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Approving Treaty Limiting Chinese Immigration - A Rarity from James Garfield’s Brief Presidency
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I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of State to cause the Seal of the United States to be affixed to my ratification of a treaty relating to Chinese immigration into the U.S. signed at Peking Nov. 17, 1880…

JAMES A. GARFIELD. Partly Printed Document Signed, as President, May 9, 1881, 1 p. 8 x 10 in.

Inventory #24142       Price: $12,000

Historical Context

The 1842 Treaty of Nanking that ended the First Opium War opened many Chinese ports to foreign trade. In 1844, the Treaty of Wanghia placed American trade on par with the British, effectively recognizing the United States as a rising world power. After the Second Opium War, the United States, Britain, France and Russia won the right to open offices in Beijing. During the California Gold Rush and the construction of the transcontinental railroad, large numbers of Chinese emigrated to America. After being driven from the mines, most settled in Chinatowns in places like San Francisco, finding jobs mostly as low-pay laborers.

In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty established formal friendly relations, gave China most favored nation status, and encouraged immigration from China. But after the Civil War, anti-Chinese animosity grew as the American economy declined. In 1879, Congress prohibited ships from bringing more than fifteen Chinese passengers in a single voyage. President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed it as a violation of the Burlingame Treaty, but sent a delegation to China, led by James B. Angell, to negotiate a new treaty that included immigration restrictions.

The two nations signed the Angell Treaty on November 17, 1880, in Peking (now Beijing). The treaty temporarily suspended immigration of Chinese laborers, while allowing white-collar professionals. A concurrent treaty also negotiated by the Angell commission and China limited trade in opium. The U.S. Senate advised ratification of the Angell Treaty on May 5, 1881, and new President James A. Garfield signed it on May 9. This order authorized and directed Secretary of State James G. Blaine to affix the seal of the United States to the treaty, making it official. Presidential documents issued by Garfield are quite rare, given his brief time in office. In fact, the Treaty wasn’t publicly proclaimed until after his assassination.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act extended the ban on the immigration of Chinese laborers for another ten years. In 1892, the Geary Act extended Chinese exclusion for another ten years, and in 1902, it became “permanent.” 

James A. Garfield (1831-1881) was born in Ohio and was raised by his widowed mother. After attending an academy and a Disciples of Christ college, he graduated from Williams College in 1856.  He served in the Ohio Senate before raising a regiment in 1861, which he led as its colonel. Promoted to brigadier general at the age of 30, Garfield participated in the Battle of Shiloh. He later became chief of staff for General William S. Rosecrans. In 1862, he won election as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until 1880. Elected to the U.S. Senate by the Ohio legislature in January 1880 for a term starting more than a year later, Garfield became an early choice of the Republicans for the Presidency. Elected over fellow Civil War veteran Winfield Scott Hancock by less than 2,000 votes, Garfield took office in March 1881. Only July 2, Garfield was shot by a disappointed office seeker, and died ten weeks later.

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