A damning 1879 caricature of Denis Kearney, leader of the Workingmen’s Party of California, following his arrest for inciting a riot. Kearney and his party drew on the grievances of the largely Irish white working class in California, in particular against Chinese immigrants, whose willingness to work for low wages undercut Irish and other white workers.
Born in Ireland, Kearney arrived in San Francisco in 1871 and set up a successful business as a transporter of dry goods. He became involved in local politics, deeming himself a defender of the working man. He gave long speeches in the “Sandlot” before City Hall denouncing established politicians and businessmen, especially California’s railroad magnates. Though often prone to inciting violence, for which he was repeatedly arrested, Kearney did not initially direct his ire toward Chinese workers, but by 1878 this had become his most prominent theme.
The Workingmen’s Party, founded in 1877, quickly gained political prominence in California and won enough statewide representation in the 1878 elections to have the state’s constitution rewritten to deny Chinese immigrants citizenship rights. An attempt was even made to outlaw the hiring of Chinese workers entirely, though this and many other discriminatory measures were struck down by courts. The party was also influential in promoting the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. However, Kearney’s rhetoric and tactics eventually provoked a backlash, and he had become politically irrelevant by the mid-1880s.
The present lithograph both embodies and critiques the anti-Chinese racism behind Kearney’s movement and anti-Chinese sentiment more broadly. Though it depicts Chinese immigrants in a highly stereotyped fashion, it also delights in Kearney’s predicament, with a group of Chinese taunting him from outside his cell. Kearney was arrested on multiple occasions for inciting riots but was never convicted as courts could not find witnesses to testify against him (due to implied or real intimidation by his associates).
The line at the bottom of the piece is a satire of Kearney’s famous phrase “the Chinese must go!” with which he came to end every speech. Despite the intense racism prevalent at the time, even among Kearney’s opponents, the Chinese community in California tried to defend itself, with the activist and journalist Wong Chin Foo (王淸福) emerging as Kearney’s sharpest critic.
This lithograph was published by Isidor Nathan Choynski in or around the year 1879. It was originally issued in black-and-white, with this tinted edition being somewhat rarer. The print in either edition is held by the University of California Berkeley, the Newberry Library, the Library of Congress, and the American Antiquarian Society.