A month before President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, Thomas Nast produced this small cartoon which appeared on the back pages of Harper’s Weekly. In style and tone, it is familiar to an earlier (twelve years prior) work, Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose.”
A lone Chinese man in native garb, his hair queue long enough to drag on the ground, approaches a castle gate. The medieval-styled gateway is a fortress emblazoned with the words, “The Temple of Liberty.”
Two soldiers stand at the edge of the drawbridge. Each is wearing a Bicorn hat – two sentries wearing Pickelhaubes, a Prussian styled battle helmet stand at attention near a metal gate that is raised. One soldier meets the Chinese man as he approaches the drawbridge – he reads a large document, on which the opposite side reads “Passport U.S.” The Chinese man approaches in a defensive posture and carries a modest satchel of belongings. He does not present any paperwork to the border guard.
The Bicorn hat also appears in two of George F. Keller’s drawings of Denis Kearney, The Chinese Must Go, But Who Keeps Them?“ and “Devastation.“Kearney, an anti- Chinese, pro-white labor activist, styled himself as a “Lieutenant General” of his “The Chinese Must Go” effort. It is possible that Nast picked up on the symbolism and used it here as a reluctant nod to Kearney as ringleader and his successful effort with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The building clearly and symbolically represents a structure for entry into the United States. It is located near a harbor into which ships freely enter. An American flag waves from its position on the side of the building.
Although the cartoon is less sophisticated than most of Nast’s pieces, he has made some interesting choices here and the irony he presents is powerful. Although we are told this is the United States of America, the imagery- the castle’s architecture, the military uniforms all shout imperial Europe.
The cartoon’s caption, “E Pluribus Unum (Except for the Chinese)” is a deliberate and obvious stab upon those Americans who supported the Chinese Exclusion Act. Nast chides them for forgetting their own immigrant history. Nast reminds his audience that America was supposed to be different. It was to be a temple of freedom against European Imperial oppression – a safe haven for those of different cultures, ancestry and belief systems. America’s great strength comes from her diversity – E pluribus unum – out of one we are many. Except of course, for the Chinese. They aren’t part of the American plan.
The scene is missing Columbia however. Nast’s favorite symbol and defender for the true meaning of America’s values. Where is she to help escort the Chinese applicant through the immigration process? With the Chinese Exclusion Act ready to be implemented, perhaps Columbia, like Nast, who brought her to life on so many occasions, has lost her passion to fight this cause any further.