Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves case study

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c h a p t e r t h r e e
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
Peonage, Coolieism, and the Struggle over “Foreign Miners”
When the California Assembly’s powerful Committee on Mines and Mining
Interests met in the spring of 1852, it proclaimed foreign immigration to be
the greatest threat to the state’s prosperity. Charged with recommending
benefi cial legislation for the mines, the committee urged state lawmakers
to halt the “alarming inroad of hired serfs” who came from foreign nations
to work the diggings. The committee highlighted the “importation by foreign capitalists of immense numbers of Asiatic serfs, and Mexican and South
American peons” as a pernicious problem. Armies of servile foreign hirelings,
commanded by Latin American and Chinese nabobs, crowded Americanborn whites out of the rich mineral lands that rightfully belonged to them
as U.S. citizens. The committee found Asiatic serfdom, otherwise known as
Chinese coolieism, particularly distressing. Men from China arrived “not as
freemen” but were “brought as absolute slaves by their foreign masters and
by foreign capitalists, and are held to labor under contracts.” Free white men,
working independently on modest claims, could never compete with wealthy
Chinese masters and their contracted slaves. The committee recommended
heavily taxing foreign-born miners for the privilege of working the mines and
instructed California’s congressional delegation to pursue a federal law banning Chinese and Latin American laborers from the gold country. Only by
stemming the tide of foreign invaders could California “protect American
labor on its own soil against the labor of imported and untaxed slaves.” 1
The Latino and Chinese miners who drew the condemnation of the assembly committee were transnational migrants who arrived in California
under widely varying social and labor arrangements. The committee’s report
reveals, however, that both groups of workers occupied remarkably similar
places in white imaginings of California’s racial and labor order. Over the
course of the gold rush, white Californians frequently recast Latinos and
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 81
Chinese into two new racialized labor categories of their own creation—the
Spanish-speaking “peon” and the Chinese “coolie.” Peons and coolies arrived
in California under two analogous systems of bound labor that some whites
dubbed “peonage” (sometimes “peonism”) and “coolieism.” They shared
similar characteristics—degradation and dependency—and posed similar
dangers—competition and dispossession—to California’s free white laborers. Imagined workers rather than real groups of people, peons and coolies
became crucial fi gures in California struggles over the meaning of slavery and
freedom, race and nation, expansion and empire.
On one level, imagined peons and coolies became vehicles through which
white Californians interrogated the troubling inequities of the emerging
capitalist economy and the unfreedoms of wage labor. “Foreign capitalists,”
who drove their hired men like slaves and denied them the profi ts of their
digging, came to represent the dangers that wage work posed to free laborers. In denunciations of serfl ike Mexicans and Chileans, who worked their
masters’ claims for next to nothing, and servile Chinese, who earned pitiful wages under overseas overlords, lay deep anxieties about the power of
the wage market to reduce independent freemen to dependent and degraded
slaves. But peons and coolies did more than merely illustrate the abuses of
overreaching capital. Their very presence in the goldfi elds seemed to presage free white American laborers’ own descent into wage slavery. Cheap
and easily exploited, peon and coolie labor threatened to depress the high
wages white labor commanded on the Pacifi c Coast to near-starvation levels. More troubling, perhaps, these foreign workers might hasten the death
of rough economic democracy in the mines by pushing free white men out.
With dozens of servile laborers at their command, foreign elites, and, later,
American capitalists, could monopolize mineral land and drive independent
white proprietors into poverty or the wage market. Occupying a liminal place
between slavery and wage labor, peons and coolies both refl ected what free
white laborers might become and threatened to be the instruments of their
undoing. 2

In addition to being class-based critiques of the wage system, both antipeonism and anticoolieism quickly evolved into languages of race, gender, nation, and empire. The construction of Latino and Chinese laborers
as unfree and degraded shored up racial boundaries around citizenship and
helped to defi ne both the nation and its citizenry as white. White Californians who called for the expulsion or exclusion of both groups contended
that their innate servility, their willingness to be the virtual slaves of capital,
placed them outside the category of freemen. They were unfi t to participate
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
82 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
in a republican government and, in fact, their very presence eroded American
democracy. Imagined peons and coolies also menaced the nation by chipping
away at American imperial claims to the West. Aiding foreign capitalists to
carry off millions of dollars in California gold to distant lands, they deprived
white Americans of the just rewards of their recent conquest of northern
Mexico. More unsettling, the infl ux of degraded laborers from Latin America
and China might loosen the grip of the United States on its recently conquered territories—lands that had been, just before the discovery of gold,
the national domain of Mexicans, who now fl ocked northward. Expelling
peons and coolies promised to preserve free labor from the ravages of capital,
protect citizenship as the exclusive domain of white freemen, and preserve
American empire on the Pacifi c.
Slaves and Hired Serfs: Inventing Peons
The Mokelumne River diggings boasted some of the richest gold deposits in
the Southern Mines, and by the summer of 1849 they were among the most
cosmopolitan places in California. Hundreds of Mexicans, Californios, Chileans, Hawaiians, and American Indians, all among the earliest goldseekers,
worked alongside newer migrants from the eastern United States and Europe. 3
The crowded, polyglot character of the diggings soon upset the hundreds of newly arrived white Americans trying to make their way in the mines.
In July, these men convened a mass meeting to protest the presence of “foreigners” in the district. They were stunned, they said, by the “sudden and
unexpected appearance amongst us of infl uential men from the distant provinces of Mexico, Chili, Peru, [the] Sandwich Islands, &c., with large bands
of hired men (who are nominally slaves).” Of these, Americans had most to
fear from the “hordes of hired men who are weekly, nay, almost daily, fl ocking in upon them from the distant provinces of Mexico and South America.”
Serving their foreign masters, these degraded and dependent hirelings were
little more than “slaves and hired serfs,” probably “worse than Russian serfs.”
Well-versed in the tropes of free labor, the miners depicted this invasion of
Spanish-speaking workers as a threat to the future of white workers in the
new territory. The “honest laborer . . . relying upon his own independent and
individual exertions for a livelihood, or the means of bettering his condition,”
simply could not compete against wealthy foreigners and their masses of laborers. For Spanish speakers to crowd out U.S. citizens was especially galling;
the United States had just fought a bloody war to wrest California away from
“Mexican misrule.” The miners fi nally ordered all “foreign taskmasters and
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 83
the men in their employ” to leave the diggings. They had two days to depart
or face ejection by force of arms. 4
The white Mokelumne miners’ denunciation of Spanish-speaking “hired
serfs” highlighted the unsettling, liminal place that Latin American workers
came to occupy in the class imaginings of white goldseekers. In reality, Latino miners traveled to California in a dizzying array of labor relationships.
Mexicans journeyed north as independent gambusinos , wage laborers, debtbound servants, or hacienda peones . Chileans sought gold as entrepreneurs,
as inquilinos and peones , or as waged contract laborers. The sheer diversity of
these relationships was refl ected in white miners’ inability to name precisely
the labor relationships that they were seeing. Mexicans and Chileans who
labored for their countrymen were simultaneously “hired men,” “serfs,” and
“slaves.” The “infl uential men” and “foreign taskmasters” who made their
way into the diggings appeared to both employ their hordes of workers and
own them. The Mokelumne miners never acknowledged the seeming paradox that one could at once be both a hired man and a slave, but white Californians eventually adopted a word to describe Spanish-speaking people who
were both employees and bondsmen: peons. In the heads of the whites who
imagined them, peons were nominally free men who hired out their labor,
but the conditions under which they worked resembled, at best, serfdom,
and, at worst, chattel slavery. Peons neither earned nor demanded a fair cash
wage for their labor, accepting instead a pittance or nonmonetary compensation. Servile and submissive, bound in archaic ties of social deference to foreign capitalists, peons endured (without protest) harsh working conditions
fi t only for slaves. In peons, white miners saw the nightmarish consequences
of the wage market: capital, gaining the whip-hand over labor, could make
freemen into slaves. In peons, too, they witnessed the capitalist monopoly of
resources that heralded their own dispossession and degradation.
Peons were the product of not only class imaginings but racial and national
imaginings as well. White American miners blamed the condition of peons as
much on their racial defi ciencies as on the abuses of capital. Poor Mexicans
and Chileans willingly submitted to hard, unremunerated labor. This indicated that they possessed servile and dependent characters that made them
more similar to black slaves than to white freemen. The “negroization” of
Spanish-speaking workers established that peonage, like slavery, was inimical to free white labor and republican institutions and that peons were racially
unfi t to be autonomous and virtuous citizens. 5
If peons endangered American
republicanism, the shadowy foreign capitalists who imported them appeared
to throw American imperial interests into jeopardy. They commanded their
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
84 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
servile laborers to siphon off California wealth that, by conquest, belonged
to the American people, who had torn it away from “Mexican misrule.” The
invasion of Spanish-speaking capitalists, especially Mexicans, suggested
the incompleteness and fragility of U.S. imperial claims to Mexico’s former
northern territories. Eliminating peonage thus became tied to the goal of defending and solidifying American continental empire.
Gold rush imaginings of peons had their roots in recent American imperial encounters with Latin America, including the Texas Revolution and the
U.S.-Mexico War. During those confl icts, American proponents of empire
rationalized American conquest by asserting that Mexico’s free republican
government was a sham. Instead, the bulk of Mexicans labored as peons
and endured treatment more brutal and degrading than African American
slavery. Before he and his bondpeople suff ered expulsion from Rose’s Bar
in 1849, Thomas Jeff erson Green wrote an account of his experiences in the
Texas Revolution. Part proslavery rant, part anti-Mexican screed, Green’s narrative advised Americans that “the boasted freedom of that country [Mexico]
is a slavery in its horrid realities.” Mexico’s peons were technically free men,
but “their freedom is only in name, for want and wretchedness, general ignorance and slavish humility, are seen there such as I have never, in a solitary
instance, witnessed in the slave portion of the United States.” When New
Yorker W. S. Henry took part in the U.S. invasion of northern Mexico ten years
later, he echoed his slaveholding countryman. Henry declared that the Mexican “‘peone’ system is fully equal to our slavery.” In fact “the slave is a happy
being compared with the peone.” 6
By the time of the gold rush, similar descriptions of peons seeped into
the writings of overland migrants. Thomas B. Eastland, a Tennessean who
traveled through El Paso with his own African American slave, Dow, could
not resist comparing the condition of his bondsman favorably with Mexican
“ peons or slaves,” who were “generation aft er generation held under bondage,
upon obligations of debt which can never be canceled.” Eastland found peonage most unsettling because it disrupted what, to him, were familiar and
natural racial hierarchies. “In our country the black man is the servant of the
white man ,” Eastland observed, but in Mexico “ free and independent Mexicans,
are the slave[s] of Mexicans and bound by fetters they cannot break.” He alleged that even Dow, the enslaved man, scorned “dese Nigger Mexicans” as
his own social and racial inferiors. 7
The notion that Mexican laborers were peons, freemen “only in name” and
nearly identical to black slaves in their legal and racial status, shaped early
encounters between white American and Spanish-speaking miners. Finding
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 85
many claims already occupied by earlier Latin American arrivals who mined
with great success, white migrants demanded the withdrawal of “foreigners”
from the gold country. Fusing strident declarations of American sovereignty
with the anti-Mexican, antipeon rhetoric of the recent war, they accused any
confi guration of Spanish-speaking workers and employers of invading the
mines and installing unfree peon labor there. Californios, Mexicans, and
Chileans were not only trespassers on land that belonged exclusively to U.S.
citizens, they alleged; these foreigners brought illegal slavery to the mines,
which was inimical to both American free labor and U.S. territorial dominance in the West.
The confl ation of peons with slaves and all Spanish speakers with peons
proved devastating for large numbers of Latin American miners. Numerous
and successful, Mexicans, Californios, and Chileans—many of whom had
taught the earliest white arrivals how to work the mines—endured expulsion
campaigns aimed at ejecting both “foreigners” and “peons” from the diggings. Some of this violence, like the ejection of Antonio Coronel, targeted
Californios who, ironically, were now U.S. citizens under the 1848 Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war with Mexico. White arrivals accused
Californio miners who employed their Indian rancho laborers of transferring
Mexican peonage to the mines. Ignoring the complexity and intricacy of rancho labor relations, they expelled both rancheros and Indians, “proprietors
and peons,” from numerous claims along the American River. 8
Mexican and Chilean newcomers suff ered similar ejections on the grounds
that they imported noxious foreign slavery, peonage, into American territory
preserved for free labor. In the summer of 1849, a group of Oregonians mining near the American River chased off a large party of miners from Mexico.
They accused the Mexicans of being “a company of peons,” enslaved debtors
who worked to enrich their wealthy patrón . They alleged that the patrón , an
American who had adopted Mexican citizenship, bailed his hirelings out of
jail and bound them under contracts to work in California for two years at just
under nineteen cents per day. Clearly “large contracts were being made, not
only in Mexico, but in Chili and other South American states for prisoners or
peons,” argued one Oregonian. This labor system “would have excluded free
American labor entirely” and replaced it “with a slavery like that of some of
the South American countries, peonage, and even worse than the domestic
slavery of the Southern States.” The Oregonians resolved that the Mexicans,
along with all foreigners, must leave the diggings. The Mexicans departed. 9
When a large number of Chileans camped in Chili Gulch in the Calaveras
diggings the following winter, a committee of nearby whites declared that
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
86 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
only “ bona fi de citizens of the United States working for themselves” could
remain in the area. They then passed a local mining code that, like the one
that expelled Thomas Jeff erson Green from Rose’s Bar, prohibited masters
from staking claims for their slaves. Since most of the Chilean miners were
“peons” who “stood in relation to the headmen as dependents, in fact as
slaves,” white miners could justifi ably eject them. Whites tried to drive off the
Chileans, the Chileans resisted and killed some Americans, and a monthlong
standoff ensued. The so-called Chilean War fi nally ended when white miners
captured several Chileans. An informal tribunal executed two or three men,
cut off the ears of two or three more, and horsewhipped the rest. 10
Expulsion campaigns against Latin American miners pushed the issue
of peonage into California state politics as early as the 1849 constitutional
convention. There, the vague peons who populated miners’ declarations became more explicitly linked to chattel slavery and were racialized as nonwhite
or black. From the outset, delegates tied the presence of Spanish-speaking
workers to the pressing question of whether California would permit slavery or African Americans (free and enslaved) within its borders. Delegates
who opposed any black presence in the state pointed to the ills that degraded
Chilean and Mexican laborers had already infl icted upon California. One delegate warned that the “fearful collisions” of whites and Latinos in the mines
showed that American miners would never tolerate slavery or the importation
of black workers. If either made headway in the mines, he warned, “you will
see the same feeling, only to a much greater extent, that has already been
manifested against the foreigners of Chili.” Whites would again drive off any
combination of masters and slaves. 11 Henry Tefft , a man who distinguished
himself for his vicious condemnations of free African Americans, placed
Mexican laborers in the same category as black slaves. He declared himself
“opposed to the introduction into this country of negroes, peons of Mexico,
or any class of that kind.” Slaves and peons had the same degrading eff ect on
white labor: they drove down wages and made manual labor dishonorable. 12
The equals or inferiors of African American slaves, peons posed nearly identical dangers to free white labor.
Convention delegates who voted to ban slavery in California failed to bar
black migration or to combat the “peons of Mexico.” Both issues fell instead
to the fi rst state legislature in early 1850. Alongside two bills aimed at restricting African American migration, new legislators took up two measures that
addressed Latin American labor in the mines. These included a resolution to
Congress regarding mineral rights on public lands and a state law to regulate
mining by foreign nationals. The fi rst dealt with the controversial question of
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 87
how the federal government should treat miners who had staked their claims
on public lands. Since most of the diggings were located on the public domain, anyone who extracted gold from them, even U.S. citizens, technically
trespassed on federal lands. State legislators worried that any mass ejection
of miners from the public domain would cripple California’s economy. They
hoped to convince Congress to adopt a liberal policy that would keep federal
mineral lands open to individual exploitation with few restrictions or fees. A
central question at stake was whether Congress should leave the mines open
to all comers or whether it should reserve them for U.S. citizens alone. 13 The
second measure, a proposed state law called An Act for the Better Regulation
of the Mines and the Government of Foreign Miners (popularly known as the
foreign miners’ tax), asserted California’s power to regulate foreign miners
until Congress took action. Senator Thomas Jeff erson Green, the man who
had both railed against the peon slaves of Mexico and tried to install his own
African American bondpeople in the diggings, was behind the law. Green
proposed levying a sixteen-dollar monthly license fee on all foreign-born
miners. Foreigners who refused to pay the fee would face eviction, jail time,
and heavy fi nes. All revenue from the tax would go into the state treasury. 14
Latino miners stood at the center of the debate over public lands policy
and the foreign miners’ tax. Whites who wanted to explain why the United
States, a nation of immigrants, should suddenly ban the foreign-born from
federal mineral lands latched onto the issue of peonage. They emphasized
that the majority of foreigners in the mines were Latin American peons who,
though technically free wage workers, were locked into labor relationships
that diff ered little from slavery. Latin American capitalists subjected their
peons to conditions intolerable to free white workers. Peons, submissive and
subservient, bargained away their freedom and became the willing thralls of
the capitalists who employed them. Peonage, in short, illustrated the perils
of the wage bargain by turning workingmen into literal wage slaves. Allowing
Latin American capitalists and their hired men to work California’s mineral
lands freely would, in the minds of their critics, be nearly equivalent to opening the state to chattel bondage.
Those who opposed Latin Americans in the mines contended that peons
lacked a fundamental marker of freedom: a cash wage. Peons were hired men,
but the wealthy capitalists who employed them rewarded them only with nonmonetary compensation such as food, goods, and clothing. The cash wage
was hardly a hallmark of liberty in antebellum America, a place where most
still associated wage labor with dependency and submission. Still, critics of
peonage insisted that the absence of cash exchange in the capitalist-peon
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
88 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
relationship indicated that Latin American laborers diff ered markedly from
their white American counterparts. Complaining about the large numbers of
foreign-born people working the mines, U.S. consul Thomas O. Larkin reported that “very many of our emigrants are Mexicans and South Americans—
laborers ( peons ,) of the most abject class.” The peons’ employers, “men of
ease and urbanity” from Chile, Mexico, and Peru, commanded their labor by
giving them nothing more than a blanket, cigarettes, and steady access to a
gaming table. 15 John Hovey, a white miner who helped expel Chileans during
the Chilean War, pushed farther than Larkin and equated peons’ lack of a
cash wage with actual enslavement. Hovey asserted that most of the Chilean
laborers were “ peons or slaves” and that “these slaves obtain little else from
their masters than their food and clothing.” Assuming that these Chilean
“slaves” had no cash to their names, Hovey and his fellow miners targeted
their “masters” instead. They fi ned the men’s employers one ounce of gold
for every “slave” in their employ while letting the peons go free. 16
For men like Larkin and Hovey, the sure proof of peons’ descent into
slavery was that despite being paid only in the bare necessities of life, they
willingly toiled away for their masters. The peons whom Thomas Larkin described working for little more than a cigarette to smoke and a blanket to
sleep in did so, according to his account, contentedly. Although naturally
indolent, they were “mild and inoff ensive” and “guided with ease” by their
masters. The editor of the Placer Times asserted that Chileans were more successful as miners because “a life of servitude together with exposure to a hot
climate” made them willing to bear conditions that most white men would
not stand. A later correspondent to the Times concurred. He described Chilean gold diggers as “a half naked and servile class, who labored under the eye
of masters.” They endured hard labor, wading knee-deep in water and carrying baskets of earth on their heads, even in the height of the rainy season. Few
white Americans would consent to working under such conditions. 17 George
Tingley, part of an assembly committee charged with making recommendations to Congress on federal lands, repeated these kinds of complaints when
he tried to explain why foreigners, especially Latinos, should be permanently
excluded from California’s mineral lands. Keeping the mines open to people
of all nations would only “lure hither the foreign capitalist” together with
his “degraded and debased hirelings.” Worst among these were the “Mexican
peon, Chilian slave, or Sandwich Island serf,” who possessed “habits of life
low and degraded; [and] an intellect but one degree above the beast of the
fi eld.” They were capable of little more than hard toil in the mines. Importing these “hordes” of workers, the foreign capitalist would reduce American
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 89
miners’ earnings and quickly spirit away to foreign lands the “golden treasures” he had wrested from U.S. soil. 18
Tingley’s warning about the dangers of allowing servile labor in the mines
struck on another central component of the antipeon critique: The enslavement of Latin American workers would ultimately dispossess and degrade
white American miners who had thus far maintained a precarious hold on
their own economic independence. Like southern slaveholders, foreign capitalists who employed peons promoted monopoly in the mines. With armies
of workers at their command, they could occupy large tracts of land and seize
an excessive amount of California’s gold for themselves. Such monopoly violated economic democracy in the mines. The independent free white miner,
working a small claim with his own labor, simply could not compete with
“degraded and debased hirelings” who fanned out across the mines at the
behest of their masters. They would be dispossessed or forced to accept little compensation for their labors, either as independent miners or as wage
workers. Slaves to capital, peons might drive free white laborers into a similar
form of bondage.
The linkage between Latin American peonage and monopoly stood at the
heart of the argument to exclude foreign-born miners from federal mineral
lands. One assembly committee urged Congress to avoid any land policy that
favored large proprietors. The consolidation of mining lands into the hands
of a few wealthy men always degraded free white labor. “Monopolists fi rst
render it unprofi table for the laborer to work for himself and on his own account,” the committee warned, and then they recruited propertyless people,
“cheap labor without character,” to work for wages. Only by adopting a land
policy that left independent proprietors “ unawed and untrammeled by monopolists” could Congress ensure that a “moral, intelligent, and industrious class”
developed the mines. Leaving the public domain open to Latin Americans
precluded this economic democracy. Wealthy foreigners imported “‘ peons ’ or
‘ serfs ’—a species of slaves” and thereby “accumulated wealth faster than the
American citizen.” California already denied southern masters the privilege
of bringing in their bondpeople to compete with white miners. The committee wondered why the federal government forced California to “admit a South
American with his slaves, where we will not admit one of our own citizens
with his.” Protecting California’s free-state status, and the future of free labor
itself, required congressional legislation expelling foreign monopolists and
preserving small white claimholders’ access to public mineral lands. 19
The intertwined threats of peonage and monopoly also fueled the drive
for the state foreign miners’ tax. Thomas Jeff erson Green, himself ejected
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
90 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
from the mines for using slave labor just months before, promised that his
proposed tax would diminish the power of “foreign employers” and “foreign
proprietors” who worked their countrymen in the mines. Thus far, these
men, with their swarms of laborers from “the Mexican and South American
States, New South Wales, and the Southern Islands,” extracted California
gold “to the injury of the American people, who are rightful owners of this
property.” A tax on the foreign-born could reduce foreign monopoly or undercut its competitive advantages. Foreign capitalists, forced to pay heft y license fees for each man they employed, could ill aff ord to import dozens of
servile workers. “Pass this bill,” Green told his colleagues, “and the foreign
proprietor of Chilian, Peon, Chinean, Canacker [kanaka] or convict gold digger, or the proprietor of gold diggers from any other nations, will pay some
little tribute.” This “little tribute” redirected the earnings of the wealthiest
foreign monopolists into the state’s coff ers and expelled those who could not
aff ord to pay the tax for their hirelings. 20
Ever interested in developing a pliable labor force for the mines, Green
also hoped that taxing foreign miners would open new opportunities for enterprising Americans. U.S. citizens could use the tax to bind foreign “operatives” by advancing them money to buy their licenses and then holding them
to labor until they had paid off the loans. The foreign miners’ tax, in short,
extended to American entrepreneurs the “means of controlling this foreign
labor upon equal terms with the foreign proprietor.” To assuage any fear that
his proposal contemplated a new form of peonage, one operated by American
rather than foreign capitalists, Green concluded with a wistful appeal to free
labor. Once the foreign operative completed his term of temporary bondage
under his American employer, he could enter the ranks of independent proprietors and “go to work upon his own account.” 21
When Green complained that foreign proprietors and their hirelings denied Americans wealth due to them as the “rightful owners” of California, he
highlighted a fi nal concern about peonage: The practice might deprive the
United States of the fruits of empire and even of empire itself. Employing
an alien labor system antithetical to American free labor, Latin Americans
took gold that was now, by conquest, the birthright of American citizens.
Whites like Green argued that the U.S. seizure of the Mexican North meant
very little if Mexicans and other Spanish-speaking people appropriated California’s most precious resource to the exclusion of American citizens. The
white Mokelumne miners who prided themselves on tearing California away
from “Mexican misrule” complained that the unchecked migration of Latin
American masters and their degraded serfs unraveled this new political
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 91
order. Americans “who have conquered and own the soil” faced expulsion
and dispossession at the hands of the people they had just subdued. A member of the California legislature likewise worried that the tremendous “outlay
of money and life” in conquering California would be in vain if “swarms of
foreigners” carried away Americans’ “hard-earned and honorably purchased
wealth.” 22 Ramón Gil Navarro, the Chilean patrón who took his contract workers to the mines in 1849, summed up this postconquest hostility to Spanishspeaking miners. White Americans considered themselves the “rightful owners of mines bought from Mexico with Yankee blood” and would yield no
part of them to foreign workers. 23 The struggle against Latin American peonage, then, was also a struggle to make the American conquest of California
meaningful.
Antipeon arguments that cast Mexicans and South Americans as invaders
eager to carry off the wealth of “American soil” also spoke to concerns about
the fragility of American empire on the Pacifi c Coast. Having just assembled
a transcontinental empire out of Mexico’s former northern provinces, white
Americans worried that the infl ux of Mexicans and other Spanish speakers
might actually turn the tide on U.S. conquest. During 1849, rumors spread
that thousands of northern-bound Mexicans were not just looking to take
California gold but to take back California itself. One such report warned of
Mexicans in “whole battalions, armed to the teeth,” marching toward California. These legions, “gotten up by the great capitalists and friends of Santa
Ana,” were “one solid mass whose cry is ‘California’s recovery or death!’” 24 A
military invasion led by Mexico’s “great capitalists” never materialized, but
anxious whites continued to associate the northward movement of moneyed Latin Americans and their bands of “peon” laborers with the unraveling of American empire. George Tingley, the assemblyman who complained
about the intrusion of the “Mexican peon” and “Chilian slave,” denounced
the “suicidal policy” of open mining on the public lands because it allowed
foreigners to overwhelm Americans on the Pacifi c Coast. Filled with the
“subjects of Monarchies and Foreign Governments,” California could easily
fall to any alien power, including, presumably, the Republic of Mexico to the
south. 25
California’s plea for congressional remedies to Latin American immigration catapulted peonage to the federal stage. In March 1850, California’s assembly approved resolutions asking Congress to keep federal mineral lands
free and accessible to all U.S. citizens but to prohibit all foreign-born people,
even those who declared their intent to naturalize, from mining on them. 26
Accordingly, California’s newly elected U.S. senators and representatives,
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
92 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
admitted to Congress just weeks before the end of the 1850 session, immediately pushed for a new law to regulate mining on federal lands. California
senator John C. Frémont, renowned free-soiler and explorer, recommended
a temporary plan for mineral land leasing in which all miners paid a monthly
one-dollar permit fee to work a thirty-by-thirty-foot claim. Frémont emphasized that both the fees and the claim sizes should remain small to “give an
opportunity to all people to get possession of some place to work upon.” He
hoped to discourage monopoly by preventing “moneyed capital” from “driving out or overpowering the population who have no capital but their courage and industry.” Through this policy, the federal government could safeguard the rights of the small proprietor against the depredations of capitalist
speculators. 27
Like California lawmakers before them, Frémont and his fellow California senator, slaveholder William M. Gwin, also insisted that excluding foreign miners helped stave off mineral monopolies. Frémont’s Gold Bill, as his
leasing plan came to be known, allowed none but U.S. citizens to purchase
permits. When New York senator William Seward denounced this provision
for making invidious “distinctions among races and castes,” Gwin countered
by calling up the specter of the Latin American peon. He warned his colleagues that any alteration to the bill would saddle the new state with “slavery
of the worst description—peonage.” He predicted that “Mexicans with their
peons will come there and dig gold and go back to their own country with the
spoils.” These comments alarmed at least one slave state senator, William
Dawson of Georgia, who connected a peon invasion to losing the spoils of the
recent war with Mexico. “Mexicans, from whom we took this property,” could
easily cross into California and, “controlled by some intelligent leader, who
will direct the object of their labor,” make off with Americans’ hard-earned
treasure. 28
These antipeon arguments seemed compelling. The Senate passed Frémont’s Gold Bill with a compromise measure that closed out Latin Americans
and other nonwhites. Only European immigrants who declared their intent
to naturalize could mine on public lands alongside U.S. citizens; all others
would have to leave. 29 In the end, though, the bill never became federal law.
The House of Representatives did not have time to take it up before the session expired. Congress passed no comprehensive legislation governing mining on public mineral lands during the gold rush and declined to do so until
the 1860s and 1870s. 30 From a federal standpoint, the mines remained open
to citizens and noncitizens alike. The task of excluding foreign miners fell
back to California.
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 93
Congress’s failure to regulate federal mining lands left the state law—
Thomas Jeff erson Green’s foreign miners’ tax—the prevailing remedy for
Latin American immigration and peonage. Initially aimed at siphoning foreign capitalists’ gold into the state treasury and making foreign labor available to American capitalists, the tax changed signifi cantly during its journey
through the legislature. The assembly, with the senate concurring, passed
the bill and increased Green’s onerous sixteen-dollar monthly tax to a prohibitively high twenty-dollar monthly tax. With this amendment, the tax became, more and more, a measure to remove Spanish-speaking people from
the mines rather than one to exploit them for revenue or labor. 31
Printed and distributed only in English and Spanish and enforced primarily against Spanish-speaking miners, the foreign miners’ tax act amounted
to expulsion. Faced with tax collectors demanding license fees that might
amount to more than they earned in a month, Mexicans and Chileans fl ed the
mines. 32 Others stood and fought the tax, just as they had resisted informal
expulsions during the previous year. In May 1850, right aft er the tax became
law, Mexicans, Chileans, and Peruvians living near the town of Sonora joined
forces with French, German, and English miners to protest it. Determined
to “guaranty security for us all, and restrain the rapacity of that horde who
call themselves citizens of the United States,” 4,000 foreign-born miners descended on Sonora to confront the new tax collector. Aft er the sheriff drove
them out of town, the disaff ected miners camped in a nearby valley and allegedly vowed “not simply to resist the law, but to attack those who attempted to
enforce it.” The tax collector then assembled a makeshift posse of hundreds
of Americans, many of them veterans of the recent war with Mexico. Donning
their tattered uniforms and raising their old regimental colors, the volunteers
prepared once again to conquer Mexican adversaries. They “marched out and
drove this congregated mass of foreigners from camp to camp,” persuading
some to pay the license tax and forcing the remainder to leave. 33 In the wake
of similar confl icts, several thousand Mexicans and Chileans abandoned the
Southern Mines. Sonora, site of the most violent clashes, lost four-fi ft hs of
its total population. To top it off , state tax collectors raised only a fraction of
the money that Green had projected. 34
The exodus of Spanish speakers probably satisfi ed white miners who had
long contended that expulsion was the only way to combat peon slavery and
capitalist monopoly. The fl ight of Latin Americans was much less encouraging to American merchants whose commercial interests hinged on trade
with foreign-born miners. In Stockton, the supply center for the Southern
Mines, one such merchant complained that “business in many places, is at
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
94 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
a complete standstill.” He warned that hard times in the mining country
threatened to spread to all of California’s major cities as boomtown retailers closed up shop or curtailed their orders for supplies. 35 A group of anxious white merchants from the town of Sonora eventually pooled resources
to test the legality of the tax before the California Supreme Court. They
said that the state had no constitutional power to tax the use of federal
mineral lands and that the tax’s imposition on Mexicans violated the Treaty
of Guadalupe Hidalgo’s extension of equal citizenship rights to people of
Mexican descent. The court adopted a distinctly states’ rights stance and
ruled against them. California, they declared, possessed the authority to
tax federal lands and regulate the activities of foreigners within its own
borders. 36
The law stood, but not for long. To quell resistance and increase revenue,
Governor Peter Burnett lowered the tax to twenty dollars for a four-month
license. Finally, extensive lobbying by merchants in the Southern Mines
convinced legislators to repeal the tax altogether in March 1851. 37 By then,
the damage to commerce in the mines was irreversible. Some Mexicans and
Chileans slowly made their way back to the diggings, but most left for their
home countries. Others moved to California’s cities, fl ed to isolated diggings,
or founded their own camps distant from white Americans. 38 Surveying the
devastating results of the tax, the Alta California proclaimed that the state only
narrowly avoided ruination by a law that was “decidedly unconstitutional, unjust, impolitic, opposed to every principle of our free institutions, behind the
age, illiberal and foolish.” 39
The Alta ’s declaration that the expulsion of Latinos from the mines, rather
than their presence in the diggings, violated the nation’s free institutions indicated changes under way in California. As Mexicans and Chileans left and
took much of the lucrative gold rush trade with them, complaints about invading peon slaves subsided. Anti-Mexican violence persisted in the mines,
but imagined Latin American peons would not emerge as a social, economic,
or political problem again until large numbers of Mexican laborers arrived in
California around the turn of the twentieth century. 40 Still, the questions that
peonage raised about the relationship between capital and labor, between
wage work and slavery, between citizens and aliens, and between empire and
exclusion did not disappear with the repeal of the foreign miners’ tax. Instead, white Californians transferred the class, racial, and national imaginings associated with peons to a new group of foreign-born laborers. Within
just a year, imagined Chinese coolies took the place of peons and started to
represent virtually the same threats and fears. The campaign for Chinese
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 95
exclusion that emerged in California by 1852 had deep roots in the expulsion
of Latinos that preceded it.
Asiatic Serfs and Contract Slaves: Inventing Coolieism
In April 1852, three years aft er the Mokelumne meeting to eject Latin American “slaves and hired serfs,” whites in the Southern Mines gathered again to
protest the arrival of a new, but strikingly familiar, labor system. In the largest
mass meeting in Tuolumne County’s early history, hundreds of people met in
the town of Columbia to condemn “various measures now before the Legislature to establish land monopoly, peonage, and to degrade labor.” Most distressing were two pending state bills permitting U.S. citizens to bind workers
in foreign lands and bring them to California under long-term labor contracts. These measures, the crowd decided, would hasten the “introduction
of the degraded coolies of China and the tattooed inhabitants of the South
Sea Islands, as peons , to compete with the free laborers of this State.” This
new class of hirelings threatened to “bring down the price of labor and introduce a system of Peonage ,” one that “cannot fail of building up the capitalist
and the extensive landholder at the expense of the honest, hard-working and
industrious portions of the community.” The revival of peonage was especially appalling because this time scheming American capitalists, rather than
foreign proprietors, lay behind it. The state’s legislators and moneyed men
cooperated in a “conspiracy . . . to degrade and oppress labor, and establish
among us extensive monopolies, [to] build up an aristocracy of money and a
system of Feudalism .” The meeting participants vowed “as Whigs and Democrats” to work within their respective parties to defeat the legislation and any
politician who supported it. 41
The Columbia miners’ protest exposed the tangled relationship between
racial categories and labor systems in California. In just a few sentences, the
miners invoked labor designations usually associated with Latinos— peons
and peonage —and then deft ly re-racialized and redeployed them to condemn
the arrival of Asian workers in the mines. In the process, they invented a new
set of unfree, racialized laborers—Chinese coolies—who jeopardized the interests of free white workingmen in ways nearly identical to those of Spanishspeaking peons. Coolies, like peons before them, voluntarily bargained away
the fruits of their labor, their freedom, and their autonomy to become the
thralls of the wealthy capitalists who employed them. As the Columbia miners were quick to point out, coolies and peons alike threatened to degrade
free laborers. Cheap and easily exploited, they depressed the wages of white
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
96 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
workers and promoted “extensive monopolies” that shut out independent
proprietors. Although the Columbia miners expressed little interest in the
potential citizenship status of Chinese, their contemporaries proclaimed that
coolies, like peons, exuded servility and dependence that made them akin to
black slaves. Both groups, like the enslaved people they resembled, were unfi t
for participation in a free republic.
And yet the contests over imagined peons and imagined coolies diverged
in fundamental ways. The miners who protested in Columbia during the
spring of 1852 lived in a very diff erent world from those who united along the
Mokelumne River in the summer of 1849. The invasion of wealthy capitalists
into the diggings, oft en only a vague menace in the early gold rush years,
seemed much closer on the horizon in 1852. The slow decline of placer mining and the subsequent shift to large-scale, capital-intensive underground
mining made corporate monopolies and widespread wage labor real possibilities in the mines. In this changing economic context, rapacious American
capitalists oft en loomed much larger than shadowy “foreign proprietors” in
the debates over coolie labor. The legal methods by which both American
and foreign capitalists allegedly exploited coolies also shaped the debate over
their labor in distinctive ways. Coolies could not escape their employers because they were bound under long-term wage contracts or contracts to pay
debts. Whites who opposed coolieism, then, oft en confronted the unsettling
possibility that the right of contract, one of the vaunted privileges of the free
laborer, could be a badge of slavery rather than a hallmark of liberty. Working
for wages under contracts for American capitalists, imagined coolies more
closely refl ected the futures that white laborers feared awaited themselves.
As the Columbia meeting’s reference to Whigs and Democrats suggests,
the debate over coolies also occurred in a much diff erent political context.
Political alliances and identities, vague and unformed in 1849 and 1850, coalesced into familiar party structures by 1852. Where Californians stood on
coolie labor oft en correlated with whether they considered themselves Democrats or Whigs, free-soilers or Chivalry. These political identities were themselves linked to pressing questions of American expansion and empire in the
Pacifi c. Where some politicians saw the exchange of people and labor with
Asia as an opening to expand U.S. imperial interests into the Pacifi c, others
warned that a poverty-stricken and overpopulated China would colonize its
teeming millions of coolie laborers in California. Coolies represented both
the opportunities and the perils of transpacifi c empire.
That white Californians would eventually settle on the term “coolie,”
rather than “peon,” to describe Chinese contract laborers is not surprising.
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 97
Starting in the 1830s, coolies became central fi gures in emerging conversations about labor and race in the postemancipation Atlantic World. The word
“coolie,” which may be of Urdu-Hindustani, Tamil, or Chinese origin, initially
meant “hireling” or “common laborer” and originally designated South Asian
and East Asian workers who labored abroad in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries. The term took on new meanings with the advent of abolition and
emancipation in the Atlantic World. Aft er the end of slavery in the British
Caribbean, English authorities hoped that Asian laborers, especially Chinese,
would supplement plantation workforces and ease the transition to a freelabor economy. In this context, “coolies” came to denote contracted or indentured Asian workers whom British offi cials systematically recruited to take
up the occupations of former slaves. The abuses that Asian migrants suff ered
in their overseas journeys—including kidnapping, fraud, and cruelty at the
hands of ship captains, labor agents, and employers—fueled a debate over
the freeness of the “coolie trade” or “coolieism.” 42
As Moon-Ho Jung has convincingly argued, however, coolies never existed, in California or elsewhere in the world, as a real group of people or as
a real legal category of workers. Instead, “coolies were a conglomeration of
racial imaginings that emerged worldwide in the era of slave emancipation,
a product of the imaginers rather than the imagined.” Variously envisioned
as free or enslaved, white or colored, potential citizens or perpetual aliens,
coolies came “to embody the hopes, fears, and contradictions” surrounding
slave emancipation and the rise of industrial wage labor. In the United States,
some abolitionists identifi ed coolies as a “conduit to freedom,” a cheap and
pliable labor force of free emigrants that could eventually supplant slaves in
American agriculture. In contrast, southern proslavery ideologues depicted
coolieism in the British West Indies as a brutal and degrading method of enslaving free workers, one that demonstrated the folly and hypocrisy of wage
labor and abolitionism. The development of the “coolie” as an ambiguous,
mutable class and racial construct was well under way before white Californians adopted the term in the 1850s. 43
California’s struggle to identify, defi ne, and outlaw coolieism began in
1852, a year aft er the repeal of the 1850 foreign miners’ tax. It emerged as a
response to three trends: the arrival of an unprecedented number of Chinese
migrants, the shift from small-scale placer mining to industrialized mining,
and the legislature’s consideration of new laws to ease the recruitment of
foreign-born laborers. Before 1852, Chinese immigration drew little attention
or alarm. State port authorities recorded only 3,494 Chinese arrivals between
1848 and 1851. Heartening news from returned gold rush migrants, as well
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
98 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
as political upheaval caused by the start of the Taiping Rebellion in 1850–51,
prompted a much larger migration the following year. In 1852, Chinese arrivals rose to an astounding 20,026 people, nearly six times that of all the previous years combined. 44 Most of these new arrivals made their way to the gold
country, where they mined “worked-out” and abandoned claims. Applying
hard labor and new techniques, Chinese extracted steady incomes from lands
that American miners had supposedly exhausted. 45
In the apt words of historian Susan Lee Johnson, these new Chinese arrivals “burst into a world of work already fraught with contention and inequity.” 46
Chinese miners’ success stood out against a backdrop of economic decline in
the diggings. Early arrivals to the gold rush mined placers, alluvial deposits of
gold in riverbanks and riverbeds that were close to the surface and could be extracted with picks, pans, and shovels. But accessible and abundant placer deposits soon gave out. In the Northern Mines, small-scale placer mining slowly
gave way to industrialized underground (or lode) mining aimed at extracting
gold from quartz veins deep beneath the earth’s surface. Large subterranean
mining operations, funded by wealthy investors and worked by wage laborers,
gradually replaced independent prospectors digging on small above-ground
claims. The Alta California summarized these changes as early as February
1851, lamenting that the placers would “never yield as they had yielded.” The
future of gold extraction lay in organized underground mining—“the man
who lives upon his labor from day to day, must hereaft er be employed by the
man who has in his possession accumulated labor, or money, the representative of labor.” 47 Industrialization was less dramatic in the Southern Mines
where underground gold deposits were scarce and independent miners continued to eke out modest livings on declining placers. There a diff erent kind
of corporate threat, “water monopolies,” which diverted water and sold it at
high prices to prospectors who needed it to wash their gold, provoked class
confl ict. 48 All of these trends seemed to confi rm long-standing anxieties,
persistent since the antipeon movement, that free white miners would soon
become the degraded dependents of capitalist masters.
Amid growing racial and class tensions came news from the legislature that
appeared to link the arrival of Chinese laborers with the intrusion of moneyed
capitalists into the diggings. 49 In early March 1852, members of California’s
Whig and Democratic parties supported new legislation that would make
it easier for Americans to recruit, employ, and bind foreign-born laborers
under long-term contracts. In the senate, George B. Tingley, a man who had
railed against mining monopolies and peon labor in the assembly two years
earlier, now proposed A Bill to Enforce Contracts to Perform Work and Labor.
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 99
A longtime Whig and a representative from the growing agricultural counties of Contra Costa and Santa Clara, Tingley may have changed his tune on
foreign workers to satisfy wealthy landowning constituents who demanded
inexpensive farm labor. Later critics, in fact, denounced Tingley’s legislation
as “one of those schemes which the whigs are now so busy concocting in this
State to give capital an unfair advantage over labor.” 50 Meanwhile, Assemblyman Archibald Peachy of San Francisco set forth a rival measure, A Bill to
Enforce the Observance of Contracts. Born in Virginia, Peachy was a Chivalry
Democrat. He had already responded to demands for cheap and pliant labor
by sponsoring James Gadsden’s 1852 petition to establish a slave colony in
California. When the petition failed to bring results, Peachy may have looked
abroad for alternatives. 51
Both Tingley and Peachy hoped to alleviate the problem of contract breaking that had distressed employers of Chinese since the start of the gold rush.
Their bills sought to make long-term labor contracts between U.S. citizens
and foreigners valid and binding, mainly by requiring state offi cials to enforce them. Tingley’s bill, the harsher of the two, allowed U.S. citizens living
in California to enter into labor contracts with foreign-born workers. Such
contracts, which could last up to ten years in duration, required workers to
render specifi c performance. A legal instrument used to force compliance
with contracts, specifi c performance subjected workers to criminal prosecution if they abandoned their employers. In the case of the Tingley bill,
Chinese workers who broke contracts “without good and justifi able cause”
would suff er jail time or criminal fi nes, in addition to wage forfeiture and
other economic sanctions. Employers had only to pay workers a minimum
wage of fi ft y dollars per year and refrain from infl icting “harsh and cruel
treatment upon them.” Peachy’s alternative bill limited the contract period
to fi ve years instead of ten. Fulfi lling contracts would nonetheless be strictly
“obligatory” on the part of workers. Employers could withhold wages or use
the courts to compel compliance. Recalcitrant workers were to be punished
with jail time, paying damages to their employers, and forced labor on the
public works. Peachy also put racial limits on his bill. In a nod to antipeon and
antiblack agitations of previous years, Peachy’s bill nullifi ed contracts with
“any free negro,” restricted contracts to Chinese and Pacifi c Islanders alone,
and prohibited contracts for mining labor. 52 Despite their diff erences, both
bills had the same goal: creating a class of foreign-born contract laborers who
would earn low wages, endure limited mobility for long periods, and suff er
economic penalties, legal prosecution, and physical compulsion if they failed
to perform their contractual duties.
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
100 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
Legislators gave both contract labor bills a warm reception at fi rst. A senate committee dominated by Democrats almost unanimously recommended
Tingley’s bill for passage. Peachy’s fellow Democrats in the assembly, including, inexplicably, several from the xenophobic Southern Mines, outvoted a
coalition of Whigs and Democrats from the Northern Mines to pass his bill. 53
In a little more than a month, however, opposition to the measures swelled
to a fever pitch in the diggings. Mass meetings like the one in Columbia denounced the legislation as part of a plot to introduce coolie labor, promote
monopoly, and drive free labor from the placers. Makeshift vigilance committees assembled to expel Chinese. One such organization in Columbia
denounced the legislative eff ort to “fasten, without the sanction of law, the
system of peonage on our social organization.” Members proclaimed that
“no Asiatic or South Sea Islander shall be permitted to mine in this district
either for himself or for others.” Similar groups of anti-Chinese vigilantes in
Nevada County and along the American River made good on these threats.
They ejected hundreds of Chinese from lucrative claims, and local authorities
refused to protect the refugees from physical violence or robbery. 54
As the Columbia miners’ declaration against both “Asiatics” and “South
Sea Islanders” suggests, whites in the mining country oft en lumped native Hawaiians, particularly contract laborers, together with transpacifi c
migrants from China. Denunciations of coolies and coolie bills frequently
contained passing references to “Sandwich Island serfs,” who posed nearly
identical challenges to free white labor. Recall that the earliest anticoolie
bill mass meeting in Columbia complained about the importation of both
the “degraded coolies of China” and “the tattooed inhabitants of the South
Sea Islands.” One critic of the coolie bills vilifi ed Americans who employed
“Chinese or Kanaka carpenters, masons, or blacksmiths, brought here in
swarms under contracts, to compete with our own mechanics.” 55 Although
far less numerous and visible in the diggings than Chinese, Hawaiians also
suff ered harassment and expulsion. White miners forcibly removed Hawaiians from claims in Mariposa County and along the Yuba River. By the fall of
1852, miners’ conventions were calling for a $500 head tax on “all Kanakas,
Islanders and Chinamen arriving in the State,” and as late as 1854 mobs in
Nevada County burned down a Hawaiian settlement in the hope of expelling
its occupants. 56
White miners hostile to both Chinese coolies and “Sandwich Island serfs”
soon found new defenders among free-soil and moderate Democrats, many
of them northern-born, who rallied against the “coolie” bills. In the senate,
free-soil Democrats moved to kill both pieces of legislation. The powerful
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 101
David C. Broderick and his ally, Thomas B. Van Buren, struggled to defeat
both measures through parliamentary maneuvering and even convinced
a Chivalry-leaning colleague, Philip A. Roach, to issue a scathing pro-freelabor report against the Tingley bill. Governor John Bigler, a future free-soil
Democrat and Broderick ally, followed up with an executive message that
called for the prohibition of coolies and the restriction of Chinese immigration. Bigler’s proposals won support from Democrats on the Assembly Committee on Mines and Mining Interests and a senate committee on “Asiatic
immigration,” all of whom joined the chorus against the Chinese and coolie
labor. 57
Free-soil Democrats’ anticoolie campaign required depicting all Chinese
labor relationships, even (or especially) contractual ones, as distinctly unfree.
Free-soilers sought to establish that all or most Chinese were bonded coolies
and that coolie labor closely resembled chattel slavery. This could be a diffi –
cult and perplexing task because most acknowledged that coolies voluntarily
contracted their labor and received wages. Reading Chinese men out of the
ranks of free laborers, then, necessitated casting both the wage bargain and
contracts as markers of slavery rather than liberty.
Critics of coolie labor fi rst accomplished this by focusing on the amount
of compensation Chinese earned under their contracts. They acknowledged
that Chinese freely entered into long-term contracts for wage work, but they
argued that because they accepted such pitiful wages—far below what white
men tolerated—they diff ered little from slaves. In his executive message denouncing coolie labor, Governor John Bigler complained that contracted Chinese worked “at merely nominal wages,” making no more than three or four
dollars per month. 58 The Alta California , a newspaper with a moderate freesoil bent, derided the paltry wages aff orded Chinese workers under Tingley’s
plan. Employers had to pay contracted Chinese only fi ft y dollars per year, or
$4.16 per month. This was a pathetic standard in California, where mining
labor still netted, at minimum, six dollars per day. Chinese might accept this
pittance, but it was certainly not enough to sustain life in the mines. Employers at least needed to provide contracted workers “a reasonable standard of
remuneration.” 59 The extremely low, almost negligible, wage bargains that
coolies voluntarily entered into not only made them similar to slaves but also
threatened to be the undoing of free white laborers who demanded reasonable, life-sustaining compensation for their labor. Capitalists who did not
want to pay the high wages that free white labor commanded on the Pacifi c
Coast would quickly switch from American to coolie workers once the state
legalized Chinese contract labor. 60
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
102 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
If incredibly low wages raised doubts about the freeness of coolie labor
contracts, the methods capitalists used to enforce them seemed to confi rm
that they were mere instruments of slavery. Free-soil Democrats assured
their listeners that coolies had to sign over their families to the control of
their employers as a guarantee against contract breaking. Conjuring up images of vulnerable wives and children, their husbands and fathers powerless
to protect them from death or bondage, they connected contract labor with
the horrors of chattel bondage. The assembly’s overwhelmingly Democratic
Committee on Mines and Mining Interests reported that Chinese capitalists
held their coolies “to labor under contracts, which our laws do not recognize, and whose penalties are revolting to our sympathies.” The committee
did not elaborate, but their Democratic colleagues outlined these repulsive
practices in more detail. Governor Bigler asserted that Chinese employers
enforced their contracts by wielding the power of life and death over coolies’
families. Coolies depended on their employers to turn over a portion of their
wages to their families in China. Employers could punish recalcitrant coolies
by threatening their families with starvation. 61 Philip Roach concluded that
the typical coolie contract bound over a worker’s family as collateral to his
employer. Vulnerable “mothers and children are held as hostages for their
fulfi llment,” he reported, and the coolie thus had no choice but to keep laboring faithfully. 62 Coolie contracts were inherently unfree because they allowed employers absolute control over both the labor and the households of
Chinese workers. 63
Tingley and Peachy never contemplated transferring Chinese contract laborers’ wives and children over to the control of American capitalists. Their
critics worried, however, that their legislation still gave American capitalists
too much power over contracted workers’ lives. The length of Chinese workers’ contracts generated great debate. Tingley’s measure allowed employers
to bind laborers for ten years; Peachy’s bill permitted fi ve-year contracts.
The Alta California editors declared that any term above two or three years
was “much too long.” If labor and capital were to remain on equal footing, it
would be unwise “to give the power to capitalists to control labor exclusively
for so long a period.” Wrangling in the senate knocked down Tingley’s contracts from ten to fi ve years, but some still questioned whether Chinese laborers should sign themselves over to American capitalists for such a long time.
Even though he was sympathetic to the proslavery wing of the Democratic
Party, Philip Roach agreed with free-soilers that workers who bargained away
their freedom for years at a time resembled slaves. Tingley’s bill to enforce
coolie contracts was tantamount to “giving to capital, for the term of fi ve
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 103
years, the hand and heart of labor ” and rendered the worker a “ serf or bondsman ”
of his employer. 64
Coolies, then, represented some of the dangers and contradictions of an
emerging wage-labor economy in which capital owned the “hand and heart of
labor.” They voluntarily contracted with their employers, but contracts guaranteed them nothing but near-starvation wages, long-term dependence, and
compulsion. Worst of all, coolies’ bondage sentenced their own dependents,
their wives and children, to starvation and servitude. But coolieism did more
than illustrate the dangers of capital gaining an upper hand over labor. In
turning Chinese men into slaves, making them available to capitalists for
“nominal wages” and long terms, it also spelled the degradation and enslavement of freeborn white American men. Unable to compete with coolie labor
or the capitalists who employed it, free white laborers became little better
than coolies themselves.
Critics of Chinese contract labor juxtaposed the vision of California as a
free-labor utopia with images of white men reduced to the slavelike conditions of their coolie competitors. Sometimes they blamed Chinese capitalists, like Spanish-speaking masters before them, for driving white laborers
into poverty and servility. The senate committee on “Asiatic immigration”
criticized wealthy Chinese who imported coolies and used them to take over
claims that rightfully belonged to the “American freeman, whose father
stood by Washington in the days of the revolution.” 65 More oft en, Democrats
warned that American capitalists would hire coolies to press their own countrymen into poverty and dependence. Philip Roach reminded fellow senators
that labor had always been “perfectly free to fi nd its rewards” in California.
But American capitalists, crying that “labor is too high,” would import “the
surplus and inferior population of Asia” to undercut white labor. They plotted to make workingmen’s “labor inferior, by law, to capital; and give to the
latter a more than feudal right to dispose of their [laborers’] persons and
happiness.” Similarly, the Alta California editors declared that coolies heralded
the end of white labor’s rule on the Pacifi c Coast, a time when “capital was
obliged to lift its hat and bow in obsequious respect to the sweating brow and
brawny arms of the working man.” They urged legislators to kill the coolie
bills and prevent “capital from tyrannizing over and degrading labor.” 66 The
fate of white American labor rested entirely on the policy that the state adopted toward coolies.
Defeating coolieism preserved free labor by ensuring the independence of
white American men who earned their bread with sweating brows and brawny
arms. The death of the coolie trade, according to its critics, was also crucial
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
104 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
to safeguarding the nation’s republican institutions. Like peons before them,
coolies embodied dependency and degradation, which made them unfi t for
citizenship in a free republic. Imported Chinese could not, in the words of
one legislative committee, be accorded the same political status as Europeanborn “freemen seeking liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 67 Coolies’ willingness to accept unequal labor contracts proved their incapacity for political
participation. Philip Roach welcomed the political enfranchisement of free
European immigrants, but contracted Chinese “who would willingly doom
themselves to bondage” were “not deserving of this privilege.” Another committee bluntly asserted that “coolies, who are slaves of some master . . . do not
understand our institutions.” Representatives of “foreign serfdom,” coolies
stood “in direct opposition to all those principles of equality implanted in
the mind of every true born American.” 68 Banning coolies was essential to
preserving a virtuous republic of free white men.
The dangers that coolieism posed to republicanism, might, in fact, undermine the territorial integrity of the American republic itself. Two years earlier,
Spanish-speaking peons threatened to turn back the tide on the American
conquest. This time around, their analogues, Chinese coolies, embodied the
hazards to American empire that accompanied U.S. expansion into the Pacifi c. Prior to 1852, many white Californians, including the moderately freesoil editors of the Alta California , welcomed the arrival of Chinese migrants.
Their presence promised lucrative new avenues of trade between the United
States and the Chinese Empire. Even the senate committee that complained
about “China serfs” emphasized the importance of the China trade, which
was “destined to be the means of enriching us, and giving us a commanding supremacy on the broad Pacifi c.” 69 Yet the expansion of an overseas trade
empire also threatened to bring down American domestic empire. A poor and
overpopulated China, home to over 400 million people, would inevitably look
to California to colonize its subjects. Philip Roach warned that Asia’s proximity
to the Pacifi c Coast of the United States guaranteed that, left unchecked, Chinese laborers would soon “overrun our land.” Half a million Chinese, most of
them paupers and criminals exported by the Chinese government, would soon
take over the state. “Myriads of tawny serfs are embarking for our shores . . .
who will cover our land like the locusts of Egypt,” a senate committee agreed.
“They will meet our brothers and relatives in the rich mining regions” and
claim it “to the exclusion of our own people.” 70 California’s response to coolies might determine the fate of the American empire on the Pacifi c.
Free-soil Democrats’ campaign to eliminate coolies as threats to American labor, institutions, and empire met with little resistance. Only George
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 105
Tingley, the Whig senator behind one of the “coolie bills,” defended Chinese
contract labor to the bitter end. He did so, ironically, by adopting the xenophobic and antimonopoly arguments of his opponents. Tingley claimed
that his bill eliminated the most dangerous form of coolieism: that in which
“foreigners come under contract of foreigners, to rob our placers.” Chinese
contract laborers were already digging up California gold for their wealthier
countrymen. The legislature needed to decide whether it would give Americans the exclusive right to recruit and control this labor, or whether it would
continue to tolerate “foreign capitalists, who now unconditionally reap the
benefi ts arising out of it.” Allowing Americans to employ contract laborers,
while invalidating contracts between foreign masters and serfs, actually promoted the interests of independent white miners by eliminating foreign competition for gold. Mixing antipeon and anticoolie arguments, he predicted
that the death of his bill would ensure the continued fl ow of California gold
into the “coff ers of the rich mandarin or South American grandee,” to the
detriment of all white citizens. 71
Tingley’s impassioned plea to favor American capitalists over foreign capitalists won few converts when his opponents insisted that both endangered
free white labor. Senator David C. Broderick and his followers orchestrated
the defeat of both the Tingley and the Peachy bills by bringing them up for a
vote at the same time. Right before the senate took them up, Democrat Paul
Hubbs, a representative of miners in Tuolumne County, introduced An Act to
Prevent “Coolie” Labor in the Mines, and to Prevent Involuntary Servitude.
An antidote to the evils of both coolie bills, Hubbs’s bill denounced the arrival of “hordes of Asiatic servants” bound under contracts to work in the
mines. It singled out “capitalists of foreign countries” for disapprobation, but
it also barred American citizens from engaging foreign laborers on contracts.
Validating the Chinese expulsion campaigns already rife in the diggings, it
allowed American citizens to seize any mining claim worked by foreign contract laborers. A few hours aft er Hubbs read his proposal, 90 percent of the
state’s senators voted to postpone consideration of the coolie bills indefi –
nitely. Although Democrats would later take credit for protecting the state
from coolie labor, the uproar in the mines guaranteed that every Whig except
Tingley voted against it as well. 72 The legislature seemed poised not just to
defeat Chinese contract labor bills but to outlaw both contract labor and Chinese labor altogether.
The successful campaign against the coolie bills did not, ultimately, translate into a ban on contract labor or Chinese immigrants. Paul Hubbs’s bill
never came up for a vote, and another last-minute senate measure to protect
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
106 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
the mines from “excessive immigration from Asia” made little headway. Both
acts proposed giving the state great power to restrict foreign immigration.
Since federal courts were starting to interpret immigration law as the exclusive domain of Congress under the U.S. Constitution, legislators probably
tried to steer clear of any measure that might be ruled unconstitutional. Anticoolie forces settled instead on the same solution that opponents of peonage
had adopted two years earlier. By mid-April, both senators and assemblymen
called for the revival of the foreign miners’ tax that had expelled Spanishspeaking people from the mines in 1850 and 1851. To avoid the bloodshed and
mass fl ight that followed the passage of the 1850 tax, assemblymen recommended a less onerous license fee of three dollars per month. All foreignborn miners would have to pay the tax, but legislators clearly intended it to
fall most heavily on Chinese migrants. Moreover, once molded into its fi nal
form, the new foreign miners’ tax also became a subtle anticoolie measure.
Anyone who hired foreign-born workers, including U.S. citizens, had to pay
their employees’ taxes and could face jail time or fi nes if they did not comply. 73 Employers who brought “hordes” of Chinese to the mines would pay
dearly for the privilege of exploiting their labor.
Supporters of the new foreign miners’ tax who hoped that it would press
alleged Chinese coolies out of the diggings were probably disappointed. Despite claims that Chinese laborers earned but three or four dollars per month,
hardly enough to aff ord the three-dollar monthly license fee, most Chinese
stayed in the mines and paid the tax. Chinese immigration did decline in
1853, probably because Chinese merchants wrote home to publicize the new
tax and inhospitable conditions in the gold country. Nonetheless, Chinese
arrivals rebounded by 1854, and the Chinese presence in the mines became a
major boon to the state. 74 Until overturned in 1871 during Reconstruction, the
foreign miners’ tax injected $58 million into the state and county economies.
During these eighteen years, California derived between one-quarter and
one-half of its annual revenue from the tax. Tuolumne County, site of some of
the greatest anti-Chinese agitation, got more of its revenue from the foreign
miners’ tax than any other source. By 1855, the California senate warned that
restricting Chinese immigration might bankrupt the state. 75
This may explain why, with each new wave of anti-Chinese protest in the
mining counties, the legislature opted merely to tax Chinese more heavily
rather than to ban them altogether. In 1855, the legislature raised the license
fee to six dollars per month (with an automatic increase of two dollars per
month each succeeding year) and placed a fi ft y-dollar head tax on all incoming Chinese migrants. Chinese residents and their white representatives
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves / 107
ensured that this taxation rarely amounted to expulsion or prohibition. They
successfully lobbied to have the foreign miners’ tax reduced back down to
four dollars per month in 1856, and they launched two test cases before the
state courts that established the unconstitutionality of head taxes. 76 Chinese
thus persisted in the gold country across the 1850s, and by the Civil War many
had moved fi rmly into agriculture, railroad work, and industrial production
as well. By then, a revived anticoolie movement, one that explicitly linked
the project of Chinese exclusion to the national abolition of slavery, again
gripped the state.
In the aft ermath of the coolie bill debate, California Chinese wrote letters
of protest to Governor John Bigler, author of the most virulent anti-Chinese
reports of the 1852 legislative session. Determined to prove that Chinese immigration posed no dangers to American labor or institutions, two San Francisco merchants, Hab Wa and Tong Achick, refuted Bigler’s accusations that
most Chinese came to California as coolies. Their letters, probably composed
with aid from their white lawyers and spokesmen, argued that Chinese workingmen resembled the free white laborers vaunted by the anticoolie movement far more than they did slaves. None of the Chinese in California were
“‘coolies,’ if by that word you mean bound men or contract slaves,” they asserted. Instead, the average Chinese man came to California “because of his
desire for independence.” He paid his way to the state by taking out loans
given to him “by the charity of his countrymen, which they bestow on him
safely, because he is industrious and honestly repays them.” Once in the
mines, Chinese men behaved precisely like their free white American counterparts. They worked with “patience, industry, temperance and economy”
and saved their money so they could return home and “buy rice fi elds, build
houses and devote themselves to the society of their own households.” Far
from sacrifi cing their wives and children to their creditors, they felt “the
deepest anxiety to provide for their descendents” and strived to “live orderly,
work hard, and take care of themselves, that they may have the means of providing for their homes and living amidst their families.” 77 Chinese migrants
were not dependent, degraded slaves, but men who embodied the virtues of
industry, upward mobility, independence, and mastery over household dependents that lay at the very heart of free-labor ideology. In the merchants’
summation, “The Chinamen in this country are not ‘serfs’ or slaves of any
description, but are working for themselves.” 78
The Chinese merchants’ eff orts to recast the coolie debate, to divorce Chinese workers from slavery and move them fi rmly into the ranks of free workers, bore little fruit. Despite assurances that Chinese men were independent
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
108 / Hired Serfs and Contract Slaves
proprietors who labored industriously to support their families in comfort,
anti-Chinese Californians would continue to link Chinese with coolieism
and coolieism with vicious and degrading forms of bondage. Just days aft er
the merchants sent their fi rst letter to the governor, the Alta California ’s editors commended the people of California for defeating the coolie bills. They
had staved off the horrors of the coolie trade and narrowly avoided having
“the evil and burden of slavery strapped to the shoulders of our already affl icted state.” 79 This was not the fi rst time that white Californians congratulated themselves on warding off slavery. Just two years before, many of those
who attacked coolieism took pride in expelling another breed of slaves, Latin
American peons. Free men who bargained away their liberty and the rewards
and dignity of their labor to their hirers, peons and coolies came to stand as
powerful illustrations of the degradation of labor under the wage system. The
consenting slaves of their employers, they hastened capitalists’ monopoly of
land and resources that would eventually pull independent white laborers
down to their own servile condition. Peonage and coolieism, dual evils, loosened the nation’s grip on its Pacifi c Coast empire and threatened to erode the
foundations of free-labor republicanism by turning white American freemen
into slaves themselves.
Smith, Stacey L.. Freedom’s Frontier : California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and
Reconstruction, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucdavis/detail.actioCreated from ucdavis on 2021-01-29 17:47:18. Copyright © 2013. University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

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