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"We know them all as men who shall receive the protection of the law": Chinese Participants in the Courts of Port Townsend, Washington Territory Kirchmeier, Glynnis

Abstract

Studies of the relationship between American law and Chinese migrants in the nineteenth century have focused upon the legal, administrative, and social effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), elite merchant use of contract law, and the failure of law enforcement to address or prevent mass anti-Chinese violence by whites in the mid-1880s. The literature has neglected, however, detailed inquiry into the practices of everyday law, or the legal resolutions of mundane, small stakes conflicts in specific local contexts. For Port Townsend, Washington Territory, study of the practice of law during the territorial period reveals that in this locality, Chinese litigants of transient or labourer status could access the court to recoup unpaid debts and, rarely, to redress instances of everyday violence. The professionals of the courts - judges, clerks, and lawyers - as well as juries of whites from the community, all regularly granted Chinese defendants and litigants their rights to testimony and due process throughout the territorial period. This is significant because the court system granted the rights even during moments of anti-Chinese political power, which shielded some defendants from the effects of racially targeted municipal ordinances. The evidence also shows that coercive and punitive aspects of migrant-official legal relations, including the refusal to grant a defendant's rights, did not enter into other areas of law beyond the charges under the Exclusion Act. It is also significant because indigenous peoples in Washington Territory (and, in Port Townsend itself, the Klallam and Chimakum) consistently endured far fewer rights and rights which changed more drastically within the American legal system at the same time, thus signalling that white Americans judged Chinese to be more like themselves than indigenous peoples. The unenthusiastic efforts of law enforcement to punish everyday violence against Chinese victims, however, shows that whites did not consider Chinese victims worth protecting except in cases where community actions clearly sanctioned official action.

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