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Denis Kearney & the Struggle for a White America


Denis Kearney, 1847–1907

3,372 words

Editor’s Note:

Denis Kearney was born on February 1, 1847. In commemoration of his birthday, we are reprinting the following essay. On the same topic, see Raymond Wolters’ superb essay “Race War on the Pacific Coast [2]” (PDF),

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California early in 1848 ignited the famous California gold rush, in which thousands of “forty-niners” flocked across the deserts, mountains, and plains of the North American continent to seek their fortunes panning and digging for gold in the streams and fields of the newly conquered territory. The new Californians were a two-fisted, brawling breed, whose desire for golden riches was matched by their thirst for adventure and freedom. The frustration of the hopes of most of them for quick fortunes scarcely dimmed their enthusiasm for their new-made lives in the Far West, and nearly all the “forty-niners” ended by staying in California.

There was another sort of immigrant to California, however, radically different from the hardy White pioneers who had crossed the continent. In 1848 the first Chinese immigrants to California of whom there is any record, two men and a woman, debarked from the steamship Eagle at Yerba Buena cove. By 1850 there were still only a few dozen Chinese in the state—but in that year the news of the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill reached China.

It stirred ready excitement at Canton, one of South China’s chief cities and the Middle Kingdom’s traditional window on the White world. At that time Canton swarmed with peasants from the surrounding province of Kwantung, who had been uprooted and displaced by the Opium War. For some years Chinese businessmen had made a practice of buying rights to the labor of their poor countrymen, organizing them into gangs, and shipping them to the Americas, principally to the west coast of South America and the islands of the Caribbean. These entrepreneurs, and the more ambitious of the Chinese middle class, saw an opportunity to amass untold wealth in the new territory. Soon California had a name in Chinese: it meant “Mountains of Gold.”

By 1853 the Chinese population of California had soared to 25,000. Most of the new immigrants found employment in the goldfields, especially as cooks and laundrymen in the mining camps. At first they were generally tolerated, or treated with no more than a bemused contempt, by California’s Whites; a small delegation of Chinese immigrants had even been allowed to take part in the celebration of California’s admission to the Union in 1850.

[3]This situation began to change throughout the course of the 1850s and ‘60s. During those years tens of thousands of Chinese laborers found their way to the shores of North America, most of them brought by American steamship lines, which advertised heavily in Canton for the lucrative coolie transport trade. Although figures on the Chinese immigration are inexact, there were probably more than 100,000 Chinese in California by 1870.

Meanwhile, the economic base of California had changed rapidly. As the surface gold veins became worked out, mining became a vastly more expensive proposition, demanding large amounts of capital. Most White workers ceased being independent and were forced to hire themselves out as wage earners, where they often competed head-to-head for employment with the Chinese workers. The latter demanded a far lower standard of living and, consequently, lower wages. This made the Chinese workers the favorites of the big employers and aroused the ire of the White working people.

Even more important than the decline of mining as the state’s central economic activity was the rise of agriculture and of the railroads. The Central Pacific Railroad became the titan of California’s economic life, with a correspondingly powerful influence on the state’s government. The Central Pacific and its subsidiary, the Southern Pacific, were big employers of Chinese labor. The number of coolie immigrants in the Central Pacific employ reached 10,000 in the course of the 1870s, while the Southern Pacific employed a work force which was almost entirely Chinese.

The rising anti-Chinese feeling among American workers resulted in a number of spontaneous outbursts against their Asiatic competitors. At French Canal and in Nevada City, White workers forcibly expelled the Chinese from the work camps associated with the mines. On October 23, 1871, Whites rose up in Los Angeles, invaded Chinatown, and sacked the Chinese quarters, killing a score of Chinese in the process. Nevertheless, there was no coordination behind the White efforts, and anti-Chinese incidents remained isolated.

It was the financial panic of 1873, leading to America’s first great depression, which brought anti-Chinese feelings among the Whites to a head. The slump spread from the East Coast to California. By 1877 there were 16,000 White laborers unemployed in San Francisco alone.

California’s capitalists exploited this situation by encouraging an ever-rising tide of Chinese immigration. Between 1873 and 1876 an additional 70,000 Chinese flocked to California, the largest number ever. Soon the Chinese dominated the work force not only on the railroads but also in various light industries, including boot and shoe manufacturing, cigar-making, and broom-making.

[4]The industrial robber barons who dominated American business in the post-Civil War “Gilded Era” had further plans for the hordes of docile, low-paid Chinese workers. As early as 1870 Chinese laborers appeared in New Orleans and in Belleville, New Jersey. In that same year, Chinese workers were employed as strikebreakers in the mills of North Adams, Massachusetts.

America’s White laborers were at a loss to combat the mortal threat to their race and their livelihood presented by the Chinese immigrants. Labor unions were in their infancy in the 1870s, and management enjoyed enormous advantages against wage-earners: far greater financial resources, support in government and the courts, and a strongly favorable public opinion.

The White workers in California were no exception. A San Francisco Trade and Labor Union, organized in 1875, had little success in rallying the workers or in intimidating the bosses. The few Marxist agitators in the area, most of them heavily-accented foreigners (and not a few of them Jews), were generally ignored by the White laborers, who tended to be extremely independent and patriotic.

Everything changed, however, one summer afternoon in San Francisco in 1877. As usual, a large number of citizens crowded the vacant field across from the San Francisco City Hall. Like London’s Hyde Park, the “sandlot,” as it was called, was a place where soapbox orators could hold forth on whatever topics struck their fancies, and most of them were awarded exactly the same tolerance and indifference that has been the lot of the speakers in Hyde Park.

On this day, however, a new speaker took the stand. With rising indignation, in stentorian tones, he berated the Chinese immigrants and the greedy capitalists who had brought them to America. Gradually listeners began to abandon the other speakers and drift over to the newcomer. Passersby joined the crowd. Their enthusiasm rose. The speaker’s voice reached a crescendo, and he roared, “The Chinese must go!” The crowd erupted in a storm of applause.

The speaker’s name was Denis Kearney. Born in County Cork, Ireland, 30 years before, Kearney had gone to sea at 11 to support his widowed mother and his six siblings. By the age of 21, in 1868, the young sailor had risen to the rank of first mate on the American clipper ship Shining Star. In that year he had settled in San Francisco, where he soon married an American woman. An industrious man of sober habits, Kearney had established his own draying business in 1872.

Kearney was an earnest young man, bent on self-improvement. In 1874 he had begun attending the Sunday-morning sessions of the People’s Meeting for Discussion, where Questions of the day were debated by an assortment of intellectuals and eccentrics, which at that time included Henry George, the famous advocate of a single tax on land. At first Kearney had been a halting speaker, but he had improved over the course of three years to the point where he was a skilled debater and a practiced orator.

[5]After his debut in the sandlot Kearney returned again and again to hold forth against the Chinese immigrants and the wealthy lords of industry who sought their presence in America. The crowds of onlookers grew, until Kearney had become the de facto leader of a large movement.

As the White workers began to rally around Kearney, the upper and middle classes of San Francisco became alarmed. The evident resentment of the mass of White laborers toward the arrogance and privileges flaunted by the city and state’s economic elite was greatly exacerbated by the workers’ feeling the employers were betraying them by favoring the Chinese. The wealthy classes began to fear possible outbreaks of worker violence.

On September 21, 1877, Kearney and several others organized the Workingmen’s Party to gain their goals of Chinese exclusion and fair treatment by their employers. Two nights later Kearney announced the formation of the organization to a large crowd at the sandlot, declaring that the new party proposed to “wrest government from the hands of the rich and place it in the hands of the people,” as well as to “rid the country of cheap Chinese labor.”

Specifically, the platform of the Workingmen’s Party called for reform of banking practices, which were notoriously unsound in California at the time. Grants of state-owned land were to be made first to farmers and settlers, rather than to the real-estate speculators and railroad builders who had up to that time been the chief beneficiaries of government largesse. The Workingmen’s Party sought the breakup of monopolies (particularly the Central Pacific) by judicious use of the taxing power.

For the workers Kearney’s party sought an eight-hour workday. The party platform further called for a system of universal education, with a strong emphasis on vocational training. And, of course, the party demanded an immediate and unconditional end to Chinese immigration.

The nightly rallies continued, and Kearney became ever bolder and more demonstrative in his oratory. On one occasion he allowed that “a little judicious hanging” might be the best course against those he characterized as the “robber-capitalists.” He reviled the Chinese immigrants in even more colorful style: “leprous, rat-eating Chinese slaves” was one of his gentler epithets.

[6]On October 29 Kearney and his lieutenants organized a large rally on Nob Hill, an affluent neighborhood where San Francisco’s industrial lords dwelt in baronial splendor. Kearney fired the crowd to a fever pitch, and the workers built a large bonfire not far from the mansion of George Crocker, head of the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Line, which was particularly prominent in the transport of the Chinese aliens to America. In less than a week Kearney and five of his aides were arrested and imprisoned on charges of incitement to riot.

On this occasion the charges were dropped after three weeks of incarceration for the fiery leader in the San Francisco jail. Neither Kearney’s ardor nor that of his followers was dimmed by his arrest and imprisonment. The White workers of San Francisco celebrated their leader’s release with their biggest demonstration to date, a parade of more than 10,000 marchers on Thanksgiving Day.

Support for the Workingmen’s Party boomed among the White workers of California. At a well-attended convention in January 1878, where Kearney served as permanent chairman, the party wrote into its platform the anti-Chinese and anti-big business sentiments that had led to its foundation. Furthermore, the Workingmen’s Party called for a state constitutional convention to incorporate their demands into the fabric of the state’s basic law.

Throughout January Kearney continued to hold torchlight rallies and parades at which he denounced the White workers’ twin enemies, the Chinese and the capitalists, with redoubled vigor. On January 10 he went so far as to ask for support not only “at the ballot box, but at the bullet box if necessary.” Four days later Kearney roared that the Chinese would be run out of the country “if it takes the life of every White man in California.”

Later in the month Kearney led a large march on City Hall. At the subsequent rally he threatened again to lead his men to the docks of the steamship companies, and “blow up the Pacific Steamship Company’s steamers and docks.” He also promised the invasion of Chinatown and the slaughter of its Oriental denizens by firearms and “infernal machines” if the Chinese problem were not dealt with in a more lawful way by the authorities.

Reacting to these threats, William T. Coleman, a prominent merchant, mobilized his militia of 6,000 vigilantes, which had already been employed against the threat of anarchy, real or imagined, several times in the previous 25 years. But Coleman’s peers in the industrial and financial elite, fearful that his vigilantes would not be able to contain the aroused workers, appealed to the Federal government for aid. It came in the form of a U.S. Navy man-of-war, sent ostensibly to protect San Francisco’s government mail docks, which serviced mail delivered by the steamship lines.

[7]Once again Kearney was arrested, but this time he was quickly released, thanks to the intervention of a judge who found his arrest unwarranted. Stung by Kearney’s release, the California legislature quickly passed a law aimed at the Workingmen’s leader, making it a felony to incite or commit acts of violence against persons or property.

For a time Kearney drew back from his more violent flights of rhetoric or devised clever ways around the statute. In a code language designed to mock the censors, he substituted harmless phrases for more threatening ones; thus, “serving the Chinamen coffee and doughnuts” became interchangeable with pouring into their lairs and routing them with fire and firearms.

Kearney needed less recourse to fiery threats at this period in any case, for the Workingmen’s Party was beginning to win strong support at the polls. In 1878 it elected a number of judges, as well as mayors in San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento. More important, however, was the showing the party made in the balloting for the state constitutional convention, which was arranged to be held in April 1878.

Against the heavy opposition of the state’s economic powers, the Republican and Democratic Parties, and the newspapers, the Workingmen’s Party elected more than a third of the delegates to the convention. It seemed as if Kearney and his party were marching inexorably to the accomplishment of the aims they had set out in their own platform.

The monopolists who ruled California were forced to retreat to their second line of defense. Unable to stem the rise of support for the Kearney movement at the polls, they resorted to the greater skill in tactical maneuvering that is conferred only by experience. The Workingmen delegates to the constitutional convention found themselves confronted with a solid phalanx of delegates controlled by the railroads and industrial and farming interests. They were able to make progress only on the Chinese issue, where the businessmen were willing to make concessions as the price for staving off attacks on their economic privileges.

The convention wrote into the new constitution several strictures against employing Chinese. The provisions of the Workingmen’s platform which called for reform of the banking system, breaking up the monopolies, and an eight-hour day were all defeated, however.

More insidious ways of countering the rise of the Kearney movement were resorted to. A whispering campaign against Kearney was begun, suggesting that he had been bribed by railroad interests, and it spread to the ranks of the Workingmen’s Party. The churches were enlisted in the capitalist crusade as well. The Protestant ministers doubled the fervor of their attacks against the outbreak of unchristianity which had seized the state’s laboring men. The Catholic archbishop of San Francisco threatened Kearney’s supporters with fire and brimstone, which didn’t faze the freethinking Kearney but doubtless alarmed the more simpleminded among his many Irish followers.

Kearney was removed from his position as chairman of the Workingmen’s Party for a brief period in 1878, but he battled back to regain his leadership. By then his fame had spread across the United States and as far as England, where the great historian James Bryce devoted several chapters to the California agitator in his American Commonwealth. Bryce, like most of the writers who dominated American and English historiography at the time, viewed the orator as a dangerous, communistic rabble-rouser, whose talents threatened the very basis of democratic society.

[8]Bellwethers of the American establishment of the time concurred. Harper’s Weekly condemned Kearney as uncouth and ignorant, and the editor of The New York Times praised the authorities for the earlier jailing of “the incendiary agitators [Kearney and his aides] who have been kindling the passions of the dangerous classes of the city.”

Yet sentiment against Chinese immigration had been irreversibly inflamed, and it spread rapidly from coast to coast. The South had just fought its way free from the attempts of Northern fanatics to “reconstruct” it on an egalitarian basis, and a heightened consciousness of the perils of race-mixing was abroad in America. In 1878 the U.S. Congress passed a bill to exclude Chinese immigrants from America, the first racially exclusionary legislation in American history. It was quickly vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, whom Kearney denounced from across the continent, claiming he could make a better president than Hayes by stuffing Andrew Jackson’s old clothes with rags.

In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act again, and it was signed into law by President Chester Arthur. The 1882 act inaugurated nearly four decades of immigration legislation which progressively excluded immigrants from the nations of Asia and culminated in the National Origins Act of 1924, which mandated quotas based on America’s (at that time) overwhelmingly Northern European population. Unfortunately, even the National Origins Act failed to establish a purely racial criterion for immigration eligibility, and hundreds of thousands of Jews entered the country as “Poles,” “Germans,” “Hungarians,” “Russians,” et al.

Kearney might have gone into the history books as just another labor agitator if he had not brought the problem of non-White immigration to the attention of the nation. The Party, torn by factional disputes, went into a severe decline in 1880. The following year Kearney left the party, and it was officially disbanded in 1882.

After the failure of the Workingmen’s Party, Denis Kearney returned to private life, where he devoted himself to the same sort of small entrepreneurship he had engaged in before his involvement in the anti-Chinese fight. His carting company had failed (thanks to a boycott by his opponents during his days with the Workingmen’s Party), but he founded a successful employment office. Late in his life he came into a large legacy, and he was able to live his twilight years in something approaching the style of the barons of industry whom he had once so terrified. He died in San Francisco in 1907.

The heyday of pro-White immigration legislation in America was sadly short-lived. The first chink in America’s armor came in 1943, when Congress, at Franklin Roosevelt’s bidding, allowed a token 100 Chinese to enter the United States each year. Two years later a law to permit foreign “war brides” to enter the country without regard to race or national origin was passed, and thousands of G.I.’s returned from Asia with non-White wives.

In 1965 Lyndon Johnson saw to it that national quotas were completely abolished. The subsequent flood of legal non-White aliens, not to mention the even more numerous illegal aliens, has since threatened to swamp what was once a White America. In the year ended June 30, 1970, nearly 50,000 Chinese entered America.

The California Kearney and his followers fought to keep White now is populated by Asiatics in the following numbers: Filipinos, 300,000; Koreans, 200,000; Chinese, 125,000; Vietnamese, 100,000; Japanese, 75,000. The end is not in sight. The Asiatics in California have a growth rate, due to both births and immigration, which is twice as high as that of the Mexicans and a staggering 12 times as high as that of American Whites.

The British population historian A. M. Saunders-Carr, the outstanding authority in the field, wrote in the 1930s that in the absence of the Chinese exclusionary legislation sparked by Kearney’s efforts the Western seaboard of North America would have been completely Asiatic by 1900. If a non-White Pacific Coast and a non-White America are not to be our fate by the year 2000, America’s Whites must act in the resolute spirit of Denis Kearney and the White working people who followed his lead.

Source: National Vanguard, no. 76, 1980.