'Unfree' in early California, A different view of Reconstruction

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Stacy Smith

To understand the American story of emancipation and Reconstruction, asserts historian Stacey Smith, it is necessary to look not only north and south but also west.

In 1849, delegates to the California constitutional convention voted unanimously to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude within state boundaries. One year later, California entered the Union as a free state.

Yet, from the gold rush to the 1880s, California was home not only to illegal African slavery, but also a state-operated system of Native American indenture and apprenticeship, Latin American and Chinese labor, and systems of sexual trafficking in Chinese and Indian women.

The state was also home to many who protested race-based bondage in all its forms.

“Perhaps most importantly, it was a place where complicated forms of unfreedom persisted in the face of a free constitution that prohibited slavery,” said Smith, a Center Research Fellow and assistant professor of history at OSU. Smith’s book-in-progress, California Bound: Unfree Labor, Race, and the Reconstruction of the Far West aims to tell the story of the complex world of unfree labor, how it came into being, how Californians struggled over its meanings and contradictions, and how it ended.

Unlike the standard narrative that depicts the struggle over slavery as a contest between North and South, free labor and slave labor, black and white, Smith’s book will open geographic and cultural boundaries.
“Once we expand the frame of vision to include California and the Far West, it becomes clear that the dilemmas raised by slavery and emancipation touched distant corners of North America.” Moreover, said Smith, the California story gives a very different regional picture of the transition from bondage to liberty, one in which contests over the meaning of human freedom and human difference could not easily be contained by binary categories of black or white, slave or free.

“The book weaves together the histories of California’s multiple unfree populations to construct a broader narrative about the state’s bound labor systems and the diverse people who endured them, profited from them, and argued about them.” The stories of these groups have been told before individually, Smith said, but bound together in her book they reveal a common struggle over the meaning of freedom in California, “a tortuous, and torturous, process by which relations of free labor came, at least ostensibly, to replace those of bondage.”

Delegates to California’s constitutional convention not only sought to prevent slavery from expanding to the Pacific, but they were eager to restrict migration of semi-bound African-American, Pacific Islander, and Latin American men. “Though slavery appeared to be a clear-cut type of unfree labor inimical to California’s free state status, slaveholders and proslavery officials proved adept at minipulating and reinterpreting state laws to protect rights to slave property.”

Like the 1849 constitutional convention debates, said Smith, the controversy over contract labor was deeply inflected with the language of race, gender, and citizenship as Anglo legislators argued over whether Chinese and black contract workers were free men or degraded slaves who would corrupt the state economy and polity.

“The confusing status of these labor systems—were they examples of voluntary contract or insidious forms of unfree labor?—generated intense disputes about how the government of a free state should regulate them.”

Smith discusses the evolution of apprenticeship laws in California, and how the binding of Indian and black children—and eventually adult Indians—into white households became tightly linked to ideas about white supremacy and male mastery.

During the 1860s, as slavery was eroding in the U.S. South, antislavery Republicans gained power in California politics. Republicans repealed discriminatory legislation, including Indian apprenticeship and anti-black testimony laws, but at the same time many embraced the language of antislavery to justify barring Chinese male “coolies” and Chinese female “harlot serfs” from the state.

Returning to power in 1867, Democrats continued the trend through Reconstruction policies that “used the radical idiom of antislavery as a basis for Chinese exclusion. Initially California oddities, these peculiar anti-Chinese, antislavery discourses eventually fed into national Reconstruction politics in the 1870s and 1880s.

“They became integral components of the federal Page Law of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the harshest race-based immigration restriction measure of the nineteenth century—all this in a nation that had, in most of its other Reconstruction policy, discountenanced arbitrary distinctions and inequalities based on race and color. . . The primacy of anti-Chinese discourse to national racial and immigration policy in the 1870s reveals that California’s own distinctive contests over the meaning of human freedom remade the face of Reconstruction itself.”