Sunday, February 9, 2020

Live-blogging the Fifteenth Amendment: February 9, 1869 (1)

 - by New Deal democrat

The Senate continued its debate on the proposed amendment for a second long day after only a one hour break. Ninety percent of the debate centered on four topics: whether and how to exclude Asians in general and Chinese in particular from voting; whether of not to extend the amendment’s prohibitions to other preconditions from voting; extending the amendment to include State office-holding conditions as well; and de facto abolition of the Electoral College.

Because the debate was so important and voluminous, I am breaking it down by subject. What follow deals only with the issue of Chinese immigration.

By way of background, in the 20 years since the end of the Mexican War, tens of thousands (one Senator said 100,000) Chinese had emigrated to the West coast. Senators representing the West Coast States were fearful that the “yellow hordes” would come to outnumber the white settlers and take control of the State governments. Here is a sample of the debate, that came to the fore when an amendment was offered to remove the words “of citizens of the United States” from the amendment which as proposed read “The right of citizens of the United States to vote”. 

Mr. Morton: ... [T]he gist of th[is] amendment ... would make the Chinese eligible to vote and to hold office. As the amendment is presented by the Committee on the Judiciary it provides that the right of citizens of the United States to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged by the United States nor any State on account of race or color. That does not admit the Chinese, because the Chinese are not citizens of the United States and cannot be naturalized under the law as it now stands, because the naturalization laws contain the word “white.” This will not enfranchise the Chinese, because the Chinese are not citizens of the United States; but if you strike out these words, then you make the Chinese, without being citizens, eligible to office and to vote.

Mr. Doolittle: ... [T]here is no restriction upon Congress over the laws of naturalization; and they may, and judging by all the history of the past, they probably will, strike the word “white” out of the naturalization laws.... and our friends from California and Nevada and Oregon may just as well understand it now as understand it one, two, three, or five years hence. The thing is coming. 

I suppose it will not be gainsayed by any person who is acquainted with the Chinese character and population that not one in ten thousand of them has any capacity whatsoever for American citizenship.

There can be no question that the right will be granted when the demand is made. But then there may be a deluge of Chinese upon the Pacific coast. I think there must be some words of exclusion for the Chinese. The negro race in our midst, having lived here for generations, know no other civilization other than our own. The Chinese belong to another civilization, one that can never unite or assimilate with ours. They can never become Americans in heart and feeling. They can never fuse with us.... and I doubt whether their children born in this country can or will assimilate with our civilization.

... the time may come when they will find out their power, and then they will desire to become American citizens. They are now treated most brutally .... Their personal and civil rights are not regarded. ... [but] in the next ten or twenty years they may outnumber all other populations on that coast; and then they will come to understand their power, and then the cruelties and brutalities that they now suffer and have suffered ... may drive them to seize the political power into their hands.

.... The authorities in China might send over hundreds of thousands of Chinamen to the Pacific coast instructed to become citizens for the purpose of securing in every possible way the productions of that vast and rich country for the benefit of the Chinese empire.

So vehement was the opposition that the sponsor of the amendment, Sen. Sumner, finally said:

I say that this country has the absolute power to protect itself from Chinamen or any other sort of foreigners by such legislation as in its judgment is necessary for the purposes of  protection. 
... I find that I have opened an immense debate, and therefore I withdraw the amendment.

But not to leave you totally downhearted, here is Sen. Cameron:

I must express my surprise about all this talk about the poor Chinaman. I never heard of his doing any harm to anybody in America. He has enriched the Pacific slope by his toil. He  has made that great railroad which is the miracle of the world by his patient industry. Who ever heard before of a people doing so much work in so short a space of time and getting so little reward for it as they have done.... [T]heir children, who remain here, will after awhile imitate our people, adopt our institutions, and become citizens of our country, and by their toil add to the wealth of the country. 

Source: Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 3rd Session, pp. 1028-42
Note that the “progressive” position in 1869 was that Chinese could be excluded via naturalization laws, so that the amendment would not affect their lack of ability to vote.

But perhaps most striking is how close the debate is to the current right-wing paroxysms of fear and anger as to Mexicans, Muslims and others immigrating from “sh*thole countries.”