|Some 19th Century American
Attitudes Toward Other Peoples
Beliefs people hold shape the way they view and interpret the world.
The readings and illustrations used in this lesson explore some 19th century
how they affected Americans’ response to Chinese immigration.
Start the lesson with a discussion about where we get information about places
and people we have little or no direct contact with.
Questions that could be used for discussion:
Where does their information come from?
How do television, movies, fiction (old and new), parents and peers shape
As students work through the activities, it is important for them to understand
that the writings and cartoons used in this lesson not only reflect what people
believed but also influenced what people believed.
One of the basic beliefs of the time was the conviction of the superiority
of white civilization over all others, a belief that deepened and expanded
over the course of the century. The excerpts from two mid-19th century Americans
(Some Early American Attitudes) reflect this belief.
It is important for students to note the change in thinking from Benton to
Hinton. One of Benton’s arguments for claiming the Oregon territory was
to bring civilization to the Mongolians whose civilization had once been the
most advanced. He felt that intermarriage and intermixing of whites and Mongolians
would improve the Mongolians. At the time of his speech (1846), there were
few Chinese in the western territories. By the time Hinton visited California
in 1855, there were significant numbers of Chinese in California and economic
and assimilation issues were becoming important in discussing Chinese immigration.
Hinton reflects these growing arguments.
By the late 19th century, ideas about race found full expression in Social
Darwinism which was widely accepted by white Americans. Because displays like
this one claimed to be based on “scientific research,” people believed
they were objective expressions of the truth, just as many people today equate
science with truth. The poster “Types and Development of Man” was
displayed at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis. The description that accompanied
the illustration has also been provided.
Questions to ask students as they look at this illustration:
How might the person who created this poster have decided where ethnic groups
fell on the scale of development from prehistoric to modern? What criteria
was he using? Are there similarities between groups in the bottom half and
those the top half? Differences?
Students may wonder why the Japanese fare
better on this poster than the Chinese. At this time, Japan was modernizing
using western technology
and adapting western models of government, education, etc. This,
in western eyes, indicated that the Japanese understood the superiority
of European civilization. In addition, the Japanese are represented
by a woman, implying all the connotations that “womanhood” carried — weakness
Which of these ethnic groups were likely to be represented in the population
of the United States in the 19th century?
Which three groups were denied access to the political and legal system
of the United States in the 19th century? Where do these groups
fall in this classification system of civilized and uncivilized peoples?
What is the message being conveyed by the picture in the middle? How do
you think white Americans of upper class Protestant descent expected
to fulfill this obligation to other groups?
Refer students back to Benton to look for an example
of this idea (“The
sun of civilization must shine across the sea...”).