Chinese Immigration and the Cause of Free Labor


The National Era/March 24, 1859

To the Editor of the National Era:

The present year has brought to the philanthropists and the commercial interest alike two welcome pieces of intelligence: first, the defeat of the act laying a heavy tax on Chinese immigrants in the Upper House of the legislature of South Australia, after it had passed the Lower House by large majorities; and, secondly, the declaration by the Supreme Court of the United States of the unconstitutionality of the act of the Californian Legislature prohibiting the importation of Chinese. In both cases the “popular sentiment” of the beautiful and modest race to which you, I, and most of your readers belong, was rampant in favor of the persecuting and prohibitory laws, and it was only the “better class,” or aristocratic sentiment, which upheld the rights of the colored minority.

In this connection, sir, I have to remind you that one of the obnoxious clauses of the Oregon Constitution laid a prohibitory tax upon Chinese immigrants. This point was forcibly objected to by Senator Wade last year, as making an unconstitutional and dangerous discrimination between different classes of immigrants, a discrimination which might hereafter be applied to any other unpopular class of immigrants—the English, for example. I notice this point, because I observe that in your reply to the humanitarian argument against the Oregon Constitution, you seem to have overlooked it.

Finally, I would wish to call the attention of the friends of the system of a free laboring class to the important part which the Chinese race seems destined to play in the labor system of the temperate-tropical and tropic-temperate zones of the earth’s surface. While the Circassian race produces the proletaires who cultivate the cooler portions of the temperate zones, and while the African race excels in enduring labor under a tropical clime, there is an intermediate belt on both sides of the Equator, where the yellow race is, perhaps, calculated to excel both the white and black race of men. The West India islands, California, and South Australia, where the Chinese free laborer already appears and thrives, all belong to this intermediate belt. And never let us forget this important fact, that this ancient intelligent people, the children of time-worn civilization, never permit themselves to be enslaved. Wherever the Chinaman goes, there goes a free laborer. The French Emperor, in his recent letter abandoning this scheme of African immigration, as leading to Slavery, with a wise forecast of the instincts and character of this venerable people, recommends the substitution of Chinese for Congo negroes, as involving no danger of the spread of Slavery.

I had almost forgotten to notice one objection to the Chinese—that of their alleged “immorality.” No impartial observer of them, as immigrant proletaires, has ever denied to them an extraordinary readiness for labor, a high appreciation of the blessings of order and good civil government, a wonderful thriftiness, and a remarkable freedom from crimes of violence and blood-shedding. Yet I think it false delicacy to conceal the handle which the Chinese give to the San Francisco “Billy Mulligans” and the ticket-of-leave diggers of Ballarat, for a Pecksniffian outcry against the “immorality” of this population. I understand that the practice of sodomy is tolerated among them. Now, I have no fear that they will succeed in infecting any European or American population with this vice, so abhorrent to the feelings of all of us; but I think there is much hope of our bringing them round to our ideas and tastes on this subject. The historical scholar, too, will not fail to remember that this practice was universally tolerated by pagan antiquity, and that a vast number of the great names of ancient Hellas and Rome are implicated with this to us odious habit; and, notably, one of the greatest of ancient moralists, Socrates, the son of Sophroniskos, who was not ashamed to confess his preference for such a connection to any the other sex could afford him. Yet, on account of this one aberration, should we be inclined to refuse all intercourse with the virtues of Socrates, and such as he? Should we consider him unfit even to associate with the lower population of California and Australia, vicious and crime-steeped as that population notoriously is? I trow not. In the same way I affirm that the Chinese can bring into both the above-named countries many virtues, many useful qualities, not generally possessed by the laboring population of our own race. Let us not turn our backs upon them on account of their one vice, which I seek not to palliate, but which our example will probably induce them to abandon. A salaried man myself, I already recognise in the Chinaman a political ally and comrade, soon to become powerful, and I exhort the friends of free labor to be early in the field to welcome and protect this new reinforcement to our ranks, which the progress of human intercourse has of late thrown among us. Nor less do I appeal to those generous advocates of the black and red races, not to forget that the wants of the yellow man, who is neither a savage nor a brute, but a child of civilization, call loudly for the exercise of their good offices, especially in preparing the men of our own race for the advent of this remarkable people among us. Sincerely yours, Plymouth.