Segment from To be a Citizen?

In The Shadow Of Chinese Exclusion

Imagine living in a country without the ability to become a citizen. Meanwhile, you endure discrimination and outright hostility on a daily basis because of your ethnicity. This was the struggle of Chinese people living in the U.S. for decades. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred immigration for Chinese laborers and declared the Chinese ineligible for citizenship. Joanne talks with historian Mary Lui about the ripples of the Chinese Exclusion Act and how some court cases challenged the limitations of citizenship.


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Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Brian Balogh: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory. Welcome to BackStory. The show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Brian Balogh.

Joanne Freeman: I’m Joanne Freeman.

Nathan Connolly: I’m Nathan Connolly.

Joanne Freeman: If you’re new to the podcast, we’re all historians and each week we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Brian Balogh: I want to start today in the Lone Star State. It’s the 1850s and Texas is going through some pretty big changes. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 had ended the Mexican-American War. The deal gave the United States what is today the southwest region of the country.

Nathan Connolly: But Texas is already a state by the time the Mexican-American War rolls around. What does the Treaty of Hidalgo mean for Texas?

Brian Balogh: Well, it gives Hispanics in the area the option to naturalize. By signing this treaty, Mexicans living in Texas were able to declare themselves US citizens. So all of a sudden, there are a bunch of Mexicans and Texans who are now American. But the US has just finished a bloody war with Mexico, so things were still pretty tense in states like Texas. This tension comes to a head with a cart war in 1857. It’s a series of attacks on cart men traveling around San Antonio.

Joanne Freeman: I’m sorry. Did you say cart men? Is that some kind of a job description?

Brian Balogh: Cart men, wagoners, teamsters. They had a couple of different titles. They transported goods on carts around San Antonio and in the 1850s, Hispanics pretty much had a monopoly on that industry. And the white Americans, well, they weren’t happy about that.

Larry Knight: They terrorized them, but like all of us when we do something we know is wrong, they also rationalized it. Their rationalization is these people are not Americans.

Brian Balogh: That’s historian, Larry Knight. He’s researched the Cart War in Texas history in the mid-1800s.

Larry Knight: Well, according to the people with carts in Goliad County, these cart men who had been going through their counties for years and years and years are thieves. When they go by … It’s sort of like the idea of Gypsies in Europe. The Gypsies come by and your property is missing. Now, there doesn’t seem to be any proof of that, so there is this old idea that they’re thieves. But it’s mostly racism.

Brian Balogh: The Cart War gets some attention after a few attacks. But the public really takes notice after a man named Antonio Delgado is killed.

Larry Knight: Delgado is one of the few cart men murdered in the Cart Wars. Now, his killing was not focused. I mean they didn’t ride into camp to kill him. The men who killed him probably didn’t know who he was. But he had fought in that Battle of Medina in 1813 and then fled from San Antonio because the Spanish were coming in. The Spanish occupation was horrendous. But Delgado and his brother escaped to New Orleans where he ends up in time to fight on the side of the Americans under General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans.

Larry Knight: And then in 1830s and the 1830s, 1835 particularly, he is a dispatch carrier for the Texas Army. So he’s fought for liberty in some way or other on three different occasions. He’s killed and there’s a writeup in the State Gazette published in Austin, but it’s written in San Antonio. It says that, “What a deplorable catastrophe that a man who throughout his life-”

James Scales: “A man who throughout his life had rendered such valuable aid to the cause of liberty should have fallen basely murdered by the hands of a dastardly set of assassins who are a disgrace to the American name.”

Larry Knight: In that last part, they’re playing on the fact that the people who killed Delgado considered he was a Mexican. He wasn’t an American and therefore, killing him was no big deal. So the writer of this is saying he was an American, because what could be a more succinct definition of American than someone who loves liberty enough to fight for it?

Nathan Connolly: So even though he fought for the US, his attackers killed him because they didn’t consider him a “American.”

Brian Balogh: Right. And even though he was Hispanic, he was still an American citizen.

Larry Knight: Delgado would have either declared for citizen or he would have simply, after one year of not declaring, would have become a citizen. That wasn’t enough for the people who killed him obviously.

Joanne Freeman: It sounds like the story of Antonio Delgado and the Cart War in Texas is an example of, okay, you may be a US citizen and you have fought in some wars, but that doesn’t count for everything.

Brian Balogh: That’s right. Knight says ideas of citizenship were changing constantly in Texas during this time period and it was closely tied to culture, not necessarily documentation.

Larry Knight: The definition of American changes between 1848 and 1861, in other words, between the end of the war with Mexico and the beginning of the Civil War. Because in the early 1850s, many things that are Mexican are outlawed in San Antonio. There’s a Sabbath law. If you go to church, you don’t go out after that and go dancing or gambling or cock fighting or horseback riding. Things that were Mexican were outlawed. You can be an American, but you’ve got to change your culture. You’ve got to change the things that you do.

Larry Knight: Then after the Cart War, we’re going to shift as the nation begins to pull apart. There is this idea that you have to be a believer in slavery and the Southern way of life to be an American. This target of what’s an American is both a mobile target, especially in San Antonio, but it’s also one of the questions is, who gets to decide this? Who gets to make this decision? I think we have the same thing today. I mean we have so many definitions. I think if you ask 30 people to define what an American citizen is, you’d probably get 31 answers.

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Citizenship Lesson Set

Download the Citizenship Lesson Set

The question of citizenship is one that permeates a conversation of US History. From the founding documents and their tension with the Alien and Sedition Act, to the story of enslaved Africans, Dred Scot, and the Reconstruction Amendments, and throughout US History with movements of nativism and protectionist immigration policies. As teachers we return to these themes throughout our coursework. This lesson treatment takes a closer look at the sectional crisis building from 1830 to 1860 and the impact of The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and asks students to define citizenship and inclusion for various groups.


Classroom Connections No. 1: The Chinese Exclusion Act (video)

Discussion Questions and Additional Resources for the video