search   index   by subject   by year   biographies   books  SF Activities  shop museum   contact

Related Museum Links Chinese in San Francisco

San Francisco History

San Francisco Labor History

Unrest in California

by John D. Hicks
Alexander F. and May Treat Morrison Professor of History
University of California, Berkeley

Professor Hicks' chapter about the President Rutherford B. Hayes administration, published in 1937, detailed the railway strike of 1877, and the spreading labor disorders through West Virgina and Maryland. In July 1877, troops, breaking the strike in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened fire and killed several labor rioters. Federal troops, sent by President Hayes, arrived there July 23, and by July 29 had restored order. Nineteen rioters and several members of the militia were killed.

News that began to come through from California was far from reassuring. On July 23, 1877, a mass meeting of workingmen in San Francisco, called to express sympathy for the Pittsburgh strikers, got out of hand and turned into a prolonged riot. California was seemingly the ideal place in the United States for revolutionary sentiment to grow. Its people were descended, lineally or spiritually, from the "forty-niners," and Californians, ever since the days of the mining camps, had shown a tolerance of lawlessness and a resentment of constraint rarely met with elsewhere in like degree. Speculation, too, was in the very air that they breathed, and it seemed reasonable to suppose that individuals who were ready at all times to take a chance on mining stock might be willing also to take a chance on something different in government. Isolation from the rest of the United States added to the danger. Only one transcontinental railroad connected the Pacific coast with the East, and the conservative influence of the older states was too far away to have much effect. Added to all this was a unique and perplexing problem, the Chinese. Welcomed in the days when the whites were interested primarily in the mines, and used freely in building the Central Pacific Railroad, their popularity ebbed away when times grew hard and jobs were scarce. In 1870 California had about fifty thousand Chinese, and by the end of the seventies about seventy-five thousand. They constituted approximately nine percent of the total population of the state, and, since practically all of them were men, at least twice as large a percentage of the total number of laborers. They worked for "coolie wages," on which a white man would starve, and their presence was held responsible for the large number of California's unemployed. They made no attempt to accept American ways, and the Chinese quarter of any city was sure to be a plague spot of vice and disease. This was particularly true of San Francisco, the greatest center of Chinese concentration.

The full effects of the Panic of 1873 arrived late in California for our on the coast the depression was scarcely felt until 1876. The year before that Californians, hypnotized by stories of some great new "bonanza" finds, had indulged in a veritable orgy of speculation. When the bubble broke, thousands had lost their savings. Agriculture, too, suffered acutely from the light snowfall during the winter of 1876-1877. Streams essential for irrigation dried up, and crops were sure to be short. Distressed farmers, as in the Middle West, blamed the railroads as well as the weather for their calamities, and not without some reason. In California the Southern Pacific had monopolized the railroad opportunities of the state. It had received the customary right land grants; it charged all the favors and other valuable privileges; its word was law with most of the state's officials. The farmers of the coast, still enthusiastic Grangers, demanded the greater taxation of wealth, control of the railroads by a really representative state government, and an end to the railroad monopoly on land. For good measure, they held that something must be done about the Chinese.

By the summer of 1877 San Francisco had become a city of job-hunters–miners, farmhands, laborers of every kind, including the hated Chinese. feeling was keen against the upper classes, particularly the newly rich, who lived ostentatiously on "Nob Hill," and were accused of employing Chinese in preference to whites. Self-appointed orators who addressed the meeting of July 23 did not confine themselves to expressions of sympathy for the Pittsburgh strikers, but took full advantage of the opportunity to denounce the capitalists and the Chinese in fervid language. More meetings followed, and because they were held on the vacant sand-lot opposite city hall those who attended them were called "Sand-Lotters." The idol of the crowd was Denis Kearney, an eloquent but ungrammatical Irishman, who had a practice to wind up each of his harangues with the words, "The Chinese must go!" Soon a Workingmen's Party had taken form, through which the Sand-Lotters hoped to "cinch" capital, and drive out the hated Chinese. Kearney sometimes threatened direct action. "A little judicious hanging right here and now," he told one meeting, "will be the best course to pursue with the capitalists and the stock sharps who are all the time robbing us." Again, at a meeting held on Nob Hill itself, he told the railroad owners that they had but three months in which to discharge all Chinese laborers. "Remember Judge Lynch, he warned.

California Constitution of 1879

Curiously, however, it was to regular legal procedures rather than to lynch law that the Sand-Lotters appealed. By chance a proposal for a state constitutional convention had already been submitted to the people at the polls, and in September, 1877, the voters gave their consent to the project. Instead of going on with the idea of revolution, the Workingmen's Party now set out, with the assistance of the discontented Grangers, to capture a majority of the delegates to be elected in June, 1878. So successful were their efforts that when the votes were counted it was apparent that the farmers and laborers together had won a clear majority of the seats in the convention. Continuing their co-operation, the Workingmen and Grangers wrote a new constitution for the state that embodied most of their radical ideas. The Chinese were forbidden to hold property and to engage in certain occupations; taxation was shifted to the "wealthy," with "bonds, notes, and evidence of indebtedness" called upon to bear a heavy burden; a railroad commission was set up with full authority to regulate the railroads; home rule, which meant rule by the Workingmen's Party, was granted to San Francisco in generous measure; and the state judicial system was radically reformed in order to enforce more effectively the new provisions. Conservative delegations, certain that some of the more fantastic provisions would insure the defeat of the document, made little effort to eliminate them. They realized their mistake, however, when in May, 1879, the constitution was adopted by a majority of about 10,000.

Nonetheless, the victory of the radicals was short-lived. Many of the new clauses, including the anti-Chinese provision, were held by the courts to be in conflict with the Constitution of the United States or treaties with a foreign power, and so became null and void. The railroads quickly captured the commission set up to regulate them. Prosperity returned, and both Grangers and Workingmen though less about politics. Amendment after amendment was submitted and adopted until the difference between the California constitution of 1879 and other state constitutions was comparatively insignificant. In San Francisco the labor forces long rules, but unfortunately not without permitting the same type of scandals that characterized city government elsewhere. Kearney went East to popularize the Workingmen's Party there, but failed to win support, and soon dropped back into the obscurity from which he had so suddenly emerged. And yet the movement was not without a certain deep significance. Revolution in the United States, even in so hospitable an environment as California, came hard. Peaceful and orderly means of protest were preferred, often by the most radical. Violent departures from long-established precedents failed to endure. Few could deny that the workingmen's movement in California and the strikes on the eastern railroads presaged an era of conflict between labor and capital, but the average American, assured that his government could really govern, soon gave up worrying about the danger of revolution.

The hatred on the coast for the Chinese, however, did not fail to awaken an echo in national politics. Strongly supported by representatives from the Far West, a law passed both houses of Congress in 1879 that prohibited any ship from bringing to the United States more than fifteen Chinese passengers on a single voyage. This measure was obviously meant to stop the stream of Chinese immigration across the Pacific, an end generally regarded as desirable. But unfortunately the United States had signed a treaty with China in 1868 – the Burlingame Treaty – that gave the two powers mutual rights of immigration and emigration. While action by a single state would have no effect on such a treaty, a law of Congress, passed subsequent to its negotiation, would nullify it. Should the United States so insult a friendly power? President Hayes thought not, and votes enough to override his veto were not forthcoming. The remedy, he maintained, lay in negotiation with China, not in passing of a law. Hayes's unpopularity on the coast as a result of this veto was intense, although he promptly dispatched a commission to China to secure a change in the United States the right to "regulate, limit or suspend but not absolutely prohibit" the immigration of Chinese laborers, and in 1882 a Chinese Exclusion Act, based on this principle, went into effect.

IN: The American nation; a History of the United States from 1865 to the Present,
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1937.

Return to the top of the page.