WASP: Bipartisan Consensus and the Rise of the Workingmen's Party of California

Historical Essay

by Nicholas Sean Hall

Originally published as The Wasp's "Troublesome Children": Culture, Satire, and the Anti-Chinese Movement in the American West in California History, Vol. 90, No. 2 (2013); excerpted with permission.

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The Vampires or Landlords of San Francisco.

Image: Shaping San Francisco

The Workingmen's Party of California (WPC) had its roots in the primarily German socialist organization on the East Coast and evolved directly out of frustration with the two-party establishment. Although both major political parties had included opposition to the Chinese in their platforms by 1871, six years later California's white working-class men had had enough of their perceived inaction. During the Gilded Age in California, fear of "yellow peril" and resentment of monopoly capital grew in tandem. White resentment of Chinese immigrants and their alleged capitalist puppet masters spawned a briefly successful political party—the WPC—based on a simplistic, double-sided platform of anti-monopolism and Chinese exclusion.

In the summer of 1877, the Great Railroad Strike spread from the East to the West Coast by workers unhappy with wage cuts during the failing economy. The crisis prompted the eastern Workingmen's Party to attempt—though feebly and unsuccessfully—to take leadership of the labor revolt in major cities throughout the nation. The government responded by calling out local militias to put down the strikes. In July 1877, a peaceful sandlot sympathy rally by San Francisco workers descended into an anti-Chinese riot. Rioters clashed with police, broke into more than twenty laundries, and set fire to the Pacific Mail Steamship Company docks. After two days of lawlessness, a vigilante army of 4,000 volunteers led by William T. Coleman, a member of San Francisco's Republican leadership and head of the 1856 Vigilance Committee, took to the city's streets to restore order. Either hoping to avoid an all-out massacre, as had occurred in Los Angeles six years earlier, or spurred by wire reports of a "second civil war" between labor and capital from eastern cities, the "pickaxe brigade" sought to avoid similar atrocities on the streets of San Francisco.(49)

Following the riot, the city's workers opted for more diplomatic means of expressing their discontent. Although bipartisan efforts to end the nationwide railroad strikes by force stimulated the establishment of the WPC, the new party also grew out of objections to the violence Coleman and his men had employed in quelling the anti­ Chinese riot. Headed by Denis Kearney, an Irish Catholic immigrant and drayman who gained notoriety as a sandlot orator in the aftermath of the summer riot, the WPC flew the dual flags of immigration restriction and anti-capitalism, blaming the nation's economic woes on the corruption of the railroad companies and the Chinese immigrants they had imported. From the outset, the party conducted all of its rallies and publicity under the banner "The Chinese Must Go!"(50)

Like the anti-coolie clubs before it, the WPC tried to balance its rhetoric between legal means of persuasion and threats of vigilante violence. In October, Kearney and a contingent of his followers marched to the front porches of the Nob Hill elite and, most notably, the Big Four. In their speeches party leaders exhorted their constituents to procure the group's ends by musket should the Central Pacific Railroad not heed their demand to send all its Chinese workers into the ranks of the unemployed. The city's establishment, led by Republican mayor Andrew Jackson Bryant, responded to the ominous speeches by arresting Kearney and other WPC leaders time and again—raising their bail on each occasion—but this served only to increase Kearney's popularity.(51)

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The First Blow at the Chinese Question

Image: Bancroft Library

At first, the Wasp sympathized with the WPC. Its December 7, 1877 cover lauded the party's "first blow at the Chinese question." The cartoon features a workingman, carrying the sign "Working Men's Procession, Nov. 29th," punching a Chinese man in front of a Chinatown business. The workingman is portrayed as rowdy but performing a valuable community service. Like Coming Races, the image's satire lies in its semiotic conflation of the literal and figurative uses of the word "blow." Rather than tackling the problem through legal channels, the workingman literally has taken the law into his own hands. Keller also depicts a distorted reflection of the Chinese immigrant in a window storefront, literally portraying the Chinese immigrant as a bogeyman who imperiled California's future.

Korbel soon soured on the WPC and especially on Kearney. Though he did not oppose the WPC's position on Chinese immigration, as a businessman he feared the party's virulent anti-capitalism. Wary of the horrific and well-publicized brutality of the 1871 Chinese massacre, his publication took on a moderate stance critical of anti-Chinese radicals and government reluctance to restrict trans-Pacific immigration. The Wasp began to ridicule the party's leader. Kearney's outrageous speeches and bombastic behavior did not help his cause with the local publications. In April 1878, when he bestowed upon himself the title of lieutenant general, the Wasp began publishing caricatures of him as a jackass in military garb.(52) In its parody, the weekly walked a fine line between both anti-­Chinese and anti-Kearney views. Whereas most of San Francisco's press—including the Argonaut, the Wasp’s main illustrated rival—opposed the WPC, the Wasp focused on satirizing the party's means but not its ends.

In ChineeMushGo!!, a title mocking Chinese immigrants' attempts to linguistically assimilate into San Francisco life, the Wasp illustrates Kearney in the midst of one of his trademark tirades on a "Sand Lot Platform" at the San Francisco waterfront. Two steamships are moored behind him. Kearney stands with his back turned to the ship "To China," onto which two white men force a solitary Chinese man. In front of Kearney, who appears nearly apoplectic, a stream of Chinese immigrants flows off the ship "From China." The lead immigrant reflects the Wasp' s position on the party's bloviating leader: instead of fearing Kearney's tantrum, he thumbs his nose at the WPC leader, suggesting that Kearney's hysteria was powerless in the face of the determination of Chinese workers to come to America.

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ChineeMushGo!!, July 26, 1879

Image: Bancroft Library

While white supremacy was normative in late ­nineteenth-century American life, the eastern press did not show much sympathy for California's "Chinese problem." In September 1879, Harper's Weekly published Political Assassinations as its cover illustration. The image shows an African American freedman on the left ("South"). The subheading "The Mississippi Plan" references the 1875 plan of the state's Democrats to expel or silence both black and white Republicans through violence and terror. A Chinese man occupies the right side ("West") , the home of "The California Plan" and the "Sand Lots."(53)

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Political Assassinations—Taking the Consequences, Harper's Weekly, September 13, 1879

Image: The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

The black man ambles by notices of the August 1879 murder of Captain Henry M. Dixon, an independent candidate for Yazoo County sheriff, who had been shot to death by J. H. Barksdale, a candidate for chancery clerk. The Chinese man walks past posted reports of the attempted murder the same month of Isaac Kalloch (the WPC's candidate for mayor of San Francisco) by San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Charles DeYoung.(54) The notices also indicate that Californians are a "bad lot" for whom " Denis Kearney is Boss." In the cartoon's caption, Nast points out the lawless hypocrisy of the South and West: "'The Nigger Must Go' and 'The Chinese Must Go'—The Poor Barbarians Can't Understand Our Civilized Republican Form of Government." Both sections of the cartoon share the phrase "mob law"—the vehicle for the sometimes figurative, and other times literal, assassinations of both African Americans in Mississippi and Chinese in California. The illustration makes clear that East Coast publications saw their region as more civilized and accepting of its minority groups than did the American West, ignoring a long history of racial violence in the Northeast.

In addition to caricatures of Chinese immigrants, the Wasp also lampooned the hypocrisy of white San Franciscans who supported the anti-Chinese movement politically while conducting business for their goods and services. Undoubtedly, many people who economically sustained the Chinese in these ways were among the weekly's readership. With a braying Kearney jackass at its center, The Chinese Must Go! But Who Keeps Them? portrays scenes of white San Franciscans patronizing Chinese businesses, including laundries, the predominant independent Chinese enterprise in California. Two scenes illustrate whites buying goods from the Chinese proprietor of a cigar factory and a fish peddler. Only one scene, in the lower left, features whites performing a service—providing transportation—for the Chinese. The cartoon posits that Kearney has missed the point: instead of placing the blame for coolie immigration on the shoulders of the wealthy, specifically, and capitalism in general, he should first look to the working-class men and families who benefited from and helped sustain Chinese immigrant ventures.

In reality, however, the Wasp’s publisher himself was complicit in "keeping" the Chinese in California. The Chinese owned and worked in over 90 percent of San Francisco's cigar-making factories. Korbel profited directly from enterprising and hardworking Chinese immigrants at his cigar-box manufacturing business. A businessman first and foremost, he was willing to criticize the very practices in which he partook in order to sell as many issues as possible and maintain a healthy bottom line.(55)

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The Chinese Must Go! But Who Keeps Them?, May 11, 1878

Image: Bancroft Library

The Wasp’s staff did not always agree with the weekly's opinions and, at times, conflicting messages resulted in the same issue. The writer and wit Ambrose Bierce, who was hired by Korbel in 1881, opposed both the anti-Chinese and anti-­Mormon sentiments in the West. Though he never directly challenged the Wasp’s recurrent ridicule of both groups, he took issue with such views in his written editorials. Always the misanthrope, Bierce even favored allowing Mormons to practice polygamy free of persecution, declaring "Name o' God, let 'em polygam! They do not force upon others a plurality of wives!"(56) He also objected to the belief of West Coast denizens that their own intimate knowledge of California's "Chinese question" was more grounded than that of citizens and lawmakers in other regions of the country. As Congress debated the Chinese Exclusion Act, Bierce wrote in the Wasp in March 1882: "Without any consuming ambition to be brickbatted as a Chinophile, I venture to point out that the claim to infallibility, which our people base their superior knowledge of the practical workings of Chinese immigration, as compared with eastern ignorance thereof, is mostly nonsense. It commonly occurs that the clearest, most logical and most practical view of social and economical questions is taken from outside by observers whose interests are not directly affected. Might it not be true in this instance that the Massachusetts looker-on sees the game more clearly than the players?"(57)

Despite such expressions of ambivalence concerning the Chinese, the WPC gained a major political foothold, winning a number of seats in the legislature in the fall of 1878. That year also saw a convention to revise the outdated state constitution of 1849, written in haste at the height of the Gold Rush.(58) WPC delegates dominated the convention's left wing, in which they organized a committee on Chinese immigration. John Miller, head of the committee, gave voice to its members' resentment of the East Coast's dismissive attitude: "If they say this is not an evil, and the Chinese are as good as any other class of immigrants—that we are making a great noise and confusion about nothing—let us send over four, or five, or ten thousand of these people . . . belonging to the diseased and criminal classes ... and see how they like it. There would be no surer way of changing their views upon the Chinese question."(59) As we have seen, the Wasp shared Miller's sentiment, one that may have had some basis in fact; not only did the eastern press show little interest in publishing any commentary on the West's "Chinese question," it also showed little reluctance to portray California as irrational and violent.

As it did with all issues of concern to San Franciscans, the Wasp offered its opinion and analysis of the convention's proceedings. In its two-page center illustration, The Constitutional Pump, a sole figure represents the conference's varied contingents: the WPC, the clergy, women, the Temperance Party, and members of the two major political parties. To his right, the Wasp (in literal, entomological form) observes the scene through binoculars from its perch atop a fence.

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The Constitutional Pump, November 2, 1878

Image: Bancroft Library

As the figure pumps the state capital, out spew a number of documents identifying a range of issues: women's rights, Chinese exclusion, temperance, the eight-hour day. These issues appear to crush the white female representing the "Old Constitution," imbuing her with nineteenth-­century beliefs about white feminine virtue. "Help!! I am going down!!" she cries, as the bills drown her and run into the sewer.

The cartoon also contains two significant inset illustrations. In the upper right comer, a moneybag with an oilcan's handle and spout bears the inscription "Daily supply of oil for the pump," a reminder to the taxpayer of the convention's daily costs. In the upper left corner, a Chinese immigrant blocks the blast of a cannonball from the "constitutional convention" with a "Burlingame" shield. The drawing implies that the expenditures of the new constitution would be all for naught: with an intransigent federal government unwilling to renege on its agreement with a foreign nation, quixotic clauses in the new constitution outlawing Chinese immigration would be a costly waste of time.

The indispensability of cheap Chinese labor belied the simplistic rhetoric of the WPC's "Chinese Must Go!" rallying cry. This proved to be a major factor in exposing hypocrisy within the party's ranks, leading to its swift fall from political influence. In addition to party infighting and corruption, police found San Francisco's mayor, the WPC's Isaac Kalloch, hiding 250 Chinese laborers in a warehouse at Page and Gough Streets. Kearney lost his momentum through squabbles with his subordinates and prolonged absences as he traveled throughout the East Coast to promote the greenback movement.(60)

The Wasp did not hesitate to take credit for Kearney's and the WPC's undoing. In Keller's 1882 cartoon Siesta, a muse ("The Illustrated Press of America") lulls a number of satyr-like figures to sleep. In a typically demeaning rendering, swine commiserate on the lower right, one the "Chinese Question" and the other "Polygamy." A Mormon goat reclines next to porcine characters. Keller represents the "Indian Question" as a rattlesnake; the venomous reptile of the American West symbolizes the violent threat posed by America's indigenous peoples. He portrays the Southern Pacific Railroad as a vulture and the powerful corruption and avarice of emerging industrial capitalism ("Stocks") as the bull and bear. Behind the political figures in the foreground lies the skeleton of a donkey with a sword plunged into its chest. Kearney's trademark hat sits atop the sword's handle, accompanied by the note "Killed by the Wasp." Here Keller portrays the illustrated press generally through the simile of musical accompaniment and the Wasp specifically as the vehicle to lull both the powerful and problematic to sleep.

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Siesta, January 13, 1882

Image: Bancroft Library

The Wasp and the Closing of the Gate

With Congress debating Chinese exclusion in 1882, the Wasp did what it did best: it published finely drawn cartoons rendering in caricature the threat posed by the "Chinese menace." In Uncle Sam's Nightmare, Uncle Sam rests in his bed as the Mormon goat ("Polygamy") weighs him down and a trio of female Mormon goats watches in the background. A weight with an Asian face and the inscription "Chinese Question," supported by "Chinese hordes" behind it, creates an even heavier burden on the national symbol as he rests, oblivious to the imminent threats of immigration and polygamy.

More than anything else, however, what stands out is the construct of the two caricatures. Mormons resembled the American mainstream in race and national origin; cartoonists had to invent a stock character to represent them. But the very difference of the Chinese made it necessary only to exaggerate their putatively threatening cultural characteristics. For example, the repeated portrayal of Chinese eating rats symbolized their willingness to work for starvation wages. Chinese exoticism offered satirical artists the opportunity to render instantly recognizable stereotypes clothed in black humor.

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Uncle Sam's Nightmare, March 24, 1882

Image: Bancroft Library

While the Wasp regularly marked certain social groups as "problem" and subjected them to mockery and opprobrium, it took special pains to embed in its cartoons memorable, satirical messages about the West's "Chinese problem." The weekly's owners and staff knew well the attitudinal tenor of their readership and the emotional cues to which they would respond. After the Great Compromise, Korbel no longer used his weekly as a platform for his own political agenda, but rather to maximize his bottom line. As a cultural formation of western American society, The Wasp helped to amplify already smoldering grievances among the white working class west of the Rockies. It functioned as a major catalyst in the racist hysteria that culminated in the 1882 legislation heralding a sixty-one-year period of near-complete cessation of Chinese immigration to the United States.

part one... "Racism and Satire in the 19th Century"

part two... "The Case of the Chinese"


49. Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy, 113-14. For more on the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988) , 583-85.

50. Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy, 17, 112.

51. Pfaelzer, Driven Out, 77-78; Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy, 118-119.

52. West, The San Francisco Wasp, 14-15.

53. For more on organized Democratic violence begun during Mississippi's 1875 campaign, see Foner, Reconstruction, 559-63.

54. For more on Barksdale murdering Dixon, see the New York Times, Aug. 21, 1879. For more on the feud leading up to the DeYoung shooting Kalloch, see Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy, 139-40.

55. West, The San Francisco Wasp, 20.

56. The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp, Aug. 30, 1884.

57. The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp, Mar. 24, 1882.

58. Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy, 124-27.

59. Carl Swisher, Motivation and Political Technique in the California Constitutional Convention, 1878-1879 (Pomona: Pomona College Political Science Monograph Series, 1930), 21.

60. Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy, 146, 152, 171.