George Frederick Seward and the Chinese Exclusion Act

This post was written by Heather Mulliner, spring semester intern in the Department of Manuscripts.

George Frederick Seward Papers
George Frederick Seward Papers

A career in politics seemed all but inevitable for George Frederick Seward, the nephew of Lincoln’s famed Secretary of State (and one-time Presidential rival) William Henry Seward. But like his better-known uncle – whose vocal opposition to slavery cost him the Presidential nomination – George Frederick Seward’s political ambitions were thwarted by his stand on a controversial issue.

G.F. Seward’s career as a diplomat began in 1861, when he was only 21, with an appointment as US Consul to Shanghai. He served as a diplomat to China for the next twenty years, eventually rising to the position of Minister to China in 1875.  A few years later, though, the United States shifted its policy toward China and began a series of negotiations that would abruptly end Seward’s political career, and eventually result in passage of the most restrictive immigration law ever adopted by Congress: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Throughout the 1870s, anti-Chinese sentiment began to infiltrate American political discourse. Led primarily by legislators in California, Congress began to seek laws to restrict Chinese immigration. But before the United States could pass any such laws, it needed to renegotiate a set of treaties with the Chinese government to avoid violating international law. In 1879 Congress passed a bill severely restricting Chinese immigration, which allowed only fifteen Chinese passengers on any ship coming to the United States. President Hayes vetoed the bill, despite the fact that he favored restricting Chinese immigration, on the grounds that it violated international treaties. He instead decided that the United States needed to renegotiate its treaties with China to allow for greater immigration restrictions. As Minister to China, it was Seward’s responsibility to lead the negotiations.

Seward opposed the restriction of Chinese immigration, but he nonetheless accepted the role as key negotiator of the new treaty. He simply structured the terms of negotiation to fit his own beliefs about immigration. Rather than seeking a treaty that completely limited Chinese immigration, Seward instead negotiated one that only restricted the immigration of “disfavored classes” such as paupers, the sick, and prostitutes. The Chinese government accepted Seward’s treaty, but there was one problem: the State Department never approved his plan.

George Frederick Seward Papers, MS 557.
George Frederick Seward Papers, MS 557.

Seward claimed that he received approval from the Secretary of State prior to the negotiations, but once he entered into talks with the Chinese government, the State Department failed to respond to his reports. The State Department contended however that Seward never informed them of his negotiations and by the summer of 1880, they sent someone else to China to replace him. Whether or not Seward actually received approval for his treaty is unclear, but he never forgot the sting of his dismissal. Although he moved on to a highly successful career in the insurance industry (serving as the president of the Fidelity and Casualty Company), Seward continued to be an outspoken critic of the United States’ treatment of Chinese citizens until his death.

History has vindicated Seward’s position: the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943, and in 2012 Congress issued a formal apology to Chinese-American people, expressing regret for the discriminatory law.  To explore the fascinating history of trade and immigration between China and the United States, please visit our upcoming exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, opening September 26, 2014.



  1. Dan Meissner says

    I am researching the diplomatic career of George F. Seward, and thus examining his letters is crucial. Can you give me any indication of the size of the collection?

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