that the Chinese should be driven out, then that no others should be allowed to come, and laws with these objects in view were passed, in spite of the treaties, preventing the coming of any more. For a time that satisfied the haters of the Mongolian. Then came a demand for more stringent legislation, so that many of the Chinese already here could be compelled to leave, The answer or response to this demand is what is known as the Geary Law.

By this act it is provided, among other things, that any Chinaman convicted of not being lawfully in the country shall be removed to China, after having been imprisoned at hard labor for not exceeding one year. This law also does away with bail on habeas corpus proceeding where the right to land has been denied to a Chinaman. It also compels all Chinese laborers to obtain, within one year after the passage of the law, certificates of residence from the revenue collectors, and if found without such certificate they shall be held to be unlawfully in the United States.

It is further provided that if a Chinaman claims that he failed to get such certificate by "accident, sickness or other unavoidable cause," then he must clearly establish such claim to the satisfaction of the judge "by at least one credible white witness."

If we were at war with China then we might legally consider every Chinaman as an enemy, but we were and are at peace with that country. The Geary Act was passed by Congress and signed by the President simply for the sake of votes. The Democrats in Congress voted for it to save the Pacific States to the Democratic column; and a Republican President signed it so that the Pacific States should vote the Republican ticket. Principle was forgotten, or rather it was sacrificed, in the hope of political success. It was then known, as now, that China is a peaceful nation, that it does not believe in war as a remedy, that it relies on negotiation and treaty. It is also known that the Chinese in this country were helpless, without friends, without power to defend themselves. It is possible that many members of Congress voted in favor of the Act believing that the Supreme Court would hold it unconstitutional, and that in the meantime it might be politically useful.

The idea of imprisoning a man at hard labor for a year, and this man a citizen of a friendly nation, for the crime of being found in this country without a certificate of residence, must be abhorrent to the mind of every enlightened man. Such punishment for such an "offence" is barbarous and belongs to the earliest times of which we know. This law makes industry a crime and puts one who works for his bread on a level with thieves and the lowest criminals, treats him as a felon, and clothes him in the stripes of a convict, -- and all this is done at the demand of the ignorant, of the prejudiced, of the heartless, and because the Chinese are not voters and have no political power.

The Chinese are not driven away because there is no room for them. Our country is not crowded. There are many millions of acres waiting for the plow. There is plenty of room here under our flag for five hundred millions of people. These Chinese that we wish to oppress and imprison are people who understand the art of irrigation. They can redeem the deserts. They are the best of gardeners. They are modest and willing to occupy the lowest seats. They only ask to be day-laborers, washers and ironers. They are willing to sweep and scrub. They are good cooks. They can clear lands and build railroads. They do not ask to be masters -- they wish only to serve. In every capacity they are faithful; but in this country their virtues have made enemies, and they are hated because of their patience, their honesty and their industry.

The Geary Law, however, failed to provide the ways and means for carrying it into effect, so that the probability is it will remain a dead letter upon the statute book. The sum of money required to carry it out is too large, and the law fails to create the machinery and name the persons authorized to deport the Chinese. Neither is there any mode of trial pointed out. According to the law there need be no indictment by a grand jury, no trial by a jury, and the person found guilty of being here without a certificate of residence can be imprisoned and treated as a felon without the ordinary forms of trial.

This law is contrary to the laws and customs of nations. The punishment is unusual, severe, and contrary to our Constitution, and under its provisions aliens -- citizens of a friendly nation -- can be imprisoned without due process of law. The law is barbarous, contrary to the spirit and genius of American institutions, and was passed in violation of solemn treaty stipulations.

The Congress that passed it is the same that closed the gates of the World's Fair on the "blessed Sabbath," thinking it wicked to look at statues and pictures on that day. These representatives of the people seem to have had more piety than principle.

After the passage of such a law by the United States is it not indecent for us to send missionaries to China? Is there not work enough for them at home? We send ministers to China to convert the heathen; but when we find a Chinaman on our soil, where he can be saved by our example, we treat him as a criminal.

It is to the interest of this country to maintain friendly relations with China. We want the trade of nearly one-fourth of the human race. We want to pay for all we get from that country in articles of our own manufacture. We lost the trade of Mexico and the South American Republics because of slavery, because we hated people in whose veins was found a drop of African blood, and now we are losing the trade of China by pandering to the prejudices of the ignorant and cruel.

After all, it pays to do right. This is a hard truth to learn -- especially for a nation. A great nation should be bound by the highest conception of justice and honor. Above all things it should be true to its treaties, its contracts, its obligations. It should remember that its responsibilities are in accordance with its power and intelligence.

Our Government is founded on the equality of human rights -- on the idea, the sacred truth, that all are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our country is an asylum for the oppressed of all nations -- of all races. Here, the Government gets its power from the consent of the governed. After the abolition of slavery these great truths were not only admitted, but they found expression in our Constitution and laws.

Shall we now go back to barbarism?

Russia is earning the hatred of the civilized world by driving the Jews from their homes. But what can the United States say? Our mouths are closed by the Geary Law. We are in the same business. Our law is as inhuman as the order or ukase of the Czar.

Let us retrace our steps, repeal the law and accomplish what we justly desire by civilized means. Let us treat China as we would England; and, above all, let us respect the rights of Men.

North American Review, July, 1898.


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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer
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