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Friday, September 22, 2023

September 22, 2023: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: Anti-Chinese Prejudice

[On September 20th, 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, a key moment in the developing economic crisis that came to be known as the Panic of 1873. So for the 150th anniversary of that moment this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Panic contexts, leading up to a weekend post on 2023 echoes of those histories!]

On the Panic’s key role in three stages of the era’s evolving anti-Chinese movement. [NB. For a lot more on all of this, keep an eye out for my next book!]

1)      The Workingmen’s Party of California: While the Panic of 1873 and the resulting Long Depression affected all Americans, as I discussed in yesterday’s post it hit railroad workers especially hard; many of those railroad workers were in the Western U.S., and so workers in states like California felt the effects particularly acutely. In 1877, a group of labor leaders in that state formed a third party, the Workingmen’s Party of California (sometimes known as the Workingmen’s Party of the United States), in an effort to stand up for the rights of working Californians—or rather, of white working Californians, as their platform (hyperlinked above) directly targeted and attacked Chinese American workers as a principal source of their woes. Indeed, this prejudice wasn’t just a component of their platform—“The Chinese Must Go!” became the party’s constantly repeated slogan. This labor-linked political party could have chosen to fight for all laborers, but instead made attacks on Chinese American workers an essential element of its identity and goals.

2)      The San Francisco Massacre (often called a race riot, but you know my feelings on that): As American history has demonstrated time and time (and time and time) again, such prejudiced and hateful propaganda always results in violence, and this rising anti-Chinese narrative was no exception. In late July 1877, the Daily Alta California newspaper ran an article on the evolving Great Railroad Strike, and the Workingmen’s Party called for a July 23rd rally at the space near San Francisco’s City Hall known as the Sandlot. While the rally’s first speakers sought to downplay anti-Chinese sentiments in favor of broader labor activism, the audience was primed by the Party and movement’s overall messages and repeatedly chanted “Talk about the Chinamen” and “Give us the coolie business.” When a Chinese American man happened to walk by, the crowd attacked him, and the hate crime exploded into a multi-day orgy of violence targeting the city’s longstanding (indeed, pre-United States in origin) Chinatown neighborhood. By the massacre’s end on July 25th, much of that community had been burned to the crowd, with substantial casualties as well as widespread destruction that permanently altered this neighborhood, city, and American community.

3)      Denis Kearney’s Speeches: Denis Kearney, the Irish immigrant and San Francisco business leader turned labor activist and eventual national face of the anti-Chinese movement, took a circuitous path into the movement, as I will discuss at much greater length in my book. But by September 1877, Kearney was giving his own speeches at the Sandlot, and the heart of those speeches (which made Kearney a hugely prominent and influential figure on the national stage) was a thoroughly interconnected critique of capitalist bigwigs and Chinese Americans. To quote the final two paragraphs of his most famous stump speech: “We are men, and propose to live like men in this free land, without the contamination of slave labor…California must be all American, or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be all American, and are prepared to make it so.” This Kearneyism, which became the most significant factor in the passage of the nation’s first federal immigration law, stemmed entirely from the intersection of the Long Depression and anti-Chinese prejudice and hate.

2023 connections this weekend,


PS. What do you think?

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