New Immigrants

In 1896, immigration had long been contentious in presidential politics. Before the Civil War, some native-born Americans feared Irish Catholic immigration would undermine democracy and Protestantism, and such fears still lurked (for example, some whites joined the American Protective Association in the 1890s). New anxieties arose about immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, including Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and Russian Jews. Most whites saw Asian immigrants as even more unassimilable, and far more racially different, than Europeans. Chinese immigration had been a hot-button issue in presidential campaigns of the 1880s; after passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, renewed in 1892 and 1902, anti-Chinese agitation continued on the West Coast but to a lesser degree. Immigration was a minor issue in the Bryan-McKinley contest, but after 1900 nativist fears arose again, as thousands of immigrants packed the Eastern cities and as Japanese, along with Chinese, immigrants, arrived on the West Coast.

Critics blamed recent immigrants for causing crime, being "un-American" in their language, religion, and family lives, and for concentrating in cities where their votes were controlled by machines--a circumstance unavoidable for many immigrants who faced residential segregation and dire poverty. In the mainstream press, socialism, communism, and anarchism were widely depicted as "alien" political beliefs brought over from foreign soil. Labor organizers argued that large influxes of new workers undermined wages; indeed, industrialists and railroad magnates (such as Collis Huntington and Jay Gould) sought to import workers to de-stabilize unions and provide a large labor pool. Since business leaders tended to vote and contribute to the Republican party, Democrats tended to be more bitterly anti-immigration. The need to "Americanize" new arrivals became a goal for reformers in both parties after 1900.

The native white element of the population is 54.87 per cent, but it produces only 43.19 per cent of the white prisoners. The foreign white element... is only 32.93 per cent of the population, and yet it procuces 56.81 per cent of the white prisoners. ... How many of the murders committed by natives are due to the example and presence of the foreigners cannot be estimated, but it is doubtless no small proportion.
--Sydney G. Fisher, Popular Science Monthly, in Public Opinion 1 October, 1896

In his speech at Chicago last night, Carl Schurz commended in highest terms the wisdom of the great civilized nations of Europe in adopting the gold standard and declared that "these nations have prospered." ... Mr. Schurz did not attempt to explain why it is, if the gold standard has made European countries prosperous, the poor of those countries have been seeking better homes where it was possible to rise from a state of abject poverty. America has been the haven of this large class until recent years, but now the gold standard has wrought its perfect work here, driving the boys from unprofitable farms to fill the ranks of the great army of the unemployed, which is constantly increased by immigrants from the "prosperous countries of civilized Europe." ... If Mr. Schurz has forgotten the cry of starvation that has been coming up from Ireland for 500 years; the distress of thousands in "Darkest England"; the half fed peasants in every gold standard country--if Mr. Schurz has forgotten the real conditions that confront the humble in "civilized Europe" the masses of immigrants have larger memories. They want no system perpetuated here that has driven them from their native land.
--Raleigh News and Observer, 6 September 1896

The Tribune Almanac (New York Tribune, 1897)

Austria: 31,496
Belgium: 1,261
Bohemia: 2709
China: 1,445
Cuba: 6,077
Denmark: 3,167
England: 19,691
Finland: 6,308
France: 2,463
Germany: 31,885
Hungary: 30,898
Ireland: 39,908
Italy: 68,060
Japan: 1,109
Netherlands: 1,583
Norway: 8,855
Poland: 691
Portugal: 2,766
Russia: 45,137
Scotland: 3,468
Spain: 351
Sweden: 21,177
Switzerland: 2,304
Wales: 1,570
Other countries: 8,888
Total: 343,267

[Chinese for Bryan]

from an interview with Chinese-American voters in New York City, New York Journal, 4 October, 1896

China and America

Relations between the U.S. and China were strained by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1881, which halted most emigration from China. A Republican-led Congress had passed the bill, under heavy pressure from the party's West-Coast wing and from Democrats around the country, who argued that Chinese laborers undercut the wages of white men. The Exclusion Act allowed a few Chinese "merchants" to emigrate under special circumstances, and thus the issue did not completely go away. Labor advocates accused business leaders of seeking relaxations of the law, in order to recruit cheap labor for railroad construction and industry.

During the 1896 campaign, Chinese viceroy Li Hung Chang toured the United States. His trenchant comments on U.S. politics--and on Chinese exclusion--offered a counterpoint to the anti-Chinese cartoons printed in the campaign. The full text of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act is available on the Web from the background texts for the Public Broadcasting Series documentary, "The West."

There is no calamity more serious, more fatal to the welfare and happiness of almost the whole people, than a lowering of the atandard of comfort among the families of those who work with their hands. The efforts of all intelligent statesmen... have been directed to the elevation of that standard more than to any other object. 'The Chinamen lives a more simple life.' That is, he lives in a filthy, underground burrow to save rent; he lives on five cents a day or less, and he maintains no family. Therefore Li Hung Chang concluds 'the Irish hate the Chinese because they are the possessors of higher virtues.' ...The American people are not prepared to accept the doctrine that the nearer a man approaches a beaast of surden the higher his values."
-- San Francisco Examiner in Public Opinion, 17 September, 1896

What a cross-examiner Li Hung Chang would have made! He'll never know what he missed by not being born in America and graduated at the Harvard law school.
--Boston Globe, 20 September 1896

Is it possible that the viceroy does not understand that the great pride of the American Nation is that it is a Nation of citizens, and that its immigrant is welcomed only so far as the newcomers partake of the sentimesnt and are found capable of appreciating what it means? The argument of Earl Li is in itself a strong plea in justification of the exculsion laws, for it is an exemplification of the very mainspring of those laws-- the fact that the Chinamen have no appreciation of the duties of American citizenship and care nothing for the privilege.
--New Haven Palladium in Public Opinion, 17 September, 1896

In addition to declaring that 8 o'clock is late enough for evening dissipation, the Chinese viceroy thinks that no state dignitary is duty-bound to expose his person to inclement weather for the sake of carrying out a program. This heathen is giving our universal Yankee nation valuable points daily.
--Boston Globe, 2 September 1896

[Chinese for mckinley]

from New York Journal, 4 October, 1896

Cartoons on this Site Concerning Immigration
25 April, Ram's Horn
28 June, L.A. Times
17 September, Rocky Mountain News
31 October, Ram's Horn

On the Visit of Li Hung Chang
3 September, New York Journal


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College