Empire and Exclusion, 1898–1940
The earliest persons of Asian and Pacific ancestries in Congress emerged from three distinct, but parallel, storylines: one set in America’s colonial government in the Philippines, another in annexed Hawaii, and a third on the U.S. West Coast into which Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants flowed to meet the demand for labor during the late 19th century before being abruptly barred. In combination, these various historical strands not only shaped the first half-century of APA experiences in Congress, but, indeed, many of the contours of later eras, including the persistence of exclusionary immigration and citizenship policies as well as thorny issues arising from territorial representation.
All 18 APA individuals who served in Congress between the aftermath of the War of 1898 and the end of World War II shared a common status: each was a statutory representative with limited legislative powers. A total of 13 Resident Commissioners from the Philippines served in the House between 1907 and 1946 while five Native Hawaiians served in the chamber, including the first APA in Congress, Delegate Wilcox.16 His successor, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, who was in the Hawaiian royal line of succession until the monarchy was overthrown in 1893, served nearly 19 years in the House. For many decades, he was the longest-serving APA in Congress, until Daniel K. Inouye, also from Hawaii, eclipsed his mark in 1978. While some previous Members of Congress claimed to trace their distant lineage to kings and queens, Kuhio is the only individual ever to move directly from the ranks of royalty to service in the U.S. Congress.17
The Philippines is the only American territory with representation in Congress to ever achieve its independence, and its transition from colonial status to freedom is intertwined with the history of the archipelago’s Resident Commissioners to Congress.
Located about 8,600 miles from Capitol Hill, the Philippines became part of the United States’ insular orbit following back-to-back wars for independence, first against the Spanish (with aid from the United States), and then against the United States, which claimed sovereignty over the islands following the Treaty of Paris, with major combat operations lasting from 1899 to 1902. Over the next few years, Republican presidential administrations in Washington worked with key Filipino officials to erect a territorial government and establish new terms for trade and commerce.
In the half-century before World War II, those two policies—insular status and trade—dominated the transpacific relationship between the Philippines and the United States. Both issues forced Congress to confront nettlesome questions about the territorial status of the Philippines, in particular, and America’s role in world affairs, in general: Was the Philippines a domestic entity entitled to U.S. military protection and annual appropriations? Was it foreign? Was it something else entirely? Democrats and Republicans rarely seemed to agree. For the first few decades of the 20th century, Republicans generally advocated retaining the islands. Democrats, meanwhile, tended to support more isolationist policies that would culminate in Philippine independence, freeing Congress from having to administer and protect a territory a half a world away.
Almost to a man, the Philippines’ 13 Resident Commissioners—the islands’ representatives in Washington who initially served in pairs—lobbied for beneficial tariff rates and more territorial autonomy. For decades—well before Congress ever became involved in the Philippines—independence had been the ultimate goal for the islands’ leaders, and for the vast majority of the people there, Philippine nationalism was the going intellectual currency. Gradually, behind the efforts of Resident Commissioners like Manuel L. Quezon, Jaime C. de Veyra, and Pedro Guevara, they chipped away at American authority in the Philippines. But timing was everything: win independence too quickly and the Philippines might flounder; pursue it too slowly and the Philippines might never get out from under America’s shadow. Finally, in 1934 Congress and the territorial legislature approved the Philippine Independence Act (the Tydings–McDuffie Act), authorizing the creation of a new Philippine constitution.
But before the split became official, World War II cruelly intervened. Japan invaded the Philippines, and, at the behest of American officials, the commonwealth government went into exile in the United States. After U.S. troops seized control of Manila in 1944, Congress considered a new trade deal and rehabilitation package to help the islands rebuild after being devastated during the conflict. The Philippines became an independent country in 1946.
To this date, the nearly 40-year succession of Philippine Resident Commissioners accounts for the second largest group of APAs in Congress, behind only the 16 individuals who represented Hawaii from annexation to the present.
The APA Hawaiian Delegates contended with a set of issues familiar to the Philippine Resident Commissioners: protecting the rights of the native population, promoting economic growth, and educating colleagues and the American public about the unique cultural, social, and economic facets of the islands, all while navigating Capitol Hill without the right to vote. But, unlike the Philippines, which was never seriously considered for incorporation into the Union, Hawaii’s strategic location in the Pacific made it a candidate for statehood.
As early as the 1820s, American Protestant missionaries traveled to the islands. But over the decades, fervor for spreading the gospel was supplanted by sugar production and development of the islands as a key port for merchant ships and, eventually, the U.S. Navy.
By the 1880s, the booming sugar businesses run by the American descendants of the missionaries dominated the islands’ economy and began to usurp power from the Native Hawaiians. These haole businessmen eventually toppled the Hawaiian monarchy and established a fledgling republic positioned to be annexed by the United States. The war with Spain provided the momentum to do just that, and Congress passed an annexation bill signed into law by President William McKinley in July 1898. Two years later, Congress passed the Hawaiian Organic Act, which provided for a presidentially appointed territorial governor, an elected bicameral island legislature, and a popularly elected Delegate to the U.S. Congress.
Five of the first seven Hawaiian Delegates to Congress had Native-Hawaiian ancestry, and they represented the islands for virtually the entire period from 1900 to 1943, excepting just three years in that span.18 Prince Kuhio set the bar for most who followed him. He acted as a one-man publicity bureau for the islands, educating official Washington and leading large annual congressional delegations to Hawaii. He emphasized Hawaii’s strategic importance, eventually convincing the Navy brass and Congress to spend millions in federal appropriations to build up Pearl Harbor and other military installations around the islands. Kuhio also sought to improve the lot of Native Hawaiians who had suffered in the transition from the monarchy to U.S. rule, most notably with his Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Kuhio and other Hawaiian Delegates also addressed issues such as protecting the sugar and tobacco industry from tariffs, advocating for Native-Hawaiian interests, and working with interests on the islands that were initially ambivalent about statehood.
Finally, U.S. immigration policy fundamentally shaped APA experiences in this era. The history of the early laws that regulated Asian migration to the mainland United States and excluded those already here help to explain why only Pacific Islanders in Congress dominate this era’s story, despite the fact that significant Chinese and Japanese communities had existed in the United States since the mid-19th century.
Beginning in the 1850s, young Chinese men streamed into the western United States in search of gold and later were recruited for constructing railroads, growing crops, or starting businesses. For a while, this flow of immigrant workers satiated a strong demand for cheap labor on the still sparsely populated frontier.
Driven by concerns that Asian immigrants would increase competition for jobs and never assimilate, nativist westerners demanded that state and federal governments limit Chinese immigration to the United States. By the 1870s, responding to agitation in states like California, Congress passed measures to do just that, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, the first such law of its kind in U.S. history.
By the early 20th century, as Japan competed with the United States as a Pacific power, Japanese immigration became a flashpoint. When protests in San Francisco resulted in support to segregate schools and ban further immigration, a full-blown diplomatic crisis ensued. In 1913 California, followed by Oregon and Washington, passed sweeping alien land laws that barred foreign-born Asians from owning real estate.
The anti-immigrant undertow ran even stronger in 1917 when Congress approved the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, effectively blocking immigration from an entire section of the globe and excluding Asian Indians and most people from South Asia, East Asia, and Polynesia (the law at first exempted Filipinos because of their legal status as U.S. nationals). By the early 1920s, amid a wave of reinvigorated nativism, the United States adopted a quota system that restricted total immigration by capping the number of individuals eligible to immigrate from particular countries, especially in Europe and Africa. In 1924, with passage of the Johnson–Reed Immigration Act (also known as the National Origins Act), Congress completely cut off all Japanese immigration.
These laws restricting Asian immigration and prohibiting Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens explain the absence of APA Members of Congress with full voting rights for nearly a century after they first began coming to the United States. Representative Dalip Singh (Judge) Saund of California, an immigrant from India, was the first to serve in the House in 1957. But Hiram L. Fong and Daniel K. Inouye, who both entered Congress in 1959 when Hawaii became a state, were the first Members of Congress of Chinese and Japanese ancestry, respectively. The first Japanese American and Chinese American from the mainland were not elected to Congress until California’s Norman Y. Mineta in 1975 and David Wu of Oregon in 1999, respectively.
16For purposes of continuity, Resident Commissioner Carlos Romulo’s profile is included with his one dozen predecessors who fit chronologically in this essay. Romulo was the last Philippine Resident Commissioner, appointed to a brief two-year term beginning in 1944 and ending with Philippine independence in 1946.
17See, for example, “Blue Blood: American Descendants of Royalty,” 20 February 1887, San Francisco Chronicle: 8.
18Henry Alexander Baldwin briefly succeeded Kuhio after his death in late 1922. Lincoln Loy McCandless served a single term in between Victor Houston and Samuel Wilder King. See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Henry Alexander Baldwin,” http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/8888; Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Lincoln Loy McCandless,” http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/17702.