This 1860s illustration is entitled, "The Great Fear of the Period." Given that Civil War and Reconstruction dominated the decade, it seems strange anyone then could think of immigration as a major concern. Yet, fear that the country was being consumed by foreigners, namely by the Irish and the Chinese, was particularly strong in states like California and Utah. In this cartoon, the two chief rivals of mid-19th century foreign labor, the Irish “Paddy” and the Chinese “coolie,” stand astride a sketched landscape of America as they compete to swallow Uncle Sam whole. Not only does the Chinaman consume most of Uncle Sam, but he also eats the Irishman, his jacket bursting at the seams as he wears Paddy’s hat. Both immigrant groups were criticized for underbidding native-born labor and for their willingness to work under what Americans considered sub-human conditions. By the 1860s, the Irish had done most of the work on the railroad in the eastern part of the country. Many then sought to work on the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. “The Last Spike” ceremony outside of Provo, Utah, marked the completion of the line on May 10, 1869.
|From this iconic photograph of "The Last Spike" event, we might assume that the Chinese were not invited. There is not a Chinese face to be seen. |
Ironically, 1881 marks the year that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the immigration of Chinese workers to the U.S. Both native American and Irish-born laborers supported the ban. In fact, Irish-born union organizer Dennis Kearny agitated against all immigration from Asia. The Irish had grievances in common with the Chinese—both were sorely exploited—but the Irish saw the Chinese only as competitors. As for Americans in general, they feared and distrusted the “Chinese coolie,” believing that Asian labor would lower living standards for native-born workers.
This belief was suggested by the title of union leader Samuel Gompers’s book, “Meat vs. Rice?” Gompers was himself an immigrant (from England) and a champion of the working man, but he opposed Chinese immigration. As has so often been the case with America, just as one wave of immigrants starts to find its feet, a newer, hungrier wave follows. The newest arrivals are willing to work for less and under harsher conditions. This, of course, discomfits those who came before them. In 1892, the Scots writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, traveled America's Far West by rail and commented on such anti-immigrant feeling, “Awhile ago it was the Irish, now it is the Chinese that must go.”