1882 Chinese Exclusion Act Congressional Debate, Senator John Franklin Miller of California

The Congressional debate over the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 reveals characterizations of China and the religious traditions of China held by Americans in the mid-19th century. Here Senator Miller of California expresses the view that the civilization of the East and that of the West, like oil and water, cannot mix, and that the Chinese, if allowed to settle in the U.S., will never assimilate, but remain “changeless, fixed, and unalterable.”


The history of this country may be searched in vain for an example of such perfect unanimity of expression by the parties at any time contending for political power upon a question of government policy. It would seem that the question of Chinese restriction has passed the state of argument…

In this connection it is proper also to consider the probable effect of a failure of refusal of Congress to pass this bill upon the introduction of Chinese coolies into the United States in the future. An adverse vote upon such a measure is an invitation to the Chinese to come. It would be interpreted to mean that the Government of the United States had reversed its policy, and is now in favor of the unrestricted importation of Chinese; that it looks with favor upon the Chinese invasion now in progress…

The defeat of this measure now is a shout of welcome across the Pacific Ocean to a myriad host of these strange people to come and occupy the land, and it is a rebuke to the American citizens, who have so long stood guard upon the western shore of this continent, and who, seeing the danger, have with a fortitude and forbearance most admirable, raised and maintained the only barrier against a stealthy, strategic, but peaceful invasion as destructive in its results and more potent for evil than an invasion by an army with banners…

It has sometimes happened in dealing with great questions of governmental policy that sentiment, or a sort of emotional inspiration, has seized the minds of those engaged in the solution of great problems, by which they have been lifted up into the ethereal heights or moral abstraction. I trust that while we attempt the path of inquiry in this instance we shall keep our feet firmly upon the earth. This question relates to this planet and the temporal government of some of its inhabitants; it is of the earth earthy; it involved principles of economic, social, and political science, rather than a question of morals; it is a question of national policy, and should be subjected to philosophical analysis. Moreover the question is of to-day. The conditions of the world of mankind at the present moment are those with which we have to deal. If mankind existed now in one grand co-operative society, in one universal union, under one system of laws, in a vast homogeneous brotherhood, serenely beatified, innocent of all selfish aims and unholy desires, with one visible temporal ruler, whose judgments should be justice and whose sway should be eternal, then there would be no propriety in this measure.

But the millennium has not yet begun, and man exists now, as he has existed always—in the economy of Providence—in societies called nations, separated by the peculiarities if not the antipathies of race.  In truth, the history of mankind is for the most part descriptive on racial conflicts and the struggles between nations for existence. By a perfectly natural process these nations have evolved distinct civilizations, as diverse in their characteristics as the races of men from which they have sprung. These may be properly grouped into two grand divisions, the civilization of the East and the civilization of the West. These two great and diverse civilizations have finally met on the American shore of the Pacific Ocean…

The two civilizations which have here met are of diverse elements and character, both the result of evolution under different conditions, radically antagonistic, and as impossible of amalgamation as are the two great races who have produced them. The attempt to merge them must result, as both reason and experience teaches, in the displacement of one or the other. Like the mixing of oil and water, neither will absorb the other. The Chinese have been established on the Pacific coast for more than a quarter of a century, and have displayed every phase and characteristic of their ancient civilization, all this time under the pressure of American laws and the example of American methods, brought into direct contact with western civilization and subjected to the powerful influence of modern thought and Christian teaching; and they have remained as fixed in their habits, methods, and modes of life as if they had all this time lived in the Mountains of the Moon. Not the slightest impression has been made upon them or the peculiar civilization which they brought with them. There modes of life remain the same, which they and their ancestors have pursued for fifty centuries in their fierce struggle for existence. They have been unable or unwilling to change the habits and character which have been forced upon them and ground into them by necessity and a heredity as old as the records of man. Nor does our experience with the Chinese differ in this respect from that of other nations who have admitted them.

It is a fact of history that wherever the Chinese have gone they have always taken their habits, methods, and civilization with them; and history fails to record a single example in which they have ever lost them. They remain Chinese always and everywhere; changeless, fixed and unalterable. In this respect they differ from all other peoples who have come to our shores. The men of every other race or nation who go abroad, sooner or later, adopt the civilization of the people by whom they are surrounded, and assimilate with or are absorbed in the massMass is a term used in the Roman Catholic Church for the ritual that culminates in the celebration of the Eucharist, the central rite of sharing the consecrated bread and wine in the church community. of humanity with which they come in constant contact. The Chinese are alone perfectly unimpressible, and even their offspring born on American soil and who have grown up surrounded by American influences are Chinese in every characteristic of mind, feature, form, habitA nun is a woman who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully or..., and method, precisely the same as their fathers and their ancestors in China. We have found that no impression has been or can be made upon the civilization which confronts ours on the Pacific coast. An “irrepressible conflict” is now upon us in full force, and those who do not see it in progress are not so wise as the men who saw the approach of that other “irrepressible conflict” which shook the very foundation of American empire upon this continent.

If we continue to permit the introduction of this strange people, with their peculiar civilization, until they form a considerable part of our population, what is to be the effect upon the American people and Anglo-Saxon civilization? Can these two civilizations endure side by side as two distinct and hostile forces? Is American civilization as unimpressible as Chinese civilization? When the end comes for one or the other, which will be found to have survived? Can they meet half way, and so merge in a mongrel race, half Chinese and half Caucasian, as to produce a civilization half paganThe term “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant “peasant” or “country dweller.” For many Pagans, the term suggests a life lived close to the land. Today, nature spirituality is an important thread in contemporary Paganism. Some Paga..., half Christian, semi-oriental, altogether mixed and very bad?

I insist that these questions  are practical, and must have answers…

If the Chinese could be lifted up to the level of the free American, to the adoption and enjoyment of American civilization, the case would be better; but this cannot be done.

Forty centuries of Chinese life has made the Chinaman what he is. An eternity of years cannot make him such a man as the Anglo-Saxon…

Congressional Record—Senate
February 28, 1882