Tag Archives: mob violence

“The Chinese Question” 1871

“The Chinese Question” by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Feb. 2, 1871, Source: Walfred scan

The Chinese Question is full sized cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly, February 18, 1871,

Nast was tolerant of all races, nationalities, and creeds. He was not, however, tolerant of ignorance. He deplored the mob mentality that in his mind, the Irish represented. Their alliance with Tweed and Democratic Party values drove Nast to draw with savage fervor. It wasn’t the Irish per se, but what the Irish did with their political power and alliances that Nast found disturbing. As Patricia Hills points out, “he [Nast] castigates only the ignorant and bigoted who engage in reprehensible deeds” (115).

Unfortunately for the Chinese, the Irish played a major role in Sinophobic hysteria. In her book Driven Out, Jean Pfaelzer quotes a New York Times article on the role of the Irish against the Chinese:

It was well known that the chief objection to the Chinese in California comes from the Irish. It was from this class that the Democratic Party used to draw most of the political capital which it gained by fostering the prejudices against the Negro. Fleeing to this country, as they claimed, to escape British oppression, the Irish immigrant always made haste to join the ranks of the oppressors here.  They voted, almost to a man, with the Democratic Party…now that slavery is abolished, we find them in the front ranks of the haters and persecutors of the Chinese. (52-53)

Accompanying this cartoon was a short, but powerful Harper’s editorial, “The Heathen Chinee” which decried the fear-mongering and blame placed upon the Chinese for labor displacement. In a bid to strengthen his Irish constituency, Tweed sought to restrict the use of Chinese railroad labor through legislative means. While a state senator, Tweed sponsored a bill to prevent the Chinese from being hired on projects.  Although Chinese population in New York was statistically minute,  estimated to be only 200 at the time, Tweed favored invasion vernacular to stoke fear within a male, Caucasian workforce. Harper’s Weekly’s editors  observed,

The working-men of this State know perfectly well that no such danger exists as that which is hinted at in Mr. Tweed’s bill. The Chinese invasion, of which he seems to be so much afraid is altogether mythical, as everybody in his sober senses is well aware; and Mr. Tweed presumes too much on the ignorance or the prejudices of the working-men if he expects to delude them with such a flimsy cheat. The general sentiment of the American people on this question is admirably expressed in Mr. Nast’s cartoon. A majority in this country still adhere to the old Revolutionary doctrine that all men are free and equal before the law, and possess inalienable rights which even Mr. Tweed is bound to respect.

Nast featured an imaginary local brouhaha in his cartoon The Chinese Question.

Nast places an angry, defiant Columbia front and center to confront the Workingmen menace and she serves as a reminder of America’s values. She stands over a crouched and defeated Chinese man. In addition, Nast utilizes what would become a favorite technique — to plaster current controversy on a wall of public protest. On the wall, all the various forms of hate speech spouted against the Chinese could be read and considered.

Chinese are in kind referred to as “coolies” “slaves,” “paupers” and “rat eaters.” Rat eaters, in particular, became a favorite and virulent Chinese stereotype deployed to great effect, especially on the West Coast,  in order to dehumanize the Chinese and affirm their “otherness.”  “Barbarians” and “heathens” are additional descriptive terms prominently displayed. The placards pronounce the Chinese as the “lowest and vilest of human race,” “vicious and immoral” declares another.  Nast’s wall is an effective tool. It collects the hate speech used within the local white labor community.  Each layer of verbal expression collects and builds like pounds in a pressure cooker. Workingmen would stop at no insult to rid themselves of the Chinese menace. The Chinese must go. “Their importation must be stopped.” Nast plastered the prejudice for all to see their ugly truth and consider the lie.

Nast created a clear visual divide on the issue. The hard edge on the right separates Columbia and the Chinese man from the trouble that is arriving from the other side. Columbia’s body stands in the path as a violent mob approaches. The vertical division creates a tension and theatrical suspense against what comes next and who might prevail.

Whipped up by the Tammany frenzy is New York’s version of the Workingmen’s Party. Led by Nast’s quintessential brawny Irish leader, they angrily turn the corner toward Columbia and the Chinese man. Nast dresses his thugs as would-be gentlemen  – his Irish brute wears a waistcoat and top hat. The high fashion does not change his savage character or propensity for violence.

Irish brute Nast’s Irish brute

Well-dressed as he may be, his face betrays his brutality. His features are roughly chiseled, his steely stare focuses on the impending attack. He brandishes a club in one hand and a rock in the other. This Irish ringleader is eager for some good old-fashioned mob violence.  Behind him, four other men are visible, and by their normal faces, not all are Irish. All are white and possess guns or weapons and expressions of anger. Behind them, faceless mob members carry signs in the air. One sign reads, “If our ballot will not stop them coming to our country, the bullet must.”

Nast reprises New York Draft Riot imagery of 1863 to recreate a scene in 1871 and give it additional implications. Nast had provided eye-witness drawings of the New York City draft riots and had not overly implicated the Irish in the violence. By including 1863 draft riot imagery to this event, Nast links Irish involvement with racial violence. In the background lies the evidence of their most notorious mob activity–the lynching and destruction of a “colored” community.  The Orangemen’s Riots followed later that summer on July 11-12, 1871 and Nast would once again deploy the same lynching imagery against the Irish. During the same riot, a colored orphanage burned to the ground. By including a smoldering orphan asylum in the background, Nast indicates this mob and associating the participants to the crime.  A barren tree is seen in the distance. An empty hangman’s noose dangles from a leafless tree. Below makeshift tombstones acknowledge buried rights, blood, and strikes. With the African American issue handled and put in their rightful place, graves, the Irish-led mob turns to provide their answer to the Chinese question. One problem down, one more problem to go.

Nast’s audience understood the significance of Columbia’s inclusion. She appears in Nast cartoons with great effect and is a formidable challenger to thwart Tweed.  Having fought and won many battles, she alone has the wherewithal to protect an emotionally defeated Chinese man. Slumped against a wall, framed by “heathen,” “idolater,” and exclamations of paganism, he is confused and helpless against this onslaught of white terror and oppression. He raises one knee to support a clutched hand and lowered head. His eyes are closed and his expression is one of utter despair. Columbia’s long tresses toss as she turns her head, alerted to the approaching mob. Her tiara is marked “U.S.” Her right hand gently touches the head of the crouched Chinese man.  Columbia’s left hand rises above her waist and over her heart into a fist. Her neckline bears a shield of America’s stars and stripes. Her expression is resolute.  She will not stand for what is about to go down. She addresses the mob, “Hands off, gentlemen! America means fair play for all men.” Columbia is Nast’s voice.

Columbia defended the downtrodden before. Consider how Nast uses her for “And Not This Man?” on August 5, 1865.

And not this man? Columbia argues for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran. Harper's Weekly, August 5, 1859. Library of Congress And not this man? Columbia argues for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran. Harper’s Weekly, August 5, 1859. Library of Congress

Here, as in the Chinese Question, Columbia advocates for civil rights, this time for a wounded African American Civil War veteran. Although seriously wounded, he stands erect. He possesses a quiet dignity. Columbia touches him at the shoulder and invites him to step up for consideration as an American. She is speaking to his legislative detractors who appear on an accompanying page.

In Nast’s Chinese Question, Columbia touches the head of the Chinese man. Although he Is able-bodied, he cannot stand on his two legs, he is unable to face his accusers as a whole man, even with Columbia by his side.

Nast has intentionally weakened the Chinese man in the face of the mob. The question is why.  Is it to evoke empathy for the Chinese man, is it to make the mob look worse than what they were? Could Nast have drawn the Chinese with more dignity? The Irish were afraid of labor competition.  Struggling to get established in America the Irish organized in their new home and resolved that they would not suffer the oppression they experienced in their homeland of Ireland. As Timothy Meagher has noted, the Irish had no history of prejudice or exhibited any racist behavior in Ireland.  They possessed, Meagher suggests, all of the sensitivities necessary to be empathetic to others who were oppressed. But in nineteenth-century Ireland, the Irish had learned that organization and activism produced results, albeit limited.

The new Irish immigrant in America faced hurdles other immigrants, such as the Germans did not. Because of the Great Famine, they arrived in very large numbers and in the most destitute of conditions. As Roman Catholics, they were considered by the Protestant population as members of a strange cult, unwilling to assimilate to American culture. These built-in prejudices, Meagher argues, forced the Irish to assert their “whiteness” and be demonstratively aggressive to other races, in particular, African Americans and Chinese Americans. Meagher cites the work of Moses Rischin who observed that Irish Catholics who aligned against the Chinese in California, and Irish Catholics who aligned with Democratic anti-abolitionists in the South, found greater acceptance into the white Protestant mainstream of their respective communities if they joined others who expressed racial paranoia.

The prevailing view of many historians asserts that the Irish feared any form of labor competition. The banding together of white against black would not work to the Irish’s favor in the Northeast, and Meagher offers several opinions that dispute a view that the Irish were afraid of southern blacks seeking northern jobs. Meagher warns against drawing such simplistic conclusions that point strictly at racial tensions or only that only targeted African Americans.

The Irish were hostile to all competitors including other ethnicities. They fought with Germans and Chinese. Real fear existed that a “powerful Republican Party and rich industrialists, would overpower the Irish” (223).  Meagher notes that the New York Times was exasperated with the Irish, writing in 1880, “the hospitable and generous Irishman has almost no friendship for any race but his own. As laborer and politician, he detests the Italian. Between him and the German-American citizen, there is a great gulf fixed…but the most naturalized thing for the Americanized Irishman is to drive out all other foreigners, whatever may be their religious tenets” (223). Observations such as these, Meagher suggests, establish that tensions went beyond Irish-African-American tension and violence. The Chinese were easy targets.

As victims of the English oppression and prejudice in their homeland, and again in America, as targets of nativist and Protestant fears in America, the Irish directed their paranoia, distrust toward non-Irish and non-Catholics.  Irish Americans battled persistent and ill-informed scientific theory which classified them as a unique and inferior human race.  The Irish were not considered white. For Irish-Americans, defining others as inferior was an early step in self-preservation. As other ethnicities began to fear the Chinese,  many Irish not only latched on to this common concern but took the lead in ridding the nation of the menace. By attacking the Chinese, the Irish could prove their “whiteness” and earn a legitimate place in American society. Once severely oppressed in Ireland, and again in America, many Irish turned the tables by becoming the oppressors. Nast would never let the Irish forget this irony.

Works cited

“”The Nigger Must Go” and “The Chinese Must Go”” 1879

For this 1879 cover, Nast used his signature technique of division and created an image with two clear sides, regions or points of view. The title reflects the state of two unwanted American ethnicities residing in America. Often Nast employed visual division for contrast, but here, the African American in the South and the Chinese man in the West share a similar dilemma – pawns in a volatile debate regarding their right to vote, access to work, and be accepted into the larger American society.

The placement of Nast’s signature is also interesting. With ample room to place his traditional Th.Nast to the left or right, as was his practice, he centers his sign off and allows it to be divided, the only time in a cartoon that it is halved. In this image, he is equally sympathetic to the African American and the Chinese American.

Nast’s cartoon reacts to two noteworthy election-related acts of violence which took place on both coasts. In each case mob violence shaped the outcome of the election.

With their backs facing each other, an African American on the left and a Chinese man on the right find their home region hostile. The men grimly walk away in a direction other than their point of origin.

Signage on the wall (a favorite technique of Nast’s) indicates that mob rule influenced election results in Yazoo, Mississippi and San Francisco, California respectively.  The cartoon and accompanying Harper’s editorial voiced displeasure at the election results manipulated by violent methods.

With the ratification Fifteenth Amendment of 1870, the United States conferred voting rights to African Americans. Yet among the majority of many Southern Democrats, the legitimacy or permanence of black suffrage was not widely supported in southern Democratic circles. Leadership in the Democratic Party believed in white supremacy and sought to control labor, particularly in the cotton-producing states of the Deep South (Foner 421).

“Democrats developed ingenious methods of limiting black voting power” and included the poll tax, property qualifications, literacy tests, and anyone convicted of petty larceny (and many such arrests resulted) restricted African Americans from exercising their newly gained voting privileges (Foner 422).

Plantation owners also looked to punish African American labor and reduce dependence on black labor’s earning power and manipulated their access to jobs by encouraging Chinese and other immigrant labor to apply for jobs normally filled by blacks. One Alabama newspaper appealed to Irish and German immigrants to earn $10 a month on the farms. “Even more attractive were indentured laborers from China, whose “natural” docility would bolster plantation discipline and whose arrival, by flooding the labor market, would reduce the wages of blacks” (Foner 419).

“Give us five million of Chinese laborers in the valley of the Mississippi,” wrote a planter’s wife, “and we can furnish the world with cotton and teach the negro his proper place, (qtd. Foner 419-420).

Violence in Mississippi

Captain H.M. Dixon, referred to by Nast on the wall notices, was a reformist Democrat who ran for office as Sheriff of Yazoo City, Mississippi. His opponent was the Democratic favorite, James Barksdale.  Harper’s commented,

“An armed and drunken mob compelled Dixon to withdraw.
Some time afterward, upon going into Yazoo City, he was met by James Barksdale, the Democratic candidate for Chancery Clerk, who hailed him, and stepped into the street armed with a double-barrelled shot-gun. Dixon drew a pistol, but Barksdale fired and killed him.”

Harper’s lamented on their prediction that election thuggery and violence would become the norm in the South, usurping federal law.

Nast’s wall posters brand Dixon a hero, “the bravest of the brave” against the bull-dozing, albeit successful efforts of mob rule,

A dejected African American laborer carries his meager belongings in a knapsack as he stands in front of a scene of violence. His attire is clean, complete, modest, but dignified. There are no patches or holes in the clothing. By his appearance, he has been able to work and afford certain refinements.  He finishes off his shirt with an informal kerchief tie. Now displaced from his job, he pulls the brim of his hat over his eyes to assure a quiet escape from a location where he is no longer wanted. Beyond the wall, a pair of feet from an unknown victim can be seen. In his frame, Nast places the African American in an adversarial position to the Chinese man. But this Chinese man does not appear to seek southern employment. His destination is unknown.

Difficult Problems Solving Themselves, Harper’s Weekly, March 18, 1879, Library of Congress

Unlike Difficult Problems Solving Themselves, seen left, the figures with their back against the other have a specific direction and goal before them.

Like the African American, the Chinese man is drawn in profile, in front of the melodrama of Irish-born Denis Kearney’s Sand Lot speeches and Workingmen’s proclamations that “The Chinese Must Go.”  Nast’s Chinese man bears a somber expression, his one hand clutches an open fan, the other hand dangles like a claw in mid-air.  Nast’s chides Kalloch’s religious background by couching the anti-Chinese rhetoric as a prayer, mocking the legitimacy of Kalloch’s divine appeal, “We Thank Thee, Oh Lord, That the Chinese Must Go.”

Violence in San Francisco

Ongoing anti-Chinese hysteria fueled the debate to exclude or greatly restrict a Chinese labor presence in California. The Rev. Isaacs S. Kalloch, a Baptist preacher, and candidate for Mayor of San Francisco was an outspoken Democrat and ally of Denis Kearney,  Sand Lot instigator who coined and championed the phrase “The Chinese Must Go” throughout the country, but most effectively in California.  With this alliance secured, Kalloch confidently counted on Kearney’s followers to win him the election.

Prior to the Civil War, Republicans had dominated local California politics. A charismatic and motivational speaker, Kearney and his Workingmen’s multitude hammered away at public opinion and ultimately tipped the balance away from Republicans. Once Democrats controlled the legislature, anti-Chinese legislation proliferated and factored into a revision of the California state constitution in 1878.

Charles M. De Young, co-founder and managing editor of The San Francisco Chronicle and ardent capitalist, appreciated the value of Chinese labor and advocated against the revised California Constitution. De Young sided with Kalloch’s opponent. De Young had originally aligned with Kearney but despised the Irishman’s penchant for violent tactics and soon broke off the friendship. De Young considered the Workingmen’s Party platform as anti-business, De Young and a small group of capitalists and monopolists, whom Kearney called “The Honorable Bilks” grew more vocal against Kearney’s platform to drive the Chinese out of California. De Young wanted the Chinese to remain.. It was good business.

De Young discovered that Kalloch had only recently shifted his position against the Chinese.  Despite his recent conversion to Kearney, Kalloch was a charismatic and effective candidate.  “Kalloch’s growing legion of followers hung on his every word” (West 23).

This worried De Young. He considered both Kearney and Kalloch as threats. With the power of the press behind him, De Young had learned that Kalloch left behind a “checkered past” in the East, and delighted in exposing the news. De Young published salacious rumors about Kalloch’s background. Kalloch retaliated. The scorching rhetoric went back and forth and continued for weeks. When Kalloch stated that De Young’s mother ran a brothel, De Young unraveled and shot Kalloch. “The attempt at ending Kalloch’s life instead gave added energy to his candidacy” and Kalloch survived and won the election (West 24).

De Young went into hiding for a short while and with his influence, avoided prosecution for attempted murder. Undaunted, he continued to assault Kalloch in the columns of the Chronicle. Kalloch’s son, incensed by the murder attempt and continued vitriol toward his father entered the offices of the Chronicle, found and killed Charles De Young. Kalloch’s son was not prosecuted for murder.

The front cover with the placards containing hateful vitriol was Nast and Harper’s reminder to the public that America was a very different place outside New  York City.

Works cited