Author Interview: Beth Lew-Williams

Author Interview: Beth Lew-Williams

Today we share an interview with Beth Lew-Williams, who published an article in the December 2023 JCWE, titled “Chinese Naturalization, Voting, and Other Impossible Acts.” Beth Lew-Williams is an associate professor of history at Princeton University. She is a historian of race and migration in the United States, specializing in Asian American History.

What interested you in contributing to this special forum on the transpacific connections to the Civil War era? 

Rarely have I identified as a historian of the Civil War era, despite my focus on the mid-nineteenth century. I come to the Civil War era field via Asian American history and the Pacific West. These fields have been treated as peripheral for a long time. But JCWE is taking a new, broader approach to the field and I’ve been inspired by their work. So when Hidetaka Hirota came to me with the idea of this special issue, I saw it as an important challenge for both the authors and the readers.

What are the key takeaways that you hope that readers might gain from your article on Chinese naturalization and voting rights? 

In the nineteenth-century, US naturalization law said that Chinese immigrants could not become citizens.  Historians have assumed that the law described reality. But in fact, I found that thousands of Chinese immigrants naturalized before 1900. This raises a host of new questions: How did the Chinese manage to naturalize and why did they do so? What does this say about the nature of US citizenship and alienage? If the Chinese found ways to naturalize, did they also find ways to vote?

What I’ve uncovered is a quiet story of resistance which I think deserves attention from scholars teaching the Civil War era. Rather than presuppose that Chinese were easily excluded from citizenship and voting, we should pay attention to their struggle for rights, their wins as well as their losses, and the overlap with more familiar stories of Black citizenship and disenfranchisement.

After this forum, what’s next? Can you provide our readers with a preview of your current research project? 

I’m nearing completion of my second book, currently titled John Doe China Man (forthcoming, Harvard University Press)It examines hundreds of state and local laws regulating Chinese migrants in California, Oregon, and Washington during the late nineteenth century.

When it comes to the history of Chinese in America, the border has caught our eyes and held them. Chinese migrants’ attempts to cross the border, and America’s attempts to stop them, is the story we have told and retold. But long before Chinese faced the first exclusion laws, they endured a racial regime within America, and long afterwards as well. My next book is the history of that racial regime and the lives it touched.


Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

One Reply to “Author Interview: Beth Lew-Williams”

  1. Beth Lew-Wallace’s “Chinese Naturalization, Voting, and Other Impossible Acts” is full of remarkable case studies that challenge the standard picture of naturalization and voting in the Reconstruction era. A few more details can further complicate that picture.
    Looking retrospectively, Professor Lew-Wallace considers the thought of people of Chinese ancestry voting in the US at the time “impossible.” That was not the case for Mark Twain when he reported on the 1868 Burlingame Treaty for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Professor Lew-Wallace’s reference to the Burlingame Treaty highlights its provision in Section 6 that “nothing herein contained may be held to confer naturalization upon citizen of the United States in China, nor upon the subjects of China in the United States” (519). In contrast, Twain praised Section 6 for “at one sweep” invalidating “all the crippling, intolerant, and unconstitutional laws framed by California against Chinamen.” Even though the thought of Chinese voting was once an “ingenious flight of fancy,” he predicted, the “time is near when they will vote.”
    Twain obviously miscalculated the treaty’s effect. Nonetheless, his prediction of pending Chinese suffrage is noteworthy, especially because elsewhere he criticized proponents of universal suffrage. Instead, Twain advocated literacy tests, the first of which was aimed at Irish immigrants and enacted in 1854 Connecticut, where he would later make his home. In Roughing It (1872) he noted: “All Chinamen can read, write and cipher with easy facility—pity but all our petted voters could.”
    Twain is also helpful in recreating the views of at least some at the time because he briefly served as secretary for Senator William Stewart of Nevada, who framed the language of the Fifteenth Amendment. Professor Lew-Wallace writes that “The Fifteenth Amendment pledged federal protection of Black suffrage, a promise that would for a short time transform the American electorate. But the amendment did not apply to Chinese migrants” (520). In fact, African American voters had the most impact on a presidential election in 1868 before ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 required former Confederate states—except Tennessee—to allow African American males over twenty-one to vote on new state constitutions. Those constitutions almost always allowed African American male suffrage. The immediate effect of the Fifteenth Amendment was to invalidate laws prohibiting African American suffrage in northern, western, and border states where far fewer African Americans lived. Indeed, under the Fifteenth Amendment, which allowed literacy tests, like the one in Connecticut, states later ratified new constitutions disenfranchising many African Americans who had previously voted.
    This is what Senator Stewart had to say about suffrage. Prior to passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, he proposed “universal amnesty,” which, by allowing former Confederates to vote would have restored the Union “with Government in the hands of the intelligent white men; ignorant negroes and whites being excluded until they could attain qualifications entitling them to vote.” Looking retrospectively on the Fifteenth Amendment after late nineteenth-century disfranchisement, he wrote: “It would have been much wiser to adopt restrictions, excluding the ignorant, vicious, and incompetent of all classes by tests which would limit the voting population to intelligent citizens with some interest in the welfare of the country. But the effect of the amendment has been what I supposed it would be, to secure for the negro in Northern States his right to vote without interruption.” Stewart expressed no concern about disfranchised African Americans in the South.

    In contrast to Stewart, the lawyer/author Albion W. Tourgée called the Fifteenth Amendment almost “worthless for the purposes for which it was devised,” adding “I regard the right of the illiterate man to vote as more important than the right of the better educated man.” Indeed, in 1890 Tourgée framed a federal elections bill that a Kansas Republican sponsored in Congress to address suppression of the African American vote in the South. It mandated that anyone who had previously voted in federal elections be allowed to do so, thus subverting efforts to disfranchise many African Americans. Republicans, however, chose a less effective bill sponsored by Henry Cabot Lodge who endorsed literacy tests. Even that bill failed when some Republicans allied with Democrats to defeat it. Stewart led the Republicans opposing the bill.

    Stewart, however, was not as xenophobic as many western politicians, like President Grant’s attorney general George Williams. Stewart was friends with Leland Stanford, who needed Chinese labor for his railroad. In 1884 Stewart was in private legal practice in San Francisco when Look Tin Sing petitioned for citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment due to his birth in California. In circuit court Stewart successfully argued for Look Tin Sing. It would take another fourteen years for the Supreme Court definitively to settle the question of birthright citizenship for those of Chinese descent in US v. Wong Kim Ark (1898). As a senator, Stewart also made sure that the first act designed primarily to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment included Section 16, which made no reference to voting but did invalidate a tax denounced by Twain that California imposed on immigrants from China and nowhere else.

    That Enforcement Act and three others passed in 1870-71 point to another complication about voting in the period. Usually portrayed as protecting the rights of African American voters in the South, these acts also contained numerous provisions aimed at restricting the immigrant vote in northern cities that had caused the Republican Grant to lose New York in the 1868 election. Professor Lew-Williams assumes, as do most scholars, that someone had to be a citizen to vote. For instance, she writes that the provision in the 1879 California Constitution prohibiting any “native of China” from ever voting seemed unnecessary, “given that according to federal law, no ‘native of China’ had an apparent path to US citizenship” (520). The language of the Fifteenth Amendment, which describes the “right of citizens of the United States to vote,” bolsters the assumption that only citizens could vote. But, as Tourgée pointed out, when the amendment was ratified, thirteen states allowed non-citizen residents to vote.

    To be sure, states began to change their laws to prohibit non-citizen suffrage, but as late as the 1888 election the anti-immigrant American Party advocated a constitutional amendment prohibiting “the federal and state governments from conferring upon any person the right to vote unless such person be a citizen of the United States.” Without such an amendment, there is no obvious constitutional barrier today from keeping a state from granting non-citizen residents the right to vote, although it would not be barred from discriminating against them in terms of race, color, previous condition of servitude, and sex. States could also theoretically mandate a higher age limit for non-citizen voters than eighteen.

    Obviously, in the decades after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment no state was about to create provisions for Chinese immigrants to vote. The trend was for states across the nation to restrict suffrage, whether for African Americans in the South or immigrants in the North and West. The case of Native Americans was somewhat different. Professor Lew-Williams writes that “most Native Americans” were excluded from citizenship for not being “‘under the jurisdiction’ of the United States” (519). In fact, Native Americans were considered under US jurisdiction. But those born within tribal jurisdiction were not considered completely under US jurisdiction and thus not granted birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment. Nonetheless, some tribes had already made treaties granting them citizenship. Many members of those tribes voted. Furthermore, Native Americans born outside of tribal jurisdiction were eligible for birthright citizenship. The Dawes Act, which responded to the case of Elk v. Wilkins (1884) that denied a Native American born under tribal jurisdiction birthright citizenship and thus the right to vote in Kansas, held out the possibility of voting as an incentive to renounce tribal loyalty.

    In such a climate Professor Lew-Williams’s case studies are an invaluable resource. The ingenuity of Chinese Americans who managed to naturalize and vote at the time is inspiring. I hope my comments help appreciate how complicated their situations were.

    (For more on some of these issues, see my forthcoming essay in J19: “Twain and Tourgée on Gilded Age Voting Rights and Election Laws” and Civic Myths: A Law and Literature Approach to Citizenship (2007).

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