Echoes of Reconstruction: When Frederick Douglas Stood Up to Anti-Asian Violence and Exclusion

ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

This 1886 advertisement promoted a washing machine as a replacement for Chinese laundries.

Americans’ fear of non-white, non-Christian immigrants began in 1848 with the arrival of the first ship full of Chinese in San Francisco Bay. The Chinese came to wash the clothes of gold miners, transport supplies to mining camps, and provide sweat labor, but some Americans thought they were part of an invading force sent by the “Celestial Empire” to destroy America.

These fears did not die during the Civil War. Andrew Johnson explained that he vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in part because it recognized that the children of Chinese immigrants were U.S. citizens if born in this country. Similar concerns were raised over the 14th Amendment’s Birthright Citizenship Clause.

For all the fear the Chinese aroused, they never made up more than a small percentage of the total immigrant population during the Civil War Era.

From 1851 to 1860, fewer than 50,000 Chinese people had immigrated to the United States, out of a total of 2.5-3 million immigrants from all nations. The 1860 Census showed 35,565 Chinese residing in the United States compared to 1.6 million Irish and 1.3 million Germans. In fact, there were more Swiss (53,327) and Norwegians (43,995) here than Chinese.

The one state where Chinese were a visible presence was California. By 1860, there were 146,528 foreign-born people in California. Of these 34,935 were from China, 33,147 from Ireland, 21,646 from the German states, 12,227 from England. 9,150 Mexicans lived in the state as well. But even in California, the Chinese presence was greatly exaggerated. 61% of the population was native-born in 1860 and that percentage would increase to 63% by 1870. Chinese immigrants made up roughly 10% of the state’s population at the time of the war.

In 1868, the United States signed an agreement with China known as the Burlingame Treaty. Secretary of State William Seward wanted to open up trade with China and the Empire wanted to protect the Chinese living in the west. The treaty recognized the right to emigrate from one country to another. According to the treaty; “The United States of America and the Emperor of China cordially recognize the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from the one country to the other, for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents.” The agreement formally encouraged Chinese to immigrate and promised to treat them on an equal basis with American citizens in most matters.

The Burlingame Treaty led to an increase in Chinese immigration, up from 6,707 in 1868 to 12,874 in 1869. But the opening of free immigration to non-whites was met with a backlash. Los Angeles would soon become a hotbed of anti-Chinese violence. By 1870, the city’s Chinese population would grow to 200 men and 34 women. The total population of the city of Los Angeles at the time was 5,728. White Angelinos claimed that “Americans” would soon be undercut by the growing number of Chinese. On October 24, 1871, when a white rancher was killed during a gunfight with several Chinese immigrants, anti-Chinese hatred erupted into deadly violence. Over a four-hour period, rioters killed eighteen Chinese, fourteen of whom were hanged by lynch mobs.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass decided that amidst growing anti-Chinese agitation, he needed to address the issue of whether the American nation could tolerate the arrival of immigrants of another race, or whether a ban on Chinese should be imposed. Douglass was the nation’s foremost advocate of racial equality, but he was also a prominent ally of Republican leaders who just a decade earlier had flirted with the Know Nothings.7

Douglass delivered his immigration lecture in Boston in 1867. At the time, freed slaves had finally been recognized as citizens by the still unratified 14th Amendment, but non-whites had no constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. White Americans worried that the United States, whose founding myth was that it was an Anglo-Saxon nation begun by the Pilgrims at Plymouth and built by white Protestant people from England, Scotland, and Wales, was in danger of losing its character, that the “Old Stock” was about to be replaced. Douglass told his audience that he was there to “speak to you of the character and mission of the United States, with special reference to the question whether we are the better or the worse for being composed of different races of men.”

Douglass told his listeners, the great-grandchildren of the Puritans, that the creation myth was incomplete. Rather than being the miraculous product of the Anglo-Saxons of America, Douglass said, “much of the wealth, leisure, culture, refinement and civilization of the country are due to the arm of the negro and the muscle of the Irishman. Without these and the wealth created by their sturdy toil, English civilization had still lingered this side of the Alleghanies [sic], and the wolf still be howling on their summits.” Blacks brought as slaves and the despised Irish working-class were the labor that helped to make America great. But even this was an incomplete story. Douglass reminded his audience that many of America’s achievements had been made by immigrants.

The abolitionist views of many German immigrants prompted Douglass to observe that the “German is a joyous child of freedom, fond of manly sports, a lover of music, and a happy man generally. Though he never forgets that he is a German, he never fails to remember that he is an American.” Immigrants, he pointed out, often brought a different view of society from the native born and were thereby able to change America for the better.

Douglass declared that the people of the United States were not racially, ethnically, or religiously homogeneous. Americans, he argued, are a “composite nation,” a people made up from many peoples. In recognition of this fact, he declared, “we should welcome to our ample continent all nations, …tongues and peoples; and as fast as they learn our language and comprehend the duties of citizenship, we should incorporate them into the American body politic. The outspread wings of the American eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come.”

Diversity was a positive virtue for this country, according to Douglass. He compared America to the decaying nations of the Old World. Those countries, he said, “which have maintained the most separate and distinct existence for the longest periods of time; which have had the least intercourse with other races of men, are a standing confirmation of the folly of isolation. The very soil of the national mind becomes, in such cases, barren, and can only be resuscitated by assistance from without.” 

While conservatives argued for walling off America from Chinese immigration, Douglass warned that the “voice of civilization speaks an unmistakable language against the isolation of families, nations and races, and pleads for composite nationality as essential to her triumphs.”

To those white Americans who feared that American culture and democracy would be overwhelmed by Chinese immigrants who would try to impose their ways upon the Americans, Douglass answered that the fear “does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration” from around the world.

Douglass admitted that the opponents of Chinese immigration raised strong issues of national security and safety. He summarized their concerns; “Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise?”

Douglass did not try to respond to each concern white Americans had about allowing the Chinese to come.  Instead, he said, “this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.”

“There are such things in the world as human rights,” the vibrant civil rights advocate insisted, “[they] rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible.” Among the human rights of all “is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike.” He reminded complacent Americans that “It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here.” The right to move, he said, is the “great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.”

9 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: When Frederick Douglas Stood Up to Anti-Asian Violence and Exclusion

  1. Excellent article. Thank you. Douglass should be celebrated and memorialized alongside Lincoln and M. L. King. Many citizens today need to hear and head this message.

  2. Excellent article, Pat. Thanks for showing us that we of today can learn from the past.

  3. Andrew Johnson has to be praised for having a treaty done that allowed Chinese to immigrate to the United States and that protected them while in the United States. Huzzah for Andrew Johnson!

    Frederick Douglass, what a man!

  4. Thank you for this timely reminder of the long history of antipathy to Asians in America

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