Gilded Age Immigration Cartoons
May 6, 2020, marked 138 years since the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur, the act banned Chinese immigration into the United States for ten years. Many in the U.S. despised Chinese immigrants, a group they believed did not integrate well into American culture and took jobs from Americans.
The late nineteenth century experienced one of the largest mass migrations in history. Millions of immigrants came to the United States from Europe, Asia, and other parts of North America. Immigrants who settled in the United States faced many challenges upon arriving. While large-scale immigration to the United States had occurred since the 1840s, the influx of so many immigrants during the Gilded Age presented unique tensions in American society. This led to increased debate over immigration, citizenship, and the restriction of immigration. Immigrants arriving during the Gilded Age included large numbers of eastern Europeans and Asians. Cartoons from the period reflect differing perspectives on the new wave of immigrants. Some welcomed these men and women as a new source of cheap labor; others viewed these newcomers with suspicion.
This lesson is adapted from materials contained in the Bill of Rights Institute’s forthcoming U.S. History resource entitled Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: A History of the American Experiment. This free online resource covers 1491 to the present day, is aligned to the College Boards AP U.S. history framework, and will be available for use in the 2020 school year. Visit the website to learn more and to receive updates.
During the Gilded Age, political cartoons were used to dramatically illustrate arguments. This often meant playing up stereotypes in order to score political points. View the cartoons below and evaluate each illustrator’s viewpoints by answering the questions below each image. It may be easiest to have students view the images through the links.
The Anti-Chinese Wall, 1882
The caption reads: “The Anti-Chinese wall—The American wall goes up as the Chinese original goes down.” This cartoon shows stereotypes of laborers who include Irishmen, an African American, a Civil War veteran, an Italian, a Frenchman, and a Jewish person, all building a wall against the Chinese. The mortar used to mount the blocks is labeled “congressional mortar.” The blocks carried by each laborer are labeled prejudice, nonreciprocity, the law against race, fear, and so forth. Across the sea, a ship flying the American flag enters China, as the Chinese knock down their own wall and permit trade with the United States.
- Based on this image, what was the author’s view of the Chinese at the time this cartoon was created?
- Why do you think the artist has China tearing down its wall as the U.S. builds one?
Puck cartoon, 1889
The man standing at the edge of the bowl holds a knife and flag that reads “Clan na Gael.” Clan na Gael was an organization that desired Irish independence and used violence to fight British oppression. Until the formal establishment of the Irish free state in 1922, Ireland was controlled by the British empire.
- Based on this depiction of the Irishman, what was the artist’s opinion of the Irish people?
- What additional image in this cartoon supports the artist’s view of the Irish?
- Compare this image with the previous cartoon, “The Anti-Chinese Wall” from 1882.
Anti-Jewish cartoon, 1890
A stereotyped Jewish immigrant is carrying bags that read “poverty,” “disease,” “sabbath desecration,” “anarchy,” and “superstition” as he attempts to enter the United States through a gate that reads “United States of America. Admittance Free. Walk in!”
- According to the artist, what problems did the Jewish immigrant bring to the United States?
- Explain the irony of the sign on the wall and Uncle Sam’s expression.
Historical Reasoning Questions
- Do these cartoons present immigrants in a positive or negative light? Support your answer with evidence.
- How have views of immigration changed or stayed the same in U.S. history from the Gilded Age to the modern-day? Explain your answer.