Capitation taxes

Definition: Head taxes levied on Chinese immigrants and laborers by the state of California

Also known as: Chinese Police Tax; Passenger taxes

Significance: During the 1850’s and 1860’s, the state of California singled out Chinese immigrants for capitation taxes, which were assessed on individual immigrants. These taxes were subsequently declared unconstitutional by California’s state supreme court as interfering with foreign commerce.

In 1849, the first Chinese laborers arrived in California, where they encountered great local resentment. Known derogatorily as “coolies,” they were subjected to various discriminatory laws. In 1852, for example, California imposed foreign miner’s licensing fees of three dollars per month on Chinese gold miners. Over the next two decades, this fee was steadily increased until it was ruled unconstitutional in 1870. In 1855, a capitation tax of fifty dollars was imposed on every Chinese immigrant to California. Also known as a head tax, a capitation tax is a direct tax on a person, as opposed to a tax on income, merchandise, or an economic transaction.

In the 1857 case of People v. Downer, California’s state supreme court held the 1855 capitation tax unconstitutional because it intruded with the exclusive power of the U.S. Congress to regulate commerce with foreign nations that was delegated to it by the U.S. Constitution. California responded in 1862 by enacting a law designed to “protect free white labor against competition with Chinese coolie labor, and discourage the immigration of Chinese into the State of California.” This new act levied a monthly $2.50 capitation tax on Chinese workers and merchants that was called the Chinese Police Tax.

In June, 1862, a Chinese laborer named Lin Sing brought suit against the San Francisco tax collector Washburn for a refund of the capitation taxes he had paid for the previous two months. After a magistrate and local court ruled against him, Lin Sing appealed to the state supreme court in what was apparently a concerted effort by the state’s Chinese community to resist discrimination. In its July, 1862, ruling in Lin Sing v.Washburn, California’s supreme court ruled the 1862 capitation tax unconstitutional. Citing its own People v. Downer precedent, the court found that the 1862 law demonstrated “special and extreme hostility to the Chinese” and likewise violated the foreign commerce powers exclusively vested in the U.S. Congress. The famous future U.S. Supreme Court justice Stephen J. Field dissented from the decision.

The history of these capitation tax cases demonstrates several things. The great hostility to Chinese in California immediately expressed itself in a host of discriminatory laws and taxes. The Chinese community made recourse to the courts to fight this discrimination. California’s supreme court showed itself sympathetic to the lawsuits and interpreted the foreign commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution in the most expansive manner in order to void discriminatory taxes. Although racial discrimination at the time was not illegal, the court behaved in a far-sighted manner by linking hostility against a particular ethnic group to other constitutional violations. Nevertheless California continued to enact discriminatory laws against the Chinese, many of which were beyond attack under then current jurisprudence. In addition, as the federal government assumed exclusive control over immigration during the 1880’s, it enacted its own discriminatory laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, designed to stop Chinese immigration to the United States.

Howard Bromberg

Further Reading

  • McClain, Charles. Chinese Immigrants and American Law. New York: Garland, 1994. 
  • _______. In Search of Equality. The Chinese Struggle Against Inequality in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 
  • Motomura, Hiroshi. Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States.NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2006. 
  • Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991. 

See also: Anti-Chinese movement; Asian immigrants; Assimilation theories; California; California gold rush; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Coolies; Economic consequences of immigration; Foreign miner taxes.

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