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Rise of Industrial America
Chinese Immigration to the United States
Edward Holton's Observations About Denis Kearney, a Leading Advocate of Chinese Exclusion

Edward Holton was born in New Hampshire and then settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he became a merchant and banker. He, his wife, and grandson traveled by railroad to California in 1879. The excerpt below is from his book, Travels with Jottings, from California As I Saw It, 1849-1900. How did Holton account for the onset of hard times in California? What were Holton's major points about Denis Kearney's support for legislation to exclude Chinese immigrants from the United States? Do you think that Holton agreed with Kearney's views?

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From one end of the State to the other, the cry of "hard times" comes up, from every quarter and from all classes. It is my opinion that with cash in hand the entire real estate of California can be purchased to-day for just one-half that it could have been five years ago, or before the failure of the Bank of California. That event, to-wit: the failure of that bank, was the first great blow to the abnormal condition of things which then existed, and had for a long time before, in this State. . . .

. . . The process of sending money here for investment as in those gala days of the Ralston era has gradually subsided until now it is ended, and all schemes are left to get on as best they can, and Californians now are not ashamed to wear old clothes and talk about the sober virtues of economy and frugality; and hence, if I judge aright, the era of their true prosperity is now to begin, and will go forward on a far better basis than ever before. But she has some difficulties to encounter and surmount ere general prosperity will be established. The former free-and-easy way of living with floods of money to be had on easy terms except the rates of interest, which were always enormous, led the whole community to regard being in debt as no serious affair. Hence nearly everybody is in debt. Some of the very best men in the State, possessed of large properties, are heavily involved. Many of these men cannot pay, and great estates are upon the market on every hand. This is true of country and landed estates, as well as city properiy. This makes room for a new class of men, with moderate means, and truer ideas of business pursuits to come in, and will greatly tend to magnify the country population and to promote the agricultural interest, which is by far the higher and better interest of the State. This old condition of things has resulted in drawing too many persons into the city and towns. Particularly is San Francisco too large for the legitimate needs of the State,--a city of one half the size could do all the business that properly comes to her door. I doubt if she has any more real legitimate business than Milwaukee. Certainly if the signs hung out, "To Let," are any token of an overdone condition, it is patent in San Francisco. Every other building in the city seems to be so labeled. Hence the Denis Kearneys and his crowd of idle men.

By the way, I went to see Denis and had two lengthy conversations with him. If you would be interested to know about the personnel of this somewhat noted agitator, let me say that he is a man of thirty-five years of age, well preserved, of small stature, and very modest and moderate presence, and of strictly temperate habits. He dresses plainly in dark blue, is rather dark complexioned, speaks low and soft in private conversation. I accompanied him to the Sand Lots, and heard him deliver one of his addresses to the crowd of twenty-five hundred, who stood quietly and decently before him. His address was written, word for word, as, he told me, his speeches always were written. His voice on the platform is strong, clear and effective. He speaks with deliberation and at times with no small force.

I asked Mr. Kearney what was to be the outcome of all this agitation. He replied that it all "looked dark to him," and in a general way prophesied some fearful revolution in affairs. While the agitation of which he has been a prominent leader here in California has wrought out in the new constitution some new and, as I am inclined to think, useful reforms, there its usefulness ended, and Denis Kearney should have gone back to his dray and asked his friends to join him, and, if there was not employment in overdone San Francisco, led them forth on to vacant land, of which there are millions of acres lying idle, and gone to planting and reaping, and thus had bread and to spare. Then might he have become a benefactor as well as an agitator and a blessing to workingmen.

I endeavored to point out to him some of these paths, through, or into which, he might lead his adherents from the wilderness of poverty and find plentiful reward to honest industry. But he did not seem to take any interest in such a proposition--but chooses, I fear, rather to stand forth as a somewhat aimless agitator. I venture to prophesy that from this time on his star will wane. That his tirade against the Chinese , against capitalists and corporations has been somewhat disastrous I make no doubt. That it has sent some capital away and deterred some from coming to California is doubtless true. But that is not California's chief trouble or cause of her present depressed condition. Overtrading and an altogether exaggerated estimate of her mineral consequence, which has led the great proportion of her population to become speculators, and to turn aside from, or rather never to have adopted the sober walks of industry, is rather to be credited with the evil.

The desire to become suddenly rich has overborne all the bounds of sound discretion and wrecked thousands of very capable men, and they stand along the highway of life, many of them in grim despair, and refuse to take up the burden of manual labor.

It was an extraordinary vote which the people of California gave in their late election upon the Chinese question. Less than a thousand votes were cast in thei r favor. And yet when many of those who voted for their exclusion are pointed to the industrious and frugal habits of these people--to their temperate, dignified and respectable behavior as a whole, to the productive nature of their labor--they begin to apologize for their act. That there are some evils growing out of the presence of so large a number of alien population of only one sex is evident on the face of things, and that a proper national regulation of the question is probably advisable, if not necessary.

But to-day California cannot dispense with her Chinese population without being thrown back for years in her industrial interests. No Denis Kearneys will, or can, supply the deficiency.
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View more of Holton's observations about hard times in California. View the Book Navigator from Travels with Jottings from California As I Saw It, 1849-1900. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.