Roots of Radicalism

Dennis Kearney and the struggle for a White America

By Joe Pearce

THE DISCOVERY of gold at Sutter's Mill in California early in 1848 ignited the famous gold rush. Thousands of “forty-niners” flocked across the deserts, mountains and plains of the North American continent to seek their fortunes, panning and digging for gold in the streams and fields of the newly conquered continent.

However, news of the discovery of gold brought another sort of immigrant to California, very different from the White pioneers. In 1850 news of the gold strike at Sutter's Mill reached China. It stirred ready excitement at Canton, one of South China's chief cities, and very soon California had a name in Chinese meaning 'Mountains of Gold'.

By 1853 the Chinese population of California had soared to 25,000. Most of the new immigrants from China found employment in the goldfields, especially as cooks and laundrymen in the mining camps.

The situation began to change throughout the course of the 1850's and '60's. During those years tens of thousands of Chinese labourers found their way to the shores of North America. Most of them were brought by American steamship lines which advertised heavily in Canton for the lucrative coolie transport trade. Although figures on Chinese immigration during this period are inexact, there were probably more than 100,000 Chinese in California by 1870.


Meanwhile, the economic base of California had changed rapidly and radically. As the surface gold veins became worked out, mining became a vastly more expensive proposition, demanding large amounts of capital. Most White workers ceased being independant and were forced to hire themselves out as wage earners, where they often competed head-to-head for employment with the Chinese workers. The latter demanded a far lower standard of living and, consequently, lower wages. This made the Chinese workers preferential as cheap labour in the eyes of the big employers and left many White workers both unemployed and angry.

Even more important than the decline of mining as California's central economic activity was the rise of the railways. The Central Pacific Railroad became the titan of the state's economic life, with a correspondingly powerful influence on the state's government. The Central Pacific and its subsidiary, the Southern Pacific, were big employers of Chinese labour. The number of coolie immigrants in the employment of Central Pacific reached 10,000 in the course of the 1870's, while the Southern Pacific employed a workforce which was almost entirely Chinese.

The rising anti-Chinese feeling among American workers resulted in a number of spontaneous outbursts against their Asiatic competitors. At French Canal and in Nevada City, White workers forcibly expelled the Chinese from the work camps associated with the mines. On October 23rd, 1871, Whites rose up in Los Angeles, invaded Chinatown, and sacked the Chinese quarters, killing a score of Chinese in the process. Nevertheless, there was no coordination behind the White efforts, and anti-Chinese incidents remained isolated.

It was the financial panic of 1873, leading to America's first great depression, which brought anti-Chinese feelings among Whites to a head. The slump spread from the East Coast to California. By 1877 there were 16,000 White labourers unemployed in San Francisco alone.


California's capitalists exploited this situation by encouraging an ever-rising tide of Chinese immigration. Between 1873 and 1876 an additional 70,000 Chinese flocked to California, the largest number ever. Soon the Chinese dominated the workforce not only on the railways but also in various light industries, including boot and shoe manufacturing, cigar-making, and broom-making.

The industrial robber barons who dominated American business, then as now, had further plans for the hordes of docile, low-paid Chinese workers. As early as 1870 Chinese workers were employed as strike-breakers in the mills of North Adams, Massachusetts.

America's White labourers were at a loss to combat the mortal threat to their race and their livelihood presented by the Chinese immigrants. Labour unions were in their infancy at this stage and they were having little success in their attempts to counter the disastrous effects of cheap Chinese labour.

Everything changed, however, one summer afternoon in 1877 when an unknown speaker took the stand in a vacant field across from San Francisco City Hall. With rising indignation, he attacked the Chinese immigrants and the greedy capitalists who had brought them to America. Gradually more and more people began to gather round the speaker. Passersby joined the crowd. The enthusiasm rose. The speaker's voice reached a crescendo, and he roared: "The Chinese must go!" The crowd erupted in a storm of applause.

Dennis Kearney

The speaker's name was Dennis Kearney. Born in County Cork, Ireland, 30 years before, Kearney had gone to sea at 11 to support his widowed mother and his six siblings. In 1868, at the age of 21, he had finally settled down in San Francisco. After his debut as a speaker in the field across from San Francisco City Hall, Kearney returned again and again to hold forth against the Chinese immigrants and the wealthy lords of industry who sought their presence in America. The crowds of onlookers grew, until he had become the de facto leader of a large movement.


As the White workers began to rally around Kearney, the upper and middle classes of San Francisco became alarmed. The evident resentment of the mass of White labourers toward the arrogance and privileges flaunted by the city's economic elite was greatly exacerbated by the workers' feeling the employers were betraying them by favouring the Chinese. The wealthy classes began to fear possible outbreaks of worker violence.

On September 21st, 1877, Kearney and several others organised the Workingmen's Party to gain their goals of Chinese exclusion and fair treatment by their employers. Two nights later Kearney announced the formation of the organisation to a large crowd of supporters, declaring that the new party proposed to "wrest government from the hands of the rich and place it in the hands of the people," as well as to "rid the country of cheap Chinese labour."

Specifically, the platform of the Working-men's Party called for reform of banking practises, which were notoriously unsound then as now. Grants of state-owned land were to be made first to farmers and settlers, and railway builders who had up to that time been the chief beneficiaries of government largesse. The Workingmen's Party sought the breakup of monopolies, particularly the Central Pacific power.

Kearney's party also sought an eight-hour working day and a system of universal education with a strong emphasis on vocational training. Finally, of course, the party demanded an immediate and unconditional end to Chinese immigration.

On October 29th, Kearney and his lieutenants organised a large rally on Nob Hill, an affluent neighbourhood where San Francisco's industrial lords dwelt in baronial splendour. Kearney fired the crowd to fever pitch, and the workers built a large bonfire not far from the mansion of George Crocker, head of the Oriental and Occidental Steamship Line, which was particularly prominent in the transport of Chinese aliens to America. In less than a week Kearney and five of his aides were arrested and imprisoned on charges of incitement to riot.

After three weeks in San Francisco jail, the charges against Kearney were dropped and the fiery leader was released to continue his struggle. The White workers of San Francisco celebrated their leader's release by staging their biggest demonstration to date, a parade of more than 10,000 marchers on Thanksgiving Day. Support for the Workingmen's Party boomed among the White workers of California. At a well-attended convention in January 1878, the party wrote into its platform the anti-Chinese and anti-capitalist sentiments that had led to its foundation.


Throughout January, the Workingmen's Party continued to hold torchlight rallies and parades. At these rallies Kearney contined to denounce the twin enemies of the White workers; the Chinese and the capitalists. On January 10th he went so far as to ask for support not only "at the ballot box, but at the bullet box if necessary." Four days later Kearney roared that the Chinese would be run out of the country "if it takes the life of every White man in California."

Reacting to these threats, William T. Coleman, a prominent merchant, mobilised his militia of 6,000 vigilantes. But Coleman's peers in the industrial and financial elite, fearful that his vigilantes would not be able to contain the aroused workers, appealed to the Federal government for aid. It came in the form of a U.S. Navy man-of-war, sent to protect San Francisco docks from the threat by Kearney's supporters to "blow up the Pacific Steamship Company's steamers and docks."

By this time, the Workingmen's Party was beginning to win strong support at the polls. In. 1878 it elected a number of judges, as well as mayors in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. More important, however, was the showing the party made in the balloting for the state constitutional convention, which was arranged to be held in April Against the heavy opposition of the state's economic powers, the Republican and Democratic Parties, and the newspapers, the Workingmen's Party elected more than a third of the delegates to the convention.


However, the monopolists who ruled California were determined to beat off the challenge of Kearney's supporters. The Workingmen delegates to the constitutional convention found themselves confronted with a solid phalanx of delegates controlled by the railways and industrial and farming interests. They were able to make progress only on the Chinese issue, where the businessmen were willing to make concessions as the price for staving off attacks on their economic privileges.

The convention wrote into the new constitution several strictures against employing cheap Chinese labour. The provisions of the Workingmen's platform which called for reform of the banking system, breaking up monopolies, and an eight-hour day were all defeated, however.

This defeat at the hands of powerful sectional interests marked the beginning of the end of the Workingmen's Party. Establishment forces redoubled their efforts to smash the young and inexperienced movement and the churches also were enlisted in the capitalist crusade against Kearney's followers. The party went into irreversible decline and it was officially disbanded in 1882.

However, the initial success of the Workingmen's Party had a more widespread effect upon America as a whole. Sentiment against Chinese immigration had been irreversibly inflamed, and it spread rapidly from coast to coast. In 1878 the U.S. Congress passed a bill to exclude Chinese immigrants from America. It was quickly vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, whom Kearney denounced from across the continent, claiming he could make a better president than Hayes by stuffing Andrew Jackson's old clothes with rags.

In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act again, and it was signed into law by President Chester Arthur. The 1882 act inaugurated nearly four decades of immigration leglislation which progressively excluded immigrants from Asia and culminated in the National Origins Act of 1924.


The heyday of pro-White immigration legislation in America was sadly short-lived and ever since the last war non-White immigrants have been allowed to flood into America. The California which Kearney and his followers fought to keep White is now populated by nearly a million Asiatics. Furthermore, the Asiatics in California have a growth rate, due to both births and immigration, which is twice as high as that of the Mexicans and a staggering 12 times as high as that of American Whites.

The British population historian A.M. Saunders-Carr, the outstanding authority in the field, wrote in the 1930's that in the absence of the Chinese exclusionary legislation sparked by Kearney's efforts the Western seaboard of North America would have been completely Asiatic by 1900.

In view of the above facts, it is clear that White Americans, even if they don't know it, have an awful lot to thank Denis Kearney and his Workingmen's Party for. But the fact remains that California is still being swamped beneath a tide of non-White immigration. All that Kearney has done is delay the inevitable; the final outcome will still be the end of the White man in America unless something is done.


The enemy of the White worker, in Kearney's day as now, is the power of Gold. It was the power of Gold which lured the Chinese to America in the first place. It was the power of Gold which caused the steamship companies to make exhorbitant profits by transporting the Chinese to California. It was the power of Gold which caused the big employers and railway companies to employ cheap Chinese labour. It was the power of Gold and the servants of Gold who defeated the radical platform of the Workingmen's Party at the 1878 convention.

If the Workingmen's Party had succeeded in pushing through and implementing its radical platform. If it had controlled the banks and broken up the monopolies, things might now be different in America. As it is, Gold still reigns supreme and the White man lies firmly in the gutter. Clearly White Americans will have to find again the resolute spirit of Kearney and the working folk who followed him if they are not to drown in a racially and spiritually polluted sea of brown, yellow, and gold.