Until the 1880s it appeared that even the Sinophobia that flared in California in the 1850s would dissipate. Chinese laborers had proved essential in constructing the Union Pacific Railroad as it passed through the Sierra Nevada. The Fourteenth Amendment shielded the Chinese, as it did African Americans, while the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 mollified nativists by allowing Chinese who entered to provide inexpensive labor, but prevented them from becoming citizens. Economic troubles and social unrest, however, laid the basis for the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which proscribed immigration for a decade and marked a key change in the federal government's laissez-faire policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act codified the idea of a Yellow Peril and denied that Asians were assimilable. This legislation had a clear racial basis and hence also influenced attitudes toward the "new" southern and eastern European immigration. The historian Roger Daniels credits the law as providing "the hinge on which all American immigration policy turned." The legislation—renewed and amplified in 1884, 1888, and 1892—also influenced similar laws in Australia, Canada, and other English-speaking countries. As one senator told President Rutherford B. Hayes, they were "a cold pebble in the public stomach which cannot be digested."
The Exclusion Act and its amendments mortified China's government, which ironically practiced its own policy of ethnoracial exclusion against outsiders until Western powers in the 1840s and 1850s compelled the Chinese to treat whites as equals. China protested often against this inequality, but to no avail. With depression and social unrest increasing, Sinophobia swept the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains during the 1880s. In 1885, after a local water company in Tacoma, Washington, hired Chinese to lay pipe despite high white unemployment, a riot razed Chinatown and drove Chinese residents from the city. The incident, which locals deemed a "glorious victory," resulted in China receiving from the United States an indemnity of $10,000. A year later a similar workingmen's riot in Seattle forced most of the Chinese from the city and compelled President Grover Cleveland to mobilize military force to restore order. A systematic series of arrests occurred in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1893, and by October sixty-four Asians were in prison pending the outcome of their appeals to avoid deportation. In 1894 these difficulties were settled after Li Hung-chang informed William Bowman, the American counsel at Tientsin, that Sino-American relations were near the breaking point. Then war with Japan intervened to weaken China's position, and the Gresham-Yang Treaty of 1894 succeeded in placing exclusion and registration laws passed since 1882 on a proper treaty basis.
Resistance to newcomers who were "not like us" burgeoned between 1890 and 1920. No equivalent period in American history can match the twenty million immigrants who came to the United States. Here was the stuff of a colossal saga—given added significance by the sight of the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in October 1886 in New York's harbor, near Ellis Island, the arrival point for most immigrants. The Statue of Liberty inspired millions of newcomers, and Emma Lazarus's poem inscribed at its base promised a better tomorrow:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
If the newcomers' contribution was to provide fodder for the unprecedented economic growth of this era, economic difficulties and accompanying social strife undercut the positive view of immigration many citizens held. Businessmen and reformers joined labor leaders and workingmen in arguing that immigrant gifts paled before their role in promoting domestic discord. By stressing the European origins of class conflict, critics of the American urban-industrial scene like Edwin L. Godkin, Jacob Riis, Richard T. Ely, and Josiah Strong warned of the radical portent of this immigration. Missing the deep conservatism of the great majority of newcomers from southeastern Europe, they also failed to see that new urban governments lacked requisite administrative experience to deal with their problems. According to reformers, the new immigrants were the problem, settling in cities and corrupting politics. National immunity from the ills of Europe seemed to have expired, and the melting pot seemed more a pressure cooker.
This perception gained strength as Americans sought to make sense of the intense labormanagement strife of the era. The Chicago Haymarket Riot in May 1886 ushered in a decade of industrial strife and catalyzed in American minds a dread of foreign conspirators. Fearful adversaries of "long-haired, wild-eyed, bad smelling, atheistic, reckless, foreign wretches" did not distinguish between Marxists and anarchists. Indeed, patriotic citizens parceled together all varieties of immigrant radicalism and left the package in front of the house of labor.
Fears of national decay heightened after the panic of 1893 and ensuing depression. An angry agrarian crusade attacked capitalism and international finance with a cataclysmic rhetoric not designed to reassure jittery easterners. Labor discontent reached bloody pinnacles during the Homestead and Pullman strikes. As time seemed to run out, portending the end of opportunity, geography seemed to conspire. As the historian Frederick Jackson Turner told the American Historical Association in 1893, the era of the frontier—the dynamic font of individualism, liberty, and democracy—had ended. Americans would have to find something new to supplant the source of those characteristics that made the nation great.
As the center seemed incapable of holding, an assemblage of New England Brahmins—graduates of Harvard—formed the Immigration Restriction League. The league championed Anglo-Saxonism and embraced a nostalgic view of the region's homogeneous past. They pored over the works of John Fiske and John W. Burgess, who applied precepts of social Darwinism to history and politics. Cheering the Foran Act of 1885, which had prohibited European contract labor, the restrictionists gathered behind Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and developed a series of literacy tests as the best way to halt immigration. While the House passed a literacy bill five times between 1895 and 1917 (with Senate support after the first failure), presidents as distinct as Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson vetoed the legislation. Only in 1917 did Congress prevail over the veto.
In a society that questioned its ability to resolve conflicts, citizens looked for evidence of the republic's virility. The Reverend Josiah Strong expressed this anxiety in Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885), which excoriated the communal disruption wrought by excessive materialism. This development threatened America's traditional Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture in its quest to evangelize the world. As Lyman Beecher had a half-century earlier, Strong anticipated a "righteous empire" of Protestantism expanding and spreading the American way throughout the world. Not surprisingly in an era that witnessed the final relegation of America's Indians to reservations and penury and southern African Americans to Jim Crow, Our Country and other of Strong's writings embraced the racialist thesis that civilization would reach its zenith when Anglo-Saxons extinguished less vigorous peoples and secured international hegemony. Domestic corruption jeopardized this divine mission, made all the more imperative by the impending "final competition of races, for which the Anglo-Saxon is being schooled."
Strong advocated the mission of the United States rather than its manifest destiny. Just as Protestant Christianity would remedy domestic ills—socialism, intemperance, and the Mormon and Catholic threats—so too would Anglo-Saxon torchbearers of Protestantism carry their message to the far corners of the earth—not on the end of a sword, but through the persuasive power of example.
Pressure engendered by various domestic crises during the 1890s stimulated chauvinists and nativists alike. Richard Hofstadter's concept of a "psychic crisis" does not explain the William McKinley administration's decision for war against Spain in 1898, but by underlining the close relationship between the domestic distress of the 1890s, nativism, and the new bellicosity in American diplomacy, the construct suggests why Americans were eager for foreign adventure. During the decade the United States went to the brink of war with Italy, Chile, and Great Britain over issues peripheral to the national interest. Nativism served as a catalyst for these episodes, demonstrating its function to unify a divided nation by focusing on foreign problems and threats. In 1891 a New Orleans mob lynched eleven Italians and Italian Americans immediately after they were acquitted of the charge of murdering the city's police chief. The episode did nothing for Italian-American relations, especially when Theodore Roosevelt deemed it "a rather good thing." After Italy demanded compensation for the families of the deceased and Washington demurred, Italy cut full diplomatic relations. War talk flared among jingoists and one Georgian promised to muster a company of soldiers "to invade Rome, disperse the Mafia, and plant the stars and stripes on the dome of St. Peter's." As immigration restrictionists disparaged Italians and other southeastern Europeans and big-navy men called for an ambitious building program, President Benjamin Harrison chose the statesmanlike course and apologized to Italy. The war scare passed. But many journals observed that in the face of the threat national unity replaced sectional bickering.