Was Denis Kearney a Voice for Labor Or a Self-Serving California Agitator? | HistoryNet MENU

Was Denis Kearney a Voice for Labor Or a Self-Serving California Agitator?

By Ramon Vasconcellos
8/11/2017 • Wild West Magazine

The Irish-born labor leader bolstered the Workingmen’s Party.

At 1:20 p.m., on April 4, 1882, Congress finally received President Chester Arthur’s decision regarding Senate Bill No. 71. The bill, a referendum prohibiting Chinese labor immigration to the United States for 20 years, would in Arthur’s words “[act as] a breach of our national faith,” and might “repel oriental nations from us and drive their trade and commerce into more friendly lands.” Thus the president vetoed the bill.

Congress lacked the two-thirds majority to override his veto, but a compromise bill limiting the exclusion period to 10 years eventually won over a majority of both parties and Arthur. The Chinese Exclusion Bill, an effort born in part by the protestations of the Workingmen’s Party of California and its leader, Denis Kearney, became law on May 6, 1882.

The genesis of Kearney’s role in helping foster anti–Chinese immigration sentiment and his affiliation with the Workingmen’s Party of California, a branch of the national party comprising mostly Irish and other European immigrants, began in the mid-1870s. Born in 1847 in Oakmount, County Cork, Ireland, Kearney rose from cabin boy to first officer while working on English and American ships. Upon arrival in San Francisco in 1868 he worked for local steamship lines and then bought a drayage business that elevated him to the ranks of the middle class. Draymen hauled dry goods to merchants via flatbed wagons known as drays.

Although not initially driven toward politics or labor agitation, Kearney spoke out against the monopolization of the drayage business in San Francisco. Apparently just one drayage concern in town had been granted federal bonding, relegating the Irishman and other draymen to the economic hinterlands. Understanding the influence of media on public opinion and the importance of rhetoric in conveying one’s appeal, he courted reporters and participated in the Lyceum of Self-Culture, a debating society.

A meeting over this issue with state Senator Aaron Augustus Sargent proved futile, as Sargent held Kearney and his associates in contempt. In response, Kearney delivered a scathing speech at the Sandlot, a gathering place near City Hall that would become the Workingmen’s oratorical platform. The San Francisco Chronicle covered subsequent speeches, its wide circulation drawing crowds of the unemployed to hear Kearney’s Sandlot commentaries.

Henry George, the 19th-century political economist, suggested that Kearney’s stock losses and “what political possibilities lay in the general feeling of discontent and irritation” might have dictated his actions. George also acknowledged Kearney’s skill at tapping into working class jealousies and animosity.

Kearney and others formed the Workingmen’s Party of California in 1877, and he was elected president that October 5. One of the party’s stated principles was “to unite all the poor and workingmen and their friends into one political party …defending themselves against the encroachments of capital.” Kearney endorsed the organization’s bylaws advocating distribution of land monopolies, public welfare, punitive taxation of the rich and ridding the country of cheap Chinese labor “because it tends still more to degrade labor and aggrandize capital.” He suggested that “to an American, death is preferable to life on a par with the Chinaman.” He advocated a minimum wage between $3 and $4 for any kind of labor, as well as homesteads for every man and the confiscation of surplus corporate profits for public works projects. At the same time Kearney called for the Central Pacific Railroad to do away with its Chinese laborers within three months, threatening “Stanford and his crowd” with consequences should they fail to act.

Since 1872 the Central Pacific’s Big Four magnates—Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins—had been developing a railroad terminus outside San Francisco.The location of the terminus, charged Kearney and others, would effectively hinder commercial development on the west side of town and harm existing entrepreneurs, including draymen. One San Francisco paper lamented that “Stanford and Co.” acted only to “destroy the value of property in this entire city to enrich themselves.” Negative media coverage of the Big Four’s business practices, coupled with Stanford’s continued use of Chinese laborers, encouraged Kearney to target the railroad magnate as a monopolistic plutocrat and exploiter of labor.

The mayor’s office later had Kearney and his supporters arrested for their incendiary comments and threats, and the state legislature made it a felony to suggest or encourage civil disobedience. But after two weeks in jail Kearney resumed his public tirades against civil officials and decreed that any traitor to the Workingmen “should be hanged to the nearest lamppost.” Despite such harsh rhetoric, Kearney attracted ever more members to the Workingmen’s Party. That Thanksgiving the party staged a parade in San Francisco that drew 7,000 marchers.

On January 3, 1878, demanding “work, bread or a place in the county jail,” Kearney led a crowd of 1,500 Workingmen on a march toward City Hall. In response the state legislature authorized San Francisco to employ 2,000 Workingmen for three months labor on public works, although the city supervisors, perhaps in collusion with monopoly interests, ignored the directive. The supervisors did, however, take seriously the Workingmen’s threat to blow up the monopolistic Pacific Mail Steamship Co. and assigned a man-of-war to patrol the docks.

The increasing presence of Chinese laborers in depression-ridden San Francisco further upset other workers. Some politicians even called for repeal of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, which granted Chinese immigrants and travelers similar privileges and immunities as American citizens. As “Kearneyism”—a term the San Francisco papers tacked to the philosophies of the Workingmen’s Party—broadened its appeal among trade unions, some Workingmen, in hopes of ridding the city of Chinese labor, advocated dynamiting the Chinese quarter. While not officially encouraging violence against its adversaries, the party vowed not “to repress or put down or arrest or prosecute” demonstrators who “manifest their hatred of the Chinamen.” Kearney’s Sandlot vitriol included his catchphrase: “The Chinese must go!”

1878 was a watershed year for the Workingmen’s Party in California. Following legislative takeovers in Alameda and Santa Clara counties, and mayoral victories in Oakland and Sacramento, the party elected one-third of the delegates to the 1879 Constitutional Convention, which sought to revise the document adopted 30 years earlier. Recognizing the clout of the Workingmen’s Party, the conventioneers included an eight-hour day for public works projects and excluded Chinese employment by public and private agencies in the new constitution. Politicians in California and nationwide capitalized on Kearny’s broad popular appeal. In 1878 Kearney spoke in Massachusetts on behalf of former Union Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, an erstwhile Democrat and Republican then running as a Greenback Labor gubernatorial candidate. Butler courted the labor vote and hoped Kearney could galvanize its support. In engagements throughout the Midwest, Kearney harked back to a common theme—labor’s discontent with Chinese competition. His cross-country stump speeches referred to the “parasites from China” and repeated that all Chinese must go. Although some Eastern newspapers and several national politicians chastised his rhetoric, labor leaders Uriah Stephens and Terence Powderly considered him a useful tool.

Kearney was among a growing chorus of labor leaders and politicians advocating immigration reform in the late 1870s. Senator James Blaine of Maine, a presidential hopeful in 1880, joined a bipartisan faction promoting the Fifteen Passenger Bill, which would limit to 15 per ship the number of Chinese passengers en route to America. That year’s Angell Treaty, while enforcing the civil liberties of those Chinese already in the States, barred the Qing government from any say-so in Sino-U.S. immigration policy.

Since 1880 was an election year, both Democrats and Republicans campaigned against immigrants in hopes of gaining labor’s vote on the Pacific coast. Two years later Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, at President Arthur’s signature the Republican County Central Committee fired a 100-gun salute, its Democratic counterpart doing the same that Friday.

Kearney’s meteoric ascent was almost matched by the velocity of his and his party’s political demise. His support for the 1880 Greenback Labor presidential ticket offended many California Workingmen, even as the two major parties effectively courted the party membership, thus diluting its influence. The California courts never did implement the tax reforms and controls on railroads pushed by the Workingmen, and the federal courts nullified the Chinese exclusions of the 1879 California Constitution. Politically inactive by the end of the century, Kearney built a profitable drayage business and invested in San Francisco real estate until his death in 1907.

British scholar James Bryce, in summing up Kearney’s foray into 1880s California politics, opined that Kearney “had no sordid personal ends to serve and gained for himself nothing more solid than notoriety.” Bryce viewed the draymen’s political appeal in the context “as that which has appeared in the Western states under the forms of Grangerism, the Farmers’ Alliance and Populism”— perhaps a reasonable assessment.


Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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