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Burlingame Treaty Revision (1880)

In 1867, newly elected Congressman James A. Johnson of California introduced a House resolution that charged the Judiciary Committee to investigate whether federal legislation was necessary to curb the immigration of "Chinese and other inferior races" to the United States. Although no legislation resulted from the Johnson resolution, several other Congressional measures were offered during the 1870s to limit or prohibit Chinese immigration. Those bills were unable to pass in either the House or Senate, but congressmen from western states continued to pressure their colleagues for such legislation. At the same time, there was no effective countervailing pressure blocking the anti-Chinese movement.

Finally, in 1879, Congress passed the "Fifteen Passenger Bill," which limited to fifteen the number of Chinese passengers on board any ship landing in an American port. President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the bill as a violation of the separation of powers doctrine. He argued that by breaching the free immigration clause of the Burlingame Treaty, the bill was effectively a legislative nullification of a treaty with a friendly nation. President Hayes did not object to the goal of limiting Chinese immigration, only the means that Congress had chosen. In the process, he raised the possibility of revising the Burlingame Treaty. In his annual report to Congress in December 1879, the president revealed that the Chinese government was willing to negotiate a modification of the Burlingame Treaty.
In early 1880, Hayes appointed James Angell, former president of the University of Michigan, as chief negotiator for revising the treaty. In November, the new treaty was signed which allowed the American government to suspend, but not prohibit, the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States. The document reaffirmed the panoply of "rights, privileges, immunities, and exemptions" enjoyed by the subjects of a most favored nation for Chinese laborers currently residing in the United States. The new treaty furthermore obliged the American government to formulate measures to ensure the protection of those rights and privileges.
Sources consulted:

Charles J. McClain, In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)


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