ANDREW GYORY is the Senior Reference Editor at M. E. Sharpe, Inc. He is the author of Closing the Gate: Race, Politics and the Chinese Exclusion Act, University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
AN IDEOLOGICAL COLD WAR HAS ERUPTED among historians of labor, immigration, and race. Some, such as David Roediger and Herbert Hill, stress how racist white workers have been in American history, and that race and "whiteness" drove their actions and formed the core of their identity. Other historians, such as Herbert Gutman, Bruce Laurie, and Eric Arnesen, acknowledge this racism, but argue that in certain instances white workers have overcome their prejudice and worked together with blacks and other minorities to promote their goals. This more nuanced approach reveals the complexities of racism across time and place and suggests that at key moments workers could separate racist thoughts from racist actions and advocate non-racist policies and solutions.1
In his article, "The 'Chinese Question' and American Labor Historians" (New Politics, Winter 2000), Stanford M. Lyman clearly follows the Roediger-Hill school. He emphasizes the anti-Chinese racism of white workers and echoes the standard interpretation of the origins of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: that the national labor movement opposed Chinese immigration and spearheaded the effort to ban Chinese immigrants from the United States. Lyman spends the bulk of his article attacking my book, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. He calls my book "tendentious," "distorted," and "a true tragedy of scholarship." The real tragedy, however, is a reviewer rambling on for thirty-five pages without offering evidence challenging the facts, thesis, or conclusions on which the book is based. By engaging in a pseudo-intellectual hit and run, Lyman sideswipes history and disserves the scholarship he claims to support.2
It is not even clear that Lyman read my entire book -- at one point he quotes a line from a brief synopsis I placed on Amazon.com rather than the sentence in the book's introduction on which it is based -- but he has entirely misread it. The book's goal, which I state in the book's opening sentence, is: Why did the United States pass the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882? To answer this question, I needed to examine numerous subjects, including politics, race, class, immigration, labor, economics, diplomacy, culture, regionalism, industrialism, foreign policy, China, and the press from the 1860s to the early 1880s. And what I found was that the motive force behind the era's most racist legislation was not, as countless historians have argued, California, organized labor, or a general racist atmosphere, but national politicians who, in a period during which the two-party system had achieved near-perfect balance, seized the issue of Chinese exclusion in an effort to gain votes. Rather than confront such major problems as economic depression, rising unemployment, or class conflict, politicians played the race card. They demonized Chinese immigrants and claimed that their exclusion would benefit workers and protect the nation. Despite Lyman's lengthy review, he never explains my argument or confronts the massive documentation on which it is based. He also fails to mention any of the national politicians at the core of the book, such as James Blaine, William Evarts, or James Garfield.3
Instead, Lyman focuses on my treatment of organized labor and the working classes. He repeatedly misinforms readers that I have "freed the white workingman from the charge of anti-Chinese prejudice." This is false. I never state this or try to prove this. In fact, I give numerous examples of white working-class prejudice against the Chinese on both the East and West coasts. Virtually all white Americans in the nineteenth century held racist views, from the poorest class to the richest class. Even abolitionists voiced racist sentiments. The question, however, from the standpoint of public policy, is not how prejudiced people were but how they acted on this prejudice. Unlike historians who have focused on whiteness and working-class identity, I focus on politics and public affairs and trace the role that workers, unions, and working-class groups played in public discourse and in promoting national policy. And what I discovered is that despite their prejudice, most workers in the East did not advocate anti-Chinese immigration policies in the 1860s and 1870s. Just as abolitionists could surmount their prejudices and promote non-racist solutions -- emancipation and civil rights -- so could workers. Why is this so difficult to accept? "Racism and Chinese exclusion were separable issues," I argue in my book, "and eastern workers consistently separated them." In his desperate attempt to indict white workers and the national labor movement for the Chinese Exclusion Act, Lyman is unable to acknowledge this simple dichotomy, and he presents no evidence to refute it.4
DURING RECONSTRUCTION AND THE GILDED AGE, white workers outside of California made a vital distinction between immigration, which they supported, and importation, which they opposed. They consistently welcomed free immigrants "from every clime," country, and continent, but just as consistently denounced laborers imported from abroad -- that is, brought in under contract or obligation -- especially when they were brought in during labor disputes. Workers first voiced this pro-immigration/anti-importation stance in 1864 when Congress legalized imported contract labor in an effort to ease the manpower shortage in the North caused by the Civil War. A key event in my book (and in American history) took place six years later in June 1870 when a shoe manufacturer in North Adams, Massachusetts, brought in seventy-five Chinese laborers from San Francisco to break a strike by the Knights of St. Crispin. This event received national attention and galvanized working-class protest throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Many historians have erroneously claimed that this event launched workers on their crusade for Chinese exclusion. As I document meticulously, however, workers urged a ban not on Chinese immigration, but on imported contract labor. As I demonstrate throughout my book, a ban on imported contract labor remained foremost on the working-class agenda during Reconstruction and beyond, and workers denounced such importation regardless of the nation of origin, whether from Canada, Prussia, England, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Italy, or China. Like countless scholars before him, Lyman fails to acknowledge and accept the distinction between immigration and importation that workers so carefully made. Nor does he understand that workers had legitimate reasons to make this distinction. Many were immigrants themselves -- from Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere -- with friends, relatives, and compatriots from abroad hoping to come to America. Workers recognized that sanctions against one group of immigrants (such as the Chinese) could easily lead to sanctions against other groups of immigrants (such as Europeans).5
Lyman claims that I "mak[e] 19th-century Chinese immigration to the United States appear to be but one more instance of the nefarious and multi-faceted coolie trade," and that my "argument gives substance to . . . the belief that virtually every Chinese who set foot on America's shores was an involuntary, 'imported contract laborer.'" Had Lyman read my book carefully, he would have noticed that I do not state that Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. via the "coolie trade," a term that refers to the infamous system of transporting laborers from China to Latin America under slave-like conditions in the mid-nineteenth century. I actually take great pains to define the term "coolie," a word that had numerous connotations and usages in the nineteenth century (and, because of this, a word I always place in quotes). I also cite various articles, studies, and government reports issued during the 1860s and 1870s that gave conflicting accounts of how Chinese came to America -- from contract to non-contract, from free to unfree -- as well as the numerous rumors and anecdotes supplementing these reports that created an atmosphere of uncertainty and ambiguity regarding the methods of Chinese immigration. Chinese immigrants, I explain, came to the United States in a variety of ways: many arrived on their own to work in the gold fields and industries of California, others were recruited to work on the transcontinental railroad, and some arrived under contract. Lyman himself elaborates on these methods, noting that some Chinese came to America by "incurring a debt" on the "credit-ticket" system, as imported laborers "inveigled, shanghaied, or kidnapped" (in Lyman's exact words), and by "'sign[ing] a contract with either the Chinese merchants or foreign agents, who,'" according to historian Liping Zhu, whom Lyman quotes directly, "'paid all expenses for transit to the United States in exchange for their labor for a certain period, which varied from two to ten years.'" Lyman thus argues that some Chinese laborers were "imported" and arrived under "contract" -- precisely the charge white workers (along with government officials and other Americans) made in the 1870s, and what they adamantly opposed. "From the beginning," Lyman continues in his quote from Zhu, "the majority of Chinese pioneers to the American West were free." A minority, this implies, were not "free." Whether they were "free" or not, however, matters far less than the fact that some arrived under contract or obligation. White workers feared that imported contract laborers -- not immigrants -- from China or elsewhere endangered their livelihood, and incidents of such importation in the 1860s and 1870s, coupled with repeated threats by employers and manufacturers to import foreign laborers, legitimized such fears. And yet Lyman concludes, with the enormous condescension of history, that "white workers . . . should have been able to figure out for themselves" the "truth" that Chinese labor posed them no threat. What's ironic is that most workers did figure this out and thus advocated a ban on imported contract labor rather than on Chinese immigration.6
IN HIS FEEBLE POLEMIC, Lyman makes so many mistakes and indulges in so many historical fallacies it is hard to know which to highlight. When he comes across a statement he doesn't like, he simply rejects it and tells the reader that it has no support. For example, he quotes from my book a viciously racist New York Tribune article written by John Swinton in response to the North Adams incident in 1870. Denouncing the Chinese as "inferior," "depraved," and "debased," Swinton urged immediate and total exclusion. "His anti-Chinese screed," Lyman quotes me as writing, "proved an ugly and ironic segue to his brilliant career: ugly because of its virulent racism; ironic because workers, for whom he intended it, largely dismissed his argument and disregarded his remedy." Lyman continues that "Gyory's interpretation of this key event [is] offered without evidence to back it up." Precisely what evidence Lyman claims is lacking is unclear. That Swinton's article was anti-Chinese and virulently racist is fairly obvious. That Swinton later had a "brilliant career" as editor of a prominent labor newspaper is noted and rather well-known among historians. I presume, therefore, that what Lyman claims is not backed up is the part that workers largely dismissed Swinton's argument and disregarded his remedy of Chinese exclusion. Here is where I question whether Lyman actually read my book. The chapter in which "this event" -- Swinton's article -- takes place provides dozens of examples of workers dismissing his anti-Chinese effusions ("In many things their customs are worthy of imitation," observed Crispin leader Charles McLean of Boston) and disregarding his remedy of exclusion ("To the Chinaman as emigrant there are no objections," declared tailor William Cashman of New York, to which fellow tailor Robert Blissert added, "The Chinaman is as welcome to me as men from Ireland, or Scotland, or England"). At rally after rally -- nine that I document -- as well as numerous labor conventions, working-class meetings, interviews, and speeches during the summer of 1870 that I quote and cite, workers in the East voiced this identical pro- immigration/anti-importation stance. (This material appears on pages 41-47 of my book. The references appear on pages 274-279.) I invite readers to examine this chapter and to judge for themselves the veracity of Lyman's charge that I don't offer evidence to "back it up."7
Despite some 298 footnotes, Lyman presents virtually no evidence to challenge my thesis. Rather, he relies on secondary comments by other historians -- some of whom he misinterprets, others who are factually wrong. "Whereas Gyory insists it is the politicians who took the lead and the unions that lagged behind in the opposition to Chinese immigration during the pre-exclusion years," Lyman writes, "[historian David] Montgomery offers an important instance in New York City when that order was reversed: 'Sensing that its opposition to black enfranchisement . . . was costing more votes than it was winning, . . . the Tweed Ring switched its target to the Chinese. In 1870 it joined the unions in a huge rally against the immigration of 'coolie labor' to the United States.'" Had Lyman bothered to examine Montgomery's source for this statement, he would have found that it was pages 225-226 of Iver Bernstein's The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. Bernstein, however, never mentioned that the rally opposed the "immigration of 'coolie labor' to the United States." Rather, he wrote that speakers at the rally denounced their importation. Bernstein used the term "importation" three times -- a fact Lyman ought to know since he himself cites this passage in a footnote. The careful and close reading of sources is any scholar's primal imperative.8
A MORE PREPOSTEROUS EXAMPLE OF LYMAN'S SHODDY USE OF SOURCES can be found in quoting historians he knows are wrong. Repeating his effort to place workers at the forefront of the exclusion movement, Lyman writes: "it might well be remembered that no less a figure than Selig Perlman had pointed out that 'The National Labor Union came out against Chinese immigration in 1869, when the issue was brought home to the Eastern wage earners following the importation by a shoe manufacturer in North Adams, Massachusetts, of Chinese strike breakers." First, as I note in my book, the National Labor Union did not come out against Chinese immigration in 1869. Second, the North Adams incident took place a full year later in 1870 -- not 1869, as Perlman misstates and Lyman well knows. By using inaccurate secondary sources -- rather than original evidence -- Lyman distorts the historical record.9
Along with attacking me for what I wrote, Lyman attacks me for what I didn't write, specifically a history of organized labor's attitude toward Chinese immigration from 1882, after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, to 1943, when it was repealed. "Gyory has not attended to this profoundly important question," Lyman observes. "His investigation ends in 1882, 61 years short of where it should have gone."10 While I am flattered that Lyman wishes I had written a longer book, his criticism is bizarre. The goal of my book was to examine the origins of a specific law -- the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 -- and part of this examination included tracing the role organized labor played in its enactment. What happened after 1882, however, is irrelevant to the law's passage. History does not run backwards: what happens after an event takes place cannot change or influence the original event.
It is a familiar ruse of reviewers to attack an author for not writing the book the reviewer wanted to read. Lyman goes a step further, however, and actually attempts to write this book himself. To undercut my argument that organized labor played little role in securing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, he spends a major part of his review -- some twelve pages -- recounting the racist, anti-Chinese views of three prominent labor leaders: Samuel Gompers, Adolph Strasser, and Terence V. Powderly. Gompers, he notes,
appears briefly in [my] book on three occasions: during a strike by New York City cigar makers in 1877; as a supporter for the Greenback Party in the same period; and as a contributor to the debates over the organizational structure of the newly formed Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Union [FOTLU] . . . in 1881 (that was to become the American Federation of Labor in 1886). Although the Chinese question figures in each of these events, a reader of Gyory's book would never learn from reading it that Gompers was perhaps the most important of the advocates of Chinese exclusion and author of some of the most racist demagoguery presented during the anti-Chinese movement.Quite to the contrary, I note "Gompers's racism and deep-seated anti-Chinese proclivities." I also highlight how he "recounted with pride in his autobiography forty years later" that the FOTLU in 1881 "'was the first national organization which demanded the exclusion of coolies from the United States.'" I don't elaborate on Gompers's "racist demagoguery" because it came much later, in the 1890s and 1900s, long after the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and when opposition to Chinese immigration had become widespread and national. Prior to 1881 Gompers expressed no interest in Chinese exclusion. During the 1877 cigar makers' strike (an event I cover in detail), Gompers and other labor leaders denounced the threatened importation of Chinese strikebreakers -- much as they had seven years earlier in response to the North Adams incident -- but did not denounce Chinese immigration. (Several Chinese immigrants even joined the cigar makers' strike.) Lyman knows this, and cites three quotes of Gompers opposing importation, not immigration. Lyman offers no evidence of Gompers urging Chinese exclusion prior to 1881. Instead, he repeats many of the AFL leader's racist, pro-exclusion statements voiced in the 1890s and 1900s. What Gompers advocated years later, however, reveals nothing about what he advocated in the 1870s and had no bearing on the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.11
As president of the Cigar Makers' International Union, Adolph Strasser was a more prominent figure in the labor movement than Gompers in the late 1870s and consequently plays a more important role in my book. Strasser directed the cigar makers' strike in 1877, testified before Congress about Chinese labor in 1878, and lobbied Congress for labor legislation in 1879. In all his statements, Strasser was crystal clear: he wanted a ban on importation but not on immigration. He stated this directly to a congressional committee in 1878. Lyman offers no evidence that Strasser urged a ban on Chinese immigration. The historical record speaks for itself.12
Powderly, like Gompers, became viciously anti-Chinese in the 1880s and 1890s, and Lyman recycles many well-known quotes by these two labor leaders urging reenactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1892 and 1902.13 Lyman uses these quotes to argue that since Powderly, Gompers, and the rest of the labor movement opposed Chinese immigration at the turn of the century, they therefore opposed it in the 1860s and 1870s. Such an argument, however, is profoundly ahistorical and precludes the fact that people can change. What someone believes at one time does not mean he or she believed it at all times. For example, just because most northerners after the Civil War believed that slavery was wrong does not mean they believed that before the Civil War. Because most white Americans today believe that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was justified does not mean they supported it at the time. People, even labor leaders, can change, and just because labor leaders favored Chinese exclusion in the 1890s and 1900s -- long after the first exclusion act passed -- does not mean they favored it in the 1870s. History is the process of change, a process Lyman fails to recognize. In his static approach to history, he misuses evidence to distort my book and skew the past.
Part of this distortion includes reading things into my book that I never wrote. "Should Gyory succeed in his endeavor," he observes, "he will . . . absolve [the American labor movement] of charges that its organizational practices restricted African Americans, Hispanics, and women."14 Nothing could be further from the truth. Showing that organized labor played little role in securing the Chinese Exclusion Act has no direct bearing on labor's treatment of other groups at other times. Such claims display a distressing ignorance of history, historical connections, and historical causation.
IT IS DIFFICULT TO DETERMINE WHAT IS MOST REPUGNANT in Lyman's review, his outright misstatements or his implications that I belittle the significance of the Chinese Exclusion Act. "Gyory, who . . . seeks to separate the thoughts and deeds of the rank and file from those of the trade union leadership, omits the latter from his investigation." What book did Lyman read? While I do indeed separate the rank and file from the trade union leadership -- as any historian studying labor (or any group) must seek to do -- I hardly "omit the latter" from my investigation. From William Sylvis, president of the National Labor Union and the Iron Molders' International Union, to Samuel P. Cummings, leader of the Knights of St. Crispin, to Alexander Troup, secretary of the National Typographical Union, to Robert Blissert, founder of the New York Central Labor Union, to John Jarrett, president of both the FOTLU and Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, to Sam Goldwater, president of the Chicago Trade and Labor Council, to Adolph Strasser, Samuel Gompers, Henry Lucker, Richard Trevellick, Peter McGuire, and many others, I investigate the thoughts and deeds of literally dozens of trade union leaders. That Lyman claims I "omit" them shows incredibly sloppy reading and provides yet another example of his shooting wildly without ammunition.15
In a final and disturbing effort to discredit my book, Lyman quotes a moving passage from Lisa Lowe's Immigrant Acts: On Asian Cultural Politics on the lasting impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act: "'A national memory haunts the conceptions of the Asian- American . . . in which the Asian is always seen as . . . the 'foreigner within,' even when born in the United States and the descendant of generations born here before.'" To this Lyman adds, "Gyory's book does nothing to dispel this national memory." This may be Lyman's most offensive statement of all. The Chinese Exclusion Act, as I state clearly, was the most racist law passed after the Civil War. It excluded millions of Chinese from ever coming to the United States and set the precedent for future anti-immigration legislation against other Asians in the early 1900s and against Europeans in the 1920s. "The law's legacy," I write, "in the form of future restrictions and anti-Asian racism, lingers to this day. Like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 remains one of the most infamous and tragic statutes in American history. It must also remain one of the most ironic. No national sentiment arose to demand it, no broad effort emerged to prevent it. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a tool shaped and wielded by politicians who, in an era of burgeoning class conflict and razor-sharp electoral margins, championed an issue of paltry national importance in the false name of the working classes in the hopes of gaining a decisive handful of votes. . . . More than a century after its passage, the Chinese Exclusion Act still haunts the nation's treatment of immigrants and immigration."16
The first step toward "dispelling" this national memory is to confront it squarely with evidence and honesty rather than to mislead readers with gratuitous attacks and baseless charges. My book is ultimately a book about power, and during the 1870s the American labor movement wielded precious little of it on a national level. If it had, organized labor would have won enactment and enforcement of laws workers actually advocated, such as a general eight-hour workday, a federal bureau of labor statistics, inspection of factories and mines, and a ban on imported contract labor. Congress responded to none of these demands during the decade, as politicians chose instead to manipulate the issue of Chinese immigration, an issue of little importance to most workers.17 Politics and the pursuit of power remain at the core of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Lyman presents no evidence to the contrary. How ironic that he placed his review in a journal entitled New Politics. He offers little that is new and says nothing about politics. As the ideological Cold War among scholars of labor, immigration, and race heats up, I urge Lyman and his supporters to begin marshalling facts rather than fantasy, and evidence rather than invective.
Contents of No. 29