Miller Center

Veto of the Chinese Exclusion Act (April 4, 1882)

Chester A. Arthur


To the Senate of the United States:
After careful consideration of Senate bill No. 71, entitled "An act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese," I herewith return it to the Senate, in which it originated, with my objections to its passage.
A nation is justified in repudiating its treaty obligations only when they are in conflict with great paramount interests. Even then all possible reasonable means for modifying or changing those obligations by mutual agreement should be exhausted before resorting to the supreme fight of refusal to comply with them.
These rules have governed the United States in their past intercourse with other powers as one of the family of nations. I am persuaded that if Congress can feel that this act violates the faith of the nation as pledged to China it will concur with me in rejecting this particular mode of regulating Chinese immigration, and will endeavor to find another which shall meet the expectations of the people of the United States without coming in conflict with the rights of China.
The present treaty relations between that power and the United States spring from an antagonism which arose between our paramount domestic interests and our previous relations.
The treaty commonly known as the Burlingame treaty conferred upon Chinese subjects the right of voluntary emigration to the United States for the purposes of curiosity or trade or as permanent residents, and was in all respects reciprocal as to citizens of the United States in China. It gave to the voluntary emigrant coming to the United States the right to travel there or to reside there, with all the privileges, immunities, or exemptions enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation.
Under the operation of this treaty it was found that the institutions of the United States and the character of its people and their means of obtaining a livelihood might be seriously affected by the unrestricted introduction of Chinese labor. Congress attempted to alleviate this condition by legislation, but the act which it passed proved to be in violation of our treaty obligations, and, being returned by the President with his objections, failed to become a law.
Diplomatic relief was then sought. A new treaty was concluded with China. Without abrogating the Burlingame treaty, it was agreed to modify it so far that the Government of the United States might regulate, limit, or suspend the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States or their residence therein, but that it should not absolutely prohibit them, and that the limitation or suspension should be reasonable and should apply only to Chinese who might go to the United States as laborers, other classes not being included in the limitations. This treaty is unilateral, not reciprocal. It is a concession from China to the United States in limitation of the rights which she was enjoying under the Burlingame treaty. It leaves us by our own act to determine when and how we will enforce those limitations. China may therefore fairly have a right to expect that in enforcing them we will take good care not to overstep the grant and take more than has been conceded to us.
It is but a year since this new treaty, under the operation of the Constitution, became part of the supreme law of the land, and the present act is the first attempt to exercise the more enlarged powers which it relinquishes to the United States.
In its first article the United States is empowered to decide whether the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States or their residence therein affects or threatens to affect our interests Or to endanger good order, either within the whole country or in any part of it. The act recites that "in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities thereof." But the act itself is much broader than the recital. It acts upon residence as well as immigration, and its provisions are effective throughout the United States. I think it may fairly be accepted as an expression of the opinion of Congress that the coming of such laborers to the United States or their residence here affects our interests and endangers good order throughout the country. On this point I should feel it my duty to accept the views of Congress.
The first article further confers the power upon this Government to regulate, limit, or suspend, but not actually to prohibit, the coming of such laborers to or their residence in the United States. The negotiators of the treaty have recorded with unusual fullness their understanding of the sense and meaning with which these words were used.
As to the class of persons to be affected by the treaty, the Americans inserted in their draft a provision that the words "Chinese laborers" signify all immigration other than that for "teaching, trade, travel, study, and curiosity." The Chinese objected to this that it operated to include artisans in the class of laborers whose immigration might be forbidden. The Americans replied that they "could" not consent that artisans shall be excluded from the class of Chinese laborers, for it is this very competition of skilled labor in the cities where the Chinese labor immigration concentrates which has caused the embarrassment and popular discontent. In the subsequent negotiations this definition dropped out, and does not appear in the treaty. Article II of the treaty confers the rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions which are accorded to citizens and subjects of the most favored nation upon Chinese subjects proceeding to the United States as teachers, students, merchants, or from curiosity. The American commissioners report that the Chinese Government claimed that in this article they did by exclusion provide that nobody should be entitled to claim the benefit of the general provisions of the Burlingame treaty but those who might go to the United States in those capacities or for those purposes. I accept this as the definition of the word "laborers" as used in the treaty.
As to the power of legislating respecting this class of persons, the new treaty provides that we "may not absolutely prohibit" their coming or their residence. The Chinese commissioners gave notice in the outset that they would never agree to a prohibition of voluntary emigration. Notwithstanding this the United States commissioners submitted a draft, in which it was provided that the United States might "regulate, limit, suspend, or prohibit" it. The Chinese refused to accept this. The Americans replied that they were "willing to consult the wishes of the Chinese Government in preserving the principle of free intercourse between the people of the two countries, as established by existing treaties, provided that the right of the United States Government to use its discretion in guarding against any possible evils of immigration of Chinese laborers is distinctly recognized. Therefore if such concession removes all difficulty on the part of the Chinese commissioners (but only in that case) the United States commissioners will agree to remove the word 'prohibit' from their article and to use the words 'regulate, limit, or suspend."' The Chinese reply to this can only be inferred from the fact that in the place of an agreement, as proposed by our commissioners, that we might prohibit the coming or residence of Chinese laborers, there was inserted in the treaty an agreement that we might not do it.
The remaining words, "regulate, limit, and suspend," first appear in the American draft. When it was submitted to the Chinese, they said:
We infer that of the phrases regulate, limit, suspend, or prohibit, the first is a general expression referring to the others. * * * We are entirely ready to negotiate with your excellencies to the end that a limitation either in point of time or of numbers may be fixed upon the emigration of Chinese laborers to the United States.
At a subsequent interview they said that "by limitation in number they meant, for example, that the United States, having, as they supposed, a record of the number of immigrants in each year, as well as the total number of Chinese now there, that no more should be allowed to go in any one year in future than either the greatest number which had gone in any year in the past, or that the total number should never be allowed to exceed the number now there. As to limitation of time they meant, for example, that Chinese should be allowed to go in alternate years, or every third year, or, for example, that they should not be allowed to go for two, three, or five years."
At a subsequent conference the Americans said:
The Chinese commissioners have in their project explicitly recognized the right of the United States to use some discretion, and have proposed a limitation as to time and number. This is the right to regulate, limit, or suspend.
In one of the conferences the Chinese asked the Americans whether they could give them any idea of the laws which would be passed to carry the powers into execution. The Americans answered that this could hardly be done; that the United States Government might never deem it necessary to exercise this power. It would depend upon circumstances. If Chinese immigration concentrated in cities where it threatened public order, or if it confined itself to localities where it was an injury to the interests of the American people, the Government of the United States would undoubtedly take steps to prevent such accumulations of Chinese. If, on the contrary, there was no large immigration, or if there were sections of the country where such immigration was clearly beneficial, then the legislation of the United States under this power would be adapted to such circumstances. For example, there might be a demand for Chinese labor in the South and a surplus of such labor in California, and Congress might legislate in accordance with these facts. In general the legislation would be in view of and depend upon the circumstances of the situation at the moment such legislation became necessary. The Chinese commissioners said this explanation was satisfactory; that they had not intended to ask for a draft of any special act, but for some general idea how the power would be exercised. What had just been said gave them the explanation which they wanted.
With this entire accord as to the meaning of the words they were about to employ and the object of the legislation which might be had in consequence, the parties signed the treaty, in Article I of which-- The Government of China agrees that the Government of the United States may regulate, limit, or suspend such coming or residence, but may not absolutely prohibit it. The limitation or suspension shall be reasonable, and shall apply only to Chinese who may go to the United States as laborers, other classes not being included in the limitations. Legislation taken in regard to Chinese laborers will be of such a character only as is necessary to enforce the regulation, limitation, or suspension of immigration.
The first section of the act provides that--
From and after the expiration of sixty days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of twenty years next after the passage of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said sixty days, to remain within the United States.
The examination which I have made of the treaty and of the declarations which its negotiators have left on record of the meaning of its language leaves no doubt in my mind that neither contracting party in concluding the treaty of 1880 contemplated the passage of an act prohibiting immigration for twenty years, which is nearly a generation, or thought that such a period would be a reasonable suspension or limitation, or intended to change the provisions of the Burlingame treaty to that extent. I regard this provision of the act as a breach of our national faith, and being unable to bring myself in harmony with the views of Congress on this vital point the honor of the country constrains me to return the act with this objection to its passage.
Deeply convinced of the necessity of some legislation on this subject, and concurring fully with Congress in many of the objects which are sought to be accomplished, I avail myself of the opportunity to point out some other features of the present act which. in my opinion, can be modified to advantage.
The classes of Chinese who still enjoy the protection of the Burlingame treaty are entitled to the privileges, immunities, and exemptions accorded to citizens and subjects of the most favored nation. We have treaties with many powers which permit their citizens and subjects to reside within the United States and carry on business under the same laws and regulations which are enforced against citizens of the United States. I think it may be doubted whether provisions requiring personal registration and the taking out of passports which are not imposed upon natives can be required of Chinese. Without expressing an opinion on that point, I may invite the attention of Congress to the fact that the system of personal registration and passports is undemocratic and hostile to the spirit of our institutions. I doubt the wisdom of putting an entering wedge of this kind into our laws. A nation like the United States, jealous of the liberties of its citizens, may well hesitate before it Incorporates into its polity a system which is fast disappearing in Europe before the progress of liberal institutions. A wide experience has shown how futile such precautions are, and how easily passports may be borrowed, exchanged, or even forged by persons interested to do so.
If it is, nevertheless, thought that a passport is the most convenient way for identifying the Chinese entitled to the protection of the Burlingame treaty, it may still be doubted whether they ought to be required to register. It is certainly our duty under the Burlingame treaty to make their stay in the United States, in the operation of general laws upon them, as nearly like that of our own citizens as we can consistently with our right to shut out the laborers. No good purpose is served in requiring them to register.
My attention has been called by the Chinese minister to the fact that the bill as it stands makes no provision for the transit across the United States of Chinese subjects now residing in foreign countries. I think that this point may well claim the attention of Congress in legislating on this subject.
I have said that good faith requires us to suspend the immigration of Chinese laborers for a less period than twenty years; I now add that good policy points in the same direction.
Our intercourse with China is of recent date. Our first treaty with that power is not yet forty years old. It is only since we acquired California and established a great seat of commerce on the Pacific that we may be said to have broken down the barriers which fenced in that ancient Monarchy. The Burlingame treaty naturally followed. Under the spirit which inspired it many thousand Chinese laborers came to the United States. No one can say that the country has not profited by their work. They were largely instrumental in constructing the railways which connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. The States of the Pacific Slope are full of evidences of their industry. Enterprises profitable alike to the capitalist and to the laborer of Caucasian origin would have lain dormant but for them. A time has now come when it is supposed that they are not needed, and when it is thought by Congress and by those most acquainted with the subject that it is best to try to get along without them. There may, however, be other sections of the country where this species of labor may be advantageously employed without interfering with the laborers of our own race. In making the proposed experiment it may be the part of wisdom as well as of good faith to fix the length of the experimental period with reference to this fact.
Experience has shown that the trade of the East is the key to national wealth and influence. The opening of China to the commerce of the whole world has benefited no section of it more than the States of our own Pacific Slope. The State of California, and its great maritime port especially, have reaped enormous advantages from this source. Blessed with an exceptional climate, enjoying an unrivaled harbor, with the riches of a great agricultural and mining State in its rear and the wealth of the whole Union pouring into it over its lines of railway, San Francisco has before it an incalculable future if our friendly and amicable relations with Asia remain undisturbed. It needs no argument to show that the policy which we now propose to adopt must have a direct tendency to repel Oriental nations from us and to drive their trade and commerce into more friendly lands. It may be that the great and paramount interest of protecting our labor from Asiatic competition may justify us in a permanent adoption of this policy; but it is wiser in the first place to make a shorter experiment, with a view hereafter of maintaining permanently only such features as time and experience may commend.
I transmit herewith copies of the papers relating to the recent treaty with China, which accompanied the confidential message of President Hayes to the Senate of the 10th January, 1881, and also a copy of a memorandum respecting the act herewith returned, which was handed to the Secretary of State by the Chinese minister in Washington.