The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Its Impact on North American Society

Kelly Tian
University of Chicago


The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made a profound impact on American society, affecting the targeted Chinese people as well as Caucasians. Because much of what happens in the past influences the present and future, it is vital to understand the motives for the Act and how it affects others. Perhaps by learning about previous difficulties one can draw conclusions on how to lead more productive and harmonious lives in the future.

This essay will explore the causes, effects, and background of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The essay presents findings on the circumstances of the Exclusion Act and the reasons behind its implementation. Any such law that impacts people so significantly is likely to be met with much controversy, as was the case with this Act. Included in this discussion is a section describing alternate views and how they relate to the time period of the late 19th century, as well as how they relate to the modern era of thought. The Exclusion Act led to a decrease in economic productivity across the nation, because Asians, a diligent group of people living in the country, were restrained from making more contributions. Thus, it can be concluded that targeting specific groups in times of need with such an Act has very little benefit to any population.


 The United States is one of the major political and economic powers of the world, consisting of many people coming from various ethnic backgrounds. One such group, the Chinese, is discussed in this paper. Unfortunately, this group faced much difficulty in assimilating into American society as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and in spite of relentless efforts of the Chinese to better themselves and improve their communities; the Exclusion Act still made life especially difficult a considerable time for those Chinese already residing in America. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate the Exclusion Act’s impact on the Chinese people as well as on indigenous Americans. First, the background concerning the Act will be examined and how it came into existence. Second, the paper will study the major pressing issues revolving around the Act: its controversies and immediate effects. Third, it will investigate the impacts of the Act that continue to affect the world today. Finally, the author will present some different viewpoints and present his conclusion.

The Significance of Studying the Chinese Exclusion Act’s Impact

Contemporary society is determined by the past. Thus, if we are familiar with the past we will understand the present, and only by learning from prior mistakes can we make informed decisions about what courses of action to take in the future. Chinese Americans have made tremendous contributions to the development of the United States; however obstacles were wrongfully introduced to hamper their integration. In the year 1882, United States’ president Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act, placing a suspension on immigration from The People’s Republic of China. This ban, originally intended to last 10 years, ended up being extended indefinitely until being made permanent in 1902. It caused much distress and was ultimately repealed by the Magnuson Act of 1943. How did mistreatment of and discrimination against Chinese immigrants affect the citizenship rights of those of Chinese descent born in America?

Citizens of the United States can now associate with people whose backgrounds differ from their own. As Americans, it is vital to know the history of the nation and learn from it. From the results and reactions of the Act, the public as well as American politicians can gain insight on how to effectively govern in a democracy and to secure equal, unalienable rights to all citizens, regardless of their backgrounds.

Background of the Chinese Exclusion Act

Chinese immigrants came to the United States in large numbers during the California Gold Rush of 1848 when quantities of gold were discovered at Sutter’s Mill. These Chinese immigrants, primarily from southeastern China, experienced poverty and ruin as a result of the Taiping Rebellion (Norton 1924). The Chinese population in America again increased exponentially when in the 1860’s the Central Pacific Railroad began hiring large labor forces to conduct work on the Transcontinental Railroad. At first, when the valuable gold was in abundance, the Chinese were well tolerated and treated with dignity for their seemingly unlimited passion to perform tasks and their desire for work; the Chinamen “were cooks, laundrymen, and servants ready and willing” (Norton 1924). However, because there was only a limited supply of the precious metal to satisfy unlimited wants, competition and contention increased. Sinophobic, or Chinese hating, miners began to treat the Chinese as well as other foreigners with increasing animosity. The cry of “California for the Americans” was raised and accurately portrayed the sentiments of many nativist Americans (Norton 1924). Hate crimes were pervasive; racist graffiti was spread in many areas, riots occurred, and people even went to such extremes as to suggest the removal and deportation of every Chinese-American. With the economy falling after the end of the Civil War, Americans needed a scapegoat to blame for their economic woes. Thus, they turned to Chinese “coolies,” a historical term referring to manual laborers from Asia (dictionary.com). People even compared the Chinese to “human leeches sucking the very life-blood of [the] country” (Norton 1924).  

As a result of all the political attacks against the Chinese, the Exclusion Act became America’s first significant restriction on immigration. The provisions of the Act, including one that mandated certification for people to return to the country after leaving the borders, made life extremely difficult for the Chinese, both those already residing in the country and those who wished to immigrate. People were often severed from their families, with little hopes of ever reuniting.

Reactions to the Chinese Exclusion Act were mixed. Anti-Chinese groups, such as the Supreme Order of Caucasians and California’s governor John Bigler, were advocates of the Act, blaming the “coolies” for deflated wages. The Chinese people, on the other hand, strongly opposed the law, as it discriminated against them and tore families apart, destroying their lives (Brody 2008). This Act was the first of its kind; never before had the United States targeted specific ethnic groups and barred immigration. In 1882, the United States began closing its doors to foreigners from China and continued to do so for an extensive amount of time (Gyory 1998).

The issue of citizenship for non-native Americans remains an important one, even in the modern age. Although President Chester Arthur approved of the Act nearly one and a half centuries ago, the concepts of equal opportunity for all residents proves relevant to contemporary society (Feldmeth et al. 2008). In the year 1849, when the United States was not even a century old, there were merely 54 Chinamen residing in the nation. However, after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, a “steady immigration commenced which continued until 1876” when the Chinese numbered 151, 000, the vast majority present in the state of California (Norton 1924). The large influx of Chinese paved way for the diverse and pluralistic society present in the thriving American nation today.

Principal Issues of the Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law by Chester A. Arthur, proved to be the product of about 30 years of racial tensions and resentments; it was injustice for the assiduous Chinese Americans. The Exclusion Act ranks among one of the most irrational and overall ineffective laws to ever be promulgated by the national government (Gabler-Hover, 2006).  The xenophobic sentiments that arose during the late 18th century around the time of the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act epitomize America as a nation’s constant willingness to blame others in times of need. As pointed out, from 1849 onwards until the Exclusion Act, the Chinese and Americans worked cohesively and generally respected one another. But, during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, the American economy plunged as the nation was trying to recuperate after one of the bloodiest and costliest battles in U.S. History. Economic damages were particularly damaging to the South, where entire cities laid in ruins (Sweeney 2004).

Also, the Chinese Exclusion Act negatively impacted the entire society of America, not just the Chinamen; the economic health of the nation dwindled; wage labor quickly became the most common form of employment, as opposed to the slavery, indentured servitude, and apprenticeship that took place in years prior. The labor force swelled through large-scale immigration, most notably by the Chinese; and workers thrown out of work in periods of industrial depression could no longer be expected to manage for themselves (Boyer 2001). Because the Chinese were so willing and able to perform labor at lower wages than their Caucasian counterparts, jobs involving manual labor were often relinquished from the Caucasians and granted to the Chinese.

Such animosity and resentment amongst white Americans led to uprisings, and anti-Chinese feelings became politicized by the Workingman’s Party’s Dennis Kearney (Kearney 1878).  With prominent political figures against them, the Chinese had their freedoms severely limited. For example, in several states after the Civil War, interracial marriage between Asians and whites was prohibited (Chin 2002). Also, immigrants who left the country and wanted to return had an extremely difficult time in obtaining a certificate of residence.

The effects of the Act were visibly apparent; with the addition of several even more stringent acts following the Exclusion Act of 1882, already existing Chinese communities were restricted. It was difficult for them to expand; with constant discrimination from fellow residents, assimilation proved even more difficult. However, because no such ban existed for any other ethnic group, other foreign societies, most notably those of European immigrant groups, merged into American society with fewer problems (Norton 1924).

Around twenty years after the United States declared the Exclusion Act permanent, Canada followed suit. In 1923, Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which was described as Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act by the Chinese Canadian communities.  Thus, not only did the Exclusion Act signed by President Chester A. Arthur negatively impact Chinese Americans but Chinese Canadians were affected too. The Canadian government, prior to 1923, already placed a head tax to restrict Chinese immigration to Canada, but the restriction became full scale, largely in part the influence of the United States. It is interesting to point out that although within the last two decades there have been roughly 50 million or more overseas Chinese living in approximately 80 different countries, few of whom placed such total restrictions on immigration from China (Tian 1999).

As with any lesson about history, the United States, as a pluralistic society, can learn how to function more cohesively and how to take proper courses of action to ensure well-being of all its people. The Exclusion Act caused much distress, not only for the Chinese but also for the Caucasians, because the entire American economy was harmed.

The Major Impacts of the Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act was a bold yet cowardly law. It was the brainchild of bitter and irrational resentment and contradicted America’s policy of caring for the tired, the poor, and “the huddled masses yearning to be free.” This section of the essay will investigate the results of the Exclusion Act and how it impacted North American society.

The effects of the exclusion laws were not confined to the borders of the United States; Chinese immigrants moved to many locations across several nations, thus helping to shape the entire Exclusion Era. Dr. Guang Tian (1999) asserted that Chinese migrants usually maintain significant socioeconomic, political, and cultural ties with their native heritage, including families and homeland in spite of the pressing legal barriers that placed limitations on Chinese immigration to North America. As such, the Chinese immigrants lived their lives across international borders; one relative lived in China while another lived in America. They were rarely able to see one another for fear of being denied entry or reentry into the United States. The exclusion laws as well as increased regulation of Asian immigration severely damaged transnational relations (Lee 2003).

Ultimately, the need for a scapegoat led to America’s economic woes. As aforementioned, the post-Civil War reconstruction required much money and resources, and few people other than the Chinese were willing and able to provide the manual labor and hard work. Thus, by limiting Chinese immigration, Americans were suffocating their own economy. From this incident, perhaps Americans can learn not to be so eager in finding scapegoats and seek to solve problems at the actual source, not by blaming others. If this path is taken, perhaps the United States will thrive even more as one of the great political and economic powers of the world.

Alternate Viewpoints Concerning the Act

It should come as no surprise that not everyone agreed that The Chinese Exclusion Act was a product of irrationalism, especially those proponents who were around during the economic slump period at the time. Although nowadays most people consider the Act ethically and morally questionable in addition to being counterproductive, throughout history there were those who were in favor of the act. Among the first who supported it include Dennis Kearney, a populist political leader, who is remembered for his nativist and xenophobic views toward Chinese immigrants; sinophobic California state governor John Bigler who blamed the Chinese for lower than usual wage levels across the state; and the anti-Chinese group known as the Supreme Order of Caucasians, who also favored the deportation of all Chinese.

Dennis Kearney, a populist leader of Irish background, openly denounced organizations such as the Central Pacific Railroad for hiring large numbers of Chinese to do the labor, and often led violent attacks on the Chinese. His slogan eventually came to be simply that, “the Chinese must go” (Thompson 1916).

John Bigler, who, as previously stated, was the sinophobic third governor of California and the third to successfully serve one full term in office. Governor Bigler aimed to implement a policy in California to target the Chinese “coolies,” like the policies of Davis Kearney, asserting that the Chinese refused and would never be able to assimilate into the society of America. Their eagerness to work for whatever wage, no matter how low, would damage the economy. He openly advocated a tax that was exclusively reserved for Chinese laborers to serve as a deterrent for the Chinese (Tinkham 1915). Although ruled unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court, Bigler’s head tax delineated the racist and deprecating views held by many Californians during the Exclusion Era.

Sinophobic concerns were not limited to individuals. Such groups, including The Supreme Order of Caucasians, in California held similar perspectives to both John Bigler and Dennis Kearney. With 64 chapters across the state of California, The Supreme Order of Caucasians’ strong influence in California’s legislation is incontrovertible. It was organized in Sacramento in April of 1876 with the primary intention of running the already pervasive Chinese population entirely out of the United States (Gray 1934).

In Dennis Kearney’s views, the Chinese were an “alien” group and were taking jobs meant for “native” Americans, thus destroying the economy. Although his concerns are important, Kearney’s perspective is flawed in that few American-born people were even willing to work on the transcontinental railroad, let alone for such meager wages. Thus, by hiring the Chinese, the transcontinental railroad helped to facilitate trade across the nation, increasing productivity and expediting communication (Newman 2002).

John Bigler’s concern that the Chinese would never be fully able to assimilate into American society proves to be valid as well. It may be true that the Chinese culture is a collectivist one, in contrast with the individualistic emphasis of the United States, but with collectivism comes high adaptability (McEntarffer 2008). Bigler’s head tax was unnecessary; the Chinese would have had little difficulty in assimilating had it not been for the legal barriers presented by the national and state governments. In spite of these legal restrictions, the Chinese still made great contributions to the state of California as well as the entire nation.

Another argument presented by critics of the Chinese Exclusion Act was that altough the Chinese specifically were targeted, people from other descents were free to immigrate to the United States without limitations (Chin 2002). One conclusion that can be drawn from this fact is that the Chinese Exclusion Act was an act largely driven by racism; there was a multitude of other immigrants willing to perform labor at low wages, which once again contradicts America’s goal of being a free and accepting nation.


 As we delve deeper and deeper into the twenty-first century, America should become more accepting and embrace differences in background or creed. Although Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans have contributed much to the U.S. economy, racial tensions still do exist. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 remains even today as one of the most racially induced legal limitations in the history of the United States. Although strides have been made since then, including the U.S. Supreme Court Case of United States vs. Wong Kim Ark, which established that the Chinese Exclusion Act could not overrule the fourteenth amendment. A person born to Chinese parents could not be denied citizenship if he or she was born in America. The Act serves as a reminder of the failure induced by blind racism and eagerness to deflect blame onto other groups (United States vs. Wong Kim Ark).

The Act has had a significant impact on both the Chinese people and Americans.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was implemented during a time of great prejudice and blind racism. America as a whole tends to, in desperate economic times, target minority groups or other certain groups to blame, such as in this case when the Chinamen were credited with depressing wages. As presented above, the Chinese people were not the ones at fault; the Civil War left America in ruins and the Chinese were there to expedite the recovery with their inexpensive and diligent labor.

Its controversies and immediate effects reflect that the Act was racially spurred; in general, most people believe that the Act ruined the relationship between Chinese community and Americans. Parallels can be made to other episodes in history. For example, the Japanese Internment camps in the United States after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Consider the business demographics of several American states; at the present California has the most Chinese-owned firms with 110,823 or 38.7 percent of California’s total and with receipts of $56.2 billion or 53.5 percent of total state revenue. Coming in second place is New York with 57,673 Chinese business firms, comprising 20.2 percent, with receipts of $10.2 billion or 9.7 percent. Texas was third in number of Chinese-owned firms with 13,735 or 4.8 percent with receipts of almost $5.2 billion or 5.0 percent (Golden Venture 2007).

Minorities are, especially during the modern era, too influential in terms of politics, communities, and economics, to dismiss. With each historical parallel, lessons can be learned, and only by recognizing the mistakes of racial tensions can America truly be an all-inclusive democracy.



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