How US Government Treated Chinese Laborers In The 1860s-1900s

In the 1850s, Chinese laborers began migrating to the United States. Their primary purpose was to find employment in the country’s gold mines; however, they also found work in agriculture and factories, particularly in the garment industry. Chinese immigrants were essential in constructing railroads in the western region of the United States. As Chinese laborers became more successful in the United States, many of them went on to start their own businesses. The anti-Chinese attitude among American employees grew more intense alongside the rise in the proportion of Chinese workers contributing to the economy of the United States. This ultimately led to the creation of legislation in the United States to put restrictions on the immigration of Chinese workers in the future, which threatened to strain diplomatic ties between the United States and China. This essay seeks to analyze how the US government treated the Chinese workers from 1860s to 1900s and its social responsibility to Chinese migrants.

American objections to Chinese immigration took numerous forms but mainly originated from economic and cultural difficulties and ethnic discrimination. This was primarily because Chinese people are known for their work ethic and eagerness to amass incredible wealth. Most Chinese people who worked as laborers in the United States intended to send money back to China to help support their families there. At the same time, they were responsible for making debt repayments to the Chinese merchants who had funded their trip to the United States. Due to their financial circumstances, they had little choice but to accept whatever employment they could find.

From the 1850s through the 1870s, the state government of California passed a series of measures aimed at the Chinese residents of the state to address the rising social tensions that were occurring at the time. These measures included prohibiting naturalization and requiring special licenses for Chinese businesses or workers. Because measures to halt Chinese immigration and anti-Chinese discrimination violated the Burlingame-Seward Treaty with China, which was signed in 1868, the federal government was able to nullify a significant portion of this legislation.

A bill limiting the number of Chinese immigrants arriving to fifteen per ship or vessel was introduced and passed by Congress in 1879, thanks to the efforts of proponents of the immigration restriction. Due to the bill’s violation of US treaty obligations with China, Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed it (Baker, 2020). However, it was still a significant win for those who favor exclusion. Democrats, supported by people in the West, pushed for the complete exclusion of Chinese immigrants. The Republicans were devoted to a platform of open immigration, despite having a generally favorable stance toward western issues (Baker, 2020). President Hayes pushed for a change to the Burlingame-Seward Treaty, which stipulated that China would restrict immigration to the United States to appease the western states without upsetting China.

The Hayes Administration assigned American diplomat James B. Angell to China in 1880 to discuss a new treaty. As a result, the Angell Treaty permitted the United States to limit but not entirely forbid Chinese immigration. According to the conditions of the Angell Treaty, the immigration of Chinese laborers was prohibited for ten years after Congress established the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 (Baker, 2020). Every Chinese individual entering or leaving the country was also obliged by the Act to carry a certificate stating whether they were a worker, scholar, diplomat, or trader. The 1882 Act was the first law in American history to impose significant immigration restrictions.

To maintain good diplomatic relations with China, where exclusion would be viewed as an insult and a violation of treaty obligations, American presidents and Congressmen who dealt with the issue of Chinese exclusion faced the challenge of striking a balance between anti-Chinese attitudes and domestic politics that dictated an anti-Chinese policy (Mao, 2022). This was a challenging task. In the end, domestic concerns were more important than international ones. The Scott Act, implemented in 1888 and increased discrimination against Chinese immigrants, prohibited even long-term legal residents from returning to the United States after a trip to China (Mao, 2022). The Chinese government viewed this action as a personal insult, but they could not halt its implementation. Despite fierce opposition from both the Chinese government and the Chinese people, the United States Congress voted in 1892 to extend the Geary Act’s ban on Chinese immigration by ten years, and in 1902, the ban was expanded to include Hawaii and the Philippines (Mao, 2022). In subsequent years, Congress made the Exclusion Act indefinitely applicable.

As retribution for the humiliation created by the exclusion legislation, Chinese businesspeople organized a boycott against the United States in 1905. Even though the movement did not have official support from the Chinese government in its early months, it did receive unofficial support. President Theodore Roosevelt believed that the boycott was a direct response to the unjust treatment of Chinese immigrants in the United States, so he asked the Chinese authorities to cease the movement. He was unsuccessful, however, since the reputation of the United States was at stake. After a difficult five-month period, Chinese business owners lost interest in the project, and the boycott ended peacefully.

Restricting Chinese activities that may otherwise be detrimental to the culture and economy of the U.S was one method in which the government dealt with the Chinese in a way that benefited the state of the United States of America. Although Chinese laborers helped construct the railroad that boosted the U.S. economy, it was the social responsibility of the U.S. to conserve its history by prohibiting Chinese immigration.


Du, Y. (2021). From dynastic state to imperial nation: International law, diplomacy, and the conceptual decentralization of china, 1860s–1900s. Late Imperial China, 42(1), 177-220. Du, Yue. (n.d.). Late imperial china. Project MUSE.

Baker, A. W. (2020). Chinese immigration to California: Welcomed workers, shunned immigrants. Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences Studies, 2(5), 50–58.

Mao, X. (2022). Institutional racism: Chinese immigrants’ encounters in America, 1850-1943. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 10(06), 414–424.