Presidential Speeches

March 1, 1886: Message Regarding Chinese Immigrant Workers

About this speech

Grover Cleveland

March 01, 1886

Source (not specified)

Following violent attacks against Chinese immigrants in the Western United States, Cleveland asks Congress to reconsider legislation dealing with Chinese workers in the United States.

Presidential Speeches |

March 1, 1886: Message Regarding Chinese Immigrant Workers


To the Senate and House of Representatives:
It is made the constitutional duty of the President to recommend to the consideration of Congress from time to time such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient. In no matters can the necessity of this be more evident than when the good faith of the United States under the solemn obligation of treaties with foreign powers is concerned.
The question of the treatment of the subjects of China sojourning within the jurisdiction of the United States presents such a matter for the urgent and earnest consideration of the Executive and the Congress.
In my first annual message, upon the assembling of the present Congress, I adverted to this question in the following words:
The harmony of our relations with China is fully sustained.
In the application of the acts lately passed to execute the treaty of 1880, restrictive of the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States, individual cases of hardship have occurred beyond the power of the Executive to remedy, and calling for judicial determination.
The condition of the Chinese question in the Western States and Territories is, despite this restrictive legislation, far from being satisfactory. The recent outbreak in Wyoming Territory, where numbers of unoffending Chinamen, indisputably within the protection of the treaties and the law, were murdered by a mob, and the still more recent threatened outbreak of the same character in Washington Territory, are fresh in the minds of all, and there is apprehension lest the bitterness of feeling against the Mongolian race on the Pacific Slope may find vent in similar lawless demonstrations. All the power of this Government should be exerted to maintain the amplest good faith toward China in the treatment of these men, and the inflexible sternness of the law in bringing the wrongdoers to justice should be insisted upon.
Every effort has been made by this Government to prevent these violent outbreaks and to aid the representatives of China in their investigation of these outrages; and it is but just to say that they are traceable to the lawlessness of men not citizens of the United States engaged in competition with Chinese laborers.
Race prejudice is the chief factor in originating these disturbances, and it exists in a large part of our domain, jeopardizing our domestic peace and the good relationship we strive to maintain with China.
The admitted right of a government to prevent the influx of elements hostile to its internal peace and security may not be questioned, even where there is no treaty stipulation on the subject. That the exclusion of Chinese labor is demanded in other countries where like conditions prevail is strongly evidenced in the Dominion of Canada, where Chinese immigration is now regulated by laws more exclusive than our own. If existing laws are inadequate to compass the end in view, I shall be prepared to give earnest consideration to any further remedial measures, within the treaty limits, which the wisdom of Congress may devise.
At the time I wrote this the shocking occurrences at Rock Springs, in Wyoming Territory, were fresh in the minds of all, and had been recently presented anew to the attention of this Government by the Chinese minister in a note which, while not unnaturally exhibiting some misconception of our Federal system of administration in the Territories while they as yet are not in the exercise of the full measure of that sovereign self-government pertaining to the States of the Union, presents in truthful terms the main features of the cruel outrage there perpetrated upon inoffensive subjects of China. In the investigation of the Rock Springs outbreak and the ascertainment of the facts on which the Chinese minister's statements rest the Chinese representatives were aided by the agents of the United States, and the reports submitted, having been thus framed and recounting the facts within the knowledge of witnesses on both sides, possess an impartial truthfulness which could not fail to give them great impressiveness.
The facts, which so far are not controverted or affected by any exculpatory or mitigating testimony, show the murder of a number of Chinese subjects in September last at Rock Springs, the wounding of many others, and the spoliation of the property of all when the unhappy survivors had been driven from their habitations. There is no allegation that the victims by any lawless or disorderly act on their part contributed to bring about a collision; on the contrary, it appears that the law-abiding disposition of these people, who were sojourners in our midst under the sanction of hospitality and express treaty obligations, was made the pretext for an attack upon them. This outrage upon law and treaty engagements was committed by a lawless mob. None of the aggressors--happily for the national good fame--appear by the reports to have been citizens of the United States. They were aliens engaged in that remote district as mining laborers, who became excited against the Chinese laborers, as it would seem, because of their refusal to join them in a strike to secure higher wages. The oppression of Chinese subjects by their rivals in the competition for labor does not differ in violence and illegality from that applied to other classes of native or alien labor. All are equally under the protection of law and equally entitled to enjoy the benefits of assured public order.
Were there no treaty in existence referring to the rights of Chinese subjects; did they come hither as all other strangers who voluntarily resort to this land of freedom, of self-government, and of laws, here peaceably to win their bread and to live their lives, there can be no question that they would be entitled still to the same measure of protection from violence and the same free forum for the redress of their grievances as any other aliens.
So far as the treaties between the United States and China stipulate for the treatment of the Chinese subjects actually in the United States as the citizens or subjects of "the most favored nation" are treated, they create no new status for them; they simply recognize and confirm a general and existing rule, applicable to all aliens alike, for none are favored above others by domestic law, and none by foreign treaties unless it be the Chinese themselves in some respects. For by the third article of the treaty of November 17, 1880, between the United States and China it is provided that--
ART. III. If Chinese laborers, or Chinese of any other class, now either permanently or temporarily residing in the territory of the United States, meet with ill treatment at the hands of any other persons, the Government of the United States will exert all its power to devise measures for their protection and to secure to them the same rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions as may be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation, and to which they are entitled by treaty.
This article may be held to constitute a special privilege for Chinese subjects in the United States, as compared with other aliens; not that it creates any peculiar rights which others do not share, but because, in case of ill treatment of the Chinese in the United States, this Government is bound to "exert all its power to devise measures for their protection," by securing to them the rights to which equally with any and all other foreigners they are entitled.
Whether it is now incumbent upon the United States to amend their general laws or devise new measures in this regard I do not consider in the present communication, but confine myself to the particular point raised by the outrage and massacre at Rock Springs.
The note of the Chinese minister and the documents which accompany it give, as I believe, an unexaggerated statement of the lamentable incident, and present impressively the regrettable circumstance that the proceedings, in the name of justice, for the ascertainment of the crime and fixing the responsibility therefor were a ghastly mockery of justice. So long as the Chinese minister, under his instructions, makes this the basis of an appeal to the principles and convictions of mankind, no exception can be taken; but when he goes further, and, taking as his precedent the action of the Chinese Government in past instances where the lives of American citizens and their property in China have been endangered, argues a reciprocal obligation on the part of the United States to indemnify the Chinese subjects who suffered at Rock Springs, it became necessary to meet his argument and to deny most emphatically the conclusions he seeks to draw as to the existence of such a liability and the right of the Chinese Government to insist upon it.
I draw the attention of the Congress to the latter part of the note of the Secretary of State of February 18, 1886, in reply to the Chinese minister's representations, and invite special consideration of the cogent reasons by which he reaches the conclusion that whilst the United States Government is under no obligation, whether by the express terms of its treaties with China or the principles of international law, to indenmify these Chinese subjects for losses caused by such means and under the admitted circumstances, yet that in view of the palpable and discreditable failure of the authorities of Wyoming Territory to bring to justice the guilty parties or to assure to the sufferers an impartial forum in which to seek and obtain compensation for the losses which those subjects have incurred by lack of police protection, and considering further the entire absence of provocation or contribution on the part of the victims, the Executive may be induced to bring the matter to the benevolent consideration of the Congress, in order that that body, in its high discretion, may direct the bounty of the Government in aid of innocent and peaceful strangers whose maltreatment has brought discredit upon the country, with the distinct understanding that such action is in no wise to be held as a precedent, is wholly gratuitous, and is resorted to in a spirit of pure generosity toward those who are otherwise helpless.
The correspondence exchanged is herewith submitted for the information of the Congress, and accompanies a like message to the House of Representatives.