William Speer’s An Humble Plea

Publication Year: 1856

Speer, William, 1822-1904. An Humble Plea ... In Behalf of the Immigrants from the Empire of China to this State. (San Francisco, CA: Published at the Office of The Oriental, 1856).
PHS Call number: PAM E 184 .C5 S7 1856

Source thumbnail image: Portrait of William Speer, undated (PHS, Pearl Digital Collections)
Reading suggestions

See especially pages 28-32, "Morals of the Chinese."

Read more
Source note

Please see the biographical information on Reverend William Speer above, for Document 2. Speer wrote this defense of Chinese immigrants in response to anti-Chinese laws passed in the early 1850s by the California legislature, specifically the laws establishing, and then raising, the Foreign Miners License Tax. This law imposed a hefty monthly tax on Chinese miners and included provisions for aggressive tax collection methods. Speer’s defense of Chinese immigrants made an impression on lawmakers in the state, though he was not alone in fighting to have the laws repealed: heavy taxes were driving away Chinese miners and lowering the profits of many others in the mining trade, and taxes on Chinese immigrants directly hurt the shipping companies that brought them to America. Throughout the short time Speer spent in California, he advocated passionately and often effectively for the rights of Chinese immigrants and worked hard to help this immigrant group. He also held what we now consider racist and patronizing views of the Chinese that seem at odds with his humanitarian efforts. In this way, he is a great example of the contradictions common among American missionaries of this era.

Read more
Reading questions

1.    Who is the author of this document, and what is their purpose for writing it?

2.    Speer starts off the section “Morals of the Chinese” by writing that he “is often made most deeply sensible of [Chinese people’s] moral inferiority to the specimens of purity and excellence produced by genuine Christianity” (page 28). Given that he is trying to defend the Chinese from unfair laws, why would he start off his argument by denigrating them?

3.    On page 29, Speer mentions four positive traits of the Chinese people. What are these traits, and why might Speer find them important to mention in his Plea?

4.    Why does Speer quote Lai Chun-Chuen in saying that he wished the US government would ban gambling houses and prostitution (page 29)? What purpose does this statement serve in Speer’s broader argument?

5.    According to Speer, why are Chinese people particularly prompt in paying their debts (page 30)?

6.    On pages 30 and 31, Speer quotes and paraphrases a white American store owner who used to have several Chinese miners as his customers. What does he report about the Chinese miners, and how does this support Speer’s argument?

Read More
Source type
History Topics
Chinese American History
Mission History
Presbyterian History
Time Period
Slavery, Sectionalism, and Social Reform (1815-1861)