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Denis Kearney and the California Anti-Chinese Campaign

Denis Kearney was one of most important leaders of the anti-Chinese campaign in California. Kearney was born in Ireland in 1847 and spent his youth at sea. He arrived in San Francisco in 1868, entered the draying business in 1872, married and started a family. In 1877, he became active in the labor movement, and was known for his impassioned, vitriolic speeches. He attracted large crowds and his orations were reprinted in the daily papers. Kearney and others in the Workingmen’s associations blamed the owners of large businesses and factories ("Capitalists") and Chinese immigrants for keeping jobs scarce and wages low. Kearney called for lynching the rich bosses and burning their property, and he began and ended every speech with the slogan "The Chinese Must Go!"
In the summer of 1877, a workingman’s association was established in San Francisco, with Kearney elected secretary. It formed in response to high unemployment and in sympathy with the nation-wide railroad strike of that year. The meetings took place next to City Hall, in a spacious vacant area called the "Sand Lot." At the first meeting, members passed resolutions supporting the striking railroad workers, calling for an end to government subsidies of railroad companies and to military intervention against strikers, insisting on an eight-hour day, a confiscatory tax on wealth, and other demands. The crowd became agitated against the Chinese immigrants and went on a rampage that lasted three nights, killing several Chinese, destroying Chinese laundries, and raiding the wharves of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which transported Chinese immigrants to America. The rioters burned adjacent lumberyards and hay barns, but were unable to burn the company’s steamships.
Workingmen’s unions formed across the state, followed by the creation of the Workingmen’s party of California. Along with the labor planks, the new party endorsed the abrogation of the Burlingame Treaty. The Workingmen’s party soon became a major force in California politics, replacing the Democratic party as the prime challenger to the Republican party.
Kearney continued delivering his anti-capitalist, anti-Chinese speeches, and was elected president of the Workingmen’s Union. He warned that "bullets would replace ballots" if the labor situation did not improve, and threatened a conflagration of the entire city. He was finally arrested on November 3, 1877, for using incendiary language and inciting a riot. The charges against Kearney were dropped after he claimed to have been misquoted and promised to tone down his rhetoric. He was jailed again, however, on January 16, 1878, for inciting a riot, but was acquitted five days later.
Kearney then began agitating for a new state constitution, which was approved by the voters in 1879. Workingmen delegates comprised the largest voting bloc (one-third) at the constitutional convention. A Committee on the Chinese was established to draft anti-Chinese provisions for the proposed constitution. The committee recommended that all Chinese immigration to the state be banned and that Chinese residents in California be left essentially unprotected by the laws of the state—denied access to the courts, to suffrage, to public employment, to state licenses, to property purchases, and other restrictions. The full body of delegates defeated some of the more extreme measures, but the final provisions were still very anti-Chinese. The Chinese were deemed a presence inimical to the welfare of the state, and the legislature was directed to use its authority to deter their immigration and settlement. The final document barred the Chinese from employment by corporations or the government and denied them the right to vote. It also gave localities the authority to expel or segregate the Chinese.
In the 1879 elections, San Francisco voters elected the Reverend Isaac Kalloch as its new mayor. Kalloch had run on the Workingmen’s ticket and was a protégé of Kearney. In his newspaper, Evangel, Kalloch had previously denounced Kearney as a demagogue and called for the forceful suppression of the anti-Chinese campaign. After Kearney approached Kalloch to consider the mayoral bid, the Baptist minister underwent a political conversion and began denouncing the Chinese and supporting the labor movement.
Charles De Young, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, used his column to condemn Kearney and his mayoral candidate, Kalloch, informing readers about the minister’s involvement in a sex scandal before moving to California. Kalloch responded with acrid attacks on DeYoung which provoked the editor to shoot the mayoral candidate. The attack gained sympathy for Kalloch who narrowly defeated his Republican challenger to become the city’s chief executive. De Young continued to criticize Kalloch from the pages of the Chronicle. In retaliation, Kalloch’s son fatally shot De Young. The young Kalloch was found not guilty based on the testimony of a witness who said he heard seven shots (there were six chambers in Kalloch’s gun), while Kalloch testified that he only fired once. The witness was later found guilty of perjury. With the return of economic prosperity to California, the Workingmen’s party ceased to exist by 1882, just as their goal of Chinese exclusion was being enacted into federal law.
Sources consulted:

Jerome A. Hart, "The Sand Lot and Kearneyism," and "The Kearney-Kalloch Epoch," from In Our Second Century (1931), reprinted on-line by the Museum of the City of San Francisco (

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

Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991)

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