“Justice for the Chinese” 1886

 

Lady Justice holds scale of dead white man and Chinese man
“Justice for the Chinese” 27 March 1886 by Thomas Nast. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Houston, shared under Public Domain license
In the winter of 1885 and the following summer of 1886, Chinese were driven out of the Northwest Territories, in what is now Washington and Oregon State. After the gold rush, many of the Chinese driven out of California moved north into the northern territory.

A violent outbreak in the mining town of Rock Springs, Wyoming occurred on Sept. 2, 1885. See Here’s a Pretty Mess! (in Wyoming).

In Seattle, Chinese found mining and railroad work. As in Wyoming, the Knights of Labor, an organization with a large Catholic membership were visible actors arguing for an eight-hour work day. To their credit, they called for an end to child and prison labor exploitation, but they were no friend of the Chinese, a race of people the Knights of Labor deemed inferior, and whose willingness to work at a reduced rate was regarded as unfair competition toward white labor interests.

Venture capitalists in the mining and railroad knew exactly what they were doing when they recruited the hard-working Chinese to work for less. The employers cared little about the reaction of organized labor. It is less clear how fully aware the Chinese as pawns to be manipulated by management to break labor union demands. 

As in many other industrial towns, mob-pressure ultimately broke out against Chinese labor, and the frustrations found release through mob violence. White workers demanded the Chinese leave. Many Chinese fled to the Portland area where they were welcomed and fit in with the foreign trade atmosphere of the city.

Of the Seattle incident, Harper’s editorial concluded, “It is a national disgrace that having excluded Chinese immigration by law, the hundred thousand Chinese who are so unlucky as to be caught in the country are outraged by foreign mobs, while the government politely regrets that it can do nothing. The coming of the Chinese may be a curse. But if it be a curse, it is now prohibited by law, and honest Americans upon the Pacific slope should be the first to defend those who are here against brutal lawlessness.”

Nast’s second to last cartoon on the Chinese was drawn four years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Eleven years elapsed since he brought Columbia  or her any of her relatives (here in the form of Lady Justice) out of retirement to stand strong on behalf of the Chinese. Denis Kearney and his white labor cohorts achieved their goal, but passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act failed to satiate their fear and mob activities against the Chinese persisted. They wanted all Chinese out, even those few Chinese who met the legal requirements to remain in the U.S.

In the cartoon, Chinese men lay prostrate on the ground from recent violence. Structures smolder in the distant right scene. In her right hand, Lady Justice heaves a large sword as white workers on the ground notice her interrupting presence and begin to leave. The weighing pans of Lady Justice’s scales are incomplete. One of her weighing pans is missing. From this end of the scale a white man dangles from the neck, as if lynched, or hung to compensate for the death of the Chinese victim. The dead Chinese is cradled upon a bowl-like scale, his queue hangs over the edge. His hands rest on his chest, as if posed in death. The arms of the scales however, are in balance. She has brought her measuring instrument to the violent scene and to weighed each victim despite the missing component.  There are no other obvious white victims. Her broken scales signal that the Justice system is broken and has failed the Chinese.

Despite her scales missing a pan, Lady Justice, through Nast’s pen, balances the scale.  A white victim dangles while a Chinese victim lays in the pan.  The white man obviously weighs more, yet the atrocities are equal in her eyes. Did Lady Justice scoop up a white perpetrator in a biblical “eye for an eye” moment, exacting justice despite a broken instrument? Has she turned the tables on the white workers, adapting their tactics of lynching to send her message?

Feel free to leave a comment. Yes they are moderated! Spam is deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s