When a Ban on the Chinese Was Proposed and Frederick Douglass Spoke Out


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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.1

For all the fear the Chinese aroused, they never made up more than a few percent of the total immigrant population during the Civil War Era.2

Beginning in 1864, Chinese immigrants supplied most of the labor for the West Coast section of the Transcontinental Railroad. Approximately 10,000 Chinese worked on the consturction of this vital link.

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.3

Chinese immigrant Joseph Pierce served in the Union army during the Civil War.

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 immigrnts made up roughly 10% of the state’s population at the time of the war.4

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 immigrate 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.5

This 1869 cartoon by German immigrant Thomas Nast depicted the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in California.

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 people, and even some Latino 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.6

Frederick Douglass was the most famous black man of 19th Century America. Enslaved at birth, he escaped his captivity and became a leading Abolitionist. During the Civil War he advocated for Emancipation and for the enlistment of black soldiers. After the war he led the fight for civil rights.

Frederick Douglass decided that amidst growing anti-Chinese agitation, he needed to address the issue of whether the American nation could tolerate the arrival 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. 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.”8

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.9

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.10

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.”11

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.”12

Violence against the Chinese would reignite in the 1880s. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and rioters, like these in Seattle, expelled Chinese from their communities.

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.”13

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.14

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

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?”15

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.”16

“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.”17

In this cartoon, Irish (left) and German (right) immigrants wonder if they will be the next group to be declared non-white and deported. Although some European immigrants defended the Chinese, many joined in the chorus calling for Chinese Exclusion. Douglass noted antipathy of Irish immigrants towards the Chinese in his speech: “Already have our Celtic brothers, never slow to execute the behests of popular prejudice against the weak and defenseless, recognized in the heads of these people, fit targets for their shilalahs. Already, too, are their associations formed in avowed hostility to the Chinese.”

Video: Yale Historian David Blight discusses Frederick Douglass


  1. For information on anti-Chinese sentiments, see

2. During the height of Chinese immigration in the 19th Century, immigrants from China rarely made up more than 3% of total annual immigration from all countries.

3. Preliminary Report Census of 1860 found at http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/1860a-02.pdf

4. Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California by Tomas Almaguer published by University of California Press p. 27

5.  Burlingame Treaty found at https://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/treaty1868.htm

6. The Anti-Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles as a Reconstruction-Era Event  by Victor Jew in the Oxford Research Encyclopedias: American History found at http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-343

7. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston. Frederick Douglass by William McFeely published by W.W. Norton, (1991); The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes published by W. W. Norton, 2007.

8. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston. Although the speech is often dated to 1869, the original manuscript at the Library of Congress is dated 1867.

9. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston.

10. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston. In his speech, Douglass did express concernt that Southern plantation owners might try to import Chinese workers to displace blacks. “Southern gentlemen who led in the late rebellion, have not parted with their convictions at this point, any more than at others. They want to be independent of the negro. They believed in slavery and they believe in it still. They believed in an aristocratic class and they believe in it still, and though they have lost slavery, one element essential to such a class, they still have two important conditions to the reconstruction of that class. They have intelligence and they have land. Of these, the land is the more important. They cling to it with all the tenacity of a cherished superstition. They will neither sell to the negro, nor let the carpet baggers have it in peace, but are determined to hold it for themselves and their children forever. They have not yet learned that when a principle is gone, the incident must go also; that what was wise and proper under slavery, is foolish and mischievous in a state of general liberty; that the old bottles are worthless when the new wine has come; but they have found that land is a doubtful benefit where there are no hands to it. Hence these gentlemen have turned their attention to the Celestial Empire. They would rather have laborers who will work for nothing; but as they cannot get the negroes on these terms, they want Chinamen who, they hope, will work for next to nothing.”

11. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston.

12. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston.

13. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston.

14. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston.

15. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston.

16. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston.

17. Composite Nation Lecture delivered as part of the Parker Fraternity Series by Frederick Douglass (1867) in Boston.