Author Interview: Hidetaka Hirota

Author Interview: Hidetaka Hirota

Today we share an interview with Hidetaka Hirota who edited the December 2023 JCWE special issue on the transpacific connections in the Civil War era. Hidetaka Hirota is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth Century Origins of American Immigration Policy (2017).

What interested you in doing this special issue on the transpacific connections to the Civil War era? 

The project is rooted in my scholarly interests in the Civil War era, U.S. immigration history, and transnational history. Originally trained as a historian of transatlantic immigration in the mid-nineteenth century, I have followed trends in the field of the Civil War era and been particularly interested in attempts to internationalize the Civil War era by placing developments in the United States within broader geographical and transnational contexts.

At the same time, as my current research pays increasing attention to Asian immigration and Pacific history, I developed growing interests in Civil War America’s connections with Asia and the Pacific. This dimension has received relatively scant attention in international Civil War scholarship, which tends to focus on the relationship between the United States and the Atlantic World, although there are important works that examine the perceptions of Asian labor and Asian immigrants’ experiences in the Civil War era, such as Moon-Ho Jung’s study of the importation of Chinese workers to the post-emancipation South. Inspired by these works, I have become deeply interested in how race, labor, empire, and gender in the nineteenth-century United States were shaped by engagements with Asia and the Pacific. When Kate Masur and Greg Downs, the editors of the Journal of the Civil War Era, asked me if I’d be interested in developing a special issue on Civil War America’s relations with Asia and the Pacific, I eagerly accepted their invitation.

What are the key takeaways that you hope that readers might gain from the special issue?

I hope that readers see how transpacific connections were integral to U.S. history in the Civil War era. The special issue illuminates two themes. One is the emergence during the 1860s and 1870s of new discourses that challenged dominant gender and racial ideologies in the nineteenth-century United States because of diplomatic exchanges with Japan and Black Americans’ transpacific migration to that country. The other is the rights of Asians in the United States in the Civil War era. The meanings and boundaries of freedom and citizenship for Asians might sound familiar to colleagues in the field, but the special issue shows how transpacific systems of human trafficking and the United States’ overseas expansion provided important contexts in which Asian immigrants pursued their rights in postbellum America.

Beyond these specific themes, I hope that the special issue invites historians to consider Asia and the Pacific as they study the United States in the Civil War era more generally. I also want to see more integration of Asian American history into Civil War era scholarship. The purpose of the special issue is to stimulate, rather than conclude, inquiries along these lines. Focusing on the Japanese and Chinese contexts with strong attention to the Pacific rim, the special issue has an admittedly limited scope. I’d particularly look forward to seeing more research on Pacific Islanders in Civil War America.

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

I am currently working on a book project that examines the fundamental tension in U.S. history between nativism against foreigners and demand for their labor. Opponents of immigration criticized foreign workers for allegedly lowering American wage standards and threatening Americans’ employment. And yet, the industrial, commercial, and economic development of the United States created insatiable demand for immigrant labor. My project traces how this tension evolved over the importation by American employers of contract workers from Asia, Canada, Mexico, and Europe between the 1880s and the 1920s. Viewing imported workers as unfree, servile people, organized labor pressured the federal government to pass the Foran Act in 1885. Known as the alien contract labor law, it criminalized the importation of contract workers from abroad and punished their importers with fines and imprisonment. For the next four decades, government officials extensively applied the alien contract law to prevent labor importation, while capitalists and business owners constantly evaded the law to obtain foreign labor.

By examining racial, economic, and gender discourse on foreign labor, the transnational business of importing contract workers, and federal officials’ efforts to enforce the alien contract labor law, my project illuminates how a national immigration regime emerged in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Antipathy to contract workers from Japan, India, Canada, Mexico, and diverse European countries in this period was founded upon the racist and nativist view of Chinese labor as a form of slave labor in the Civil War era. My project, in this sense, illuminates the legacies of the era for the development of U.S. immigration policy.


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).

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