A conversation between Kevin Kenny, author of The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic, and Christen Sasaki, author of Pacific Confluence. Kenny’s book shows hows slavery was an essential component in the making of US immigration policy in the 19th century. Sasaki reframes the history of annexation in Hawai’i as far from inevitable by placing in conversation the role of competing global sovereignties and the role and resistance of the Indigenous population.
Part I: Christen Sasaki Interviews Kevin Kenny. (Part II)
Christen Sasaki (CS): Your book brought together two cornerstones of US history, national immigration policy and the system of slavery, in such a unique way. Could you share how you began to think of each in relation to the other?
Kevin Kenny (KK): Most of my writing before this book was the history of ordinary immigrants, sometimes engaged in protest, often just seeking to make a life for themselves. In my teaching, as in my writing, I had never really considered the question of who claimed authority over immigration and on what grounds. In the United States today, the federal government controls immigration, in the sense of deciding who to admit, exclude, or remove. But Congress played almost no role in regulating immigration before the 1870s; towns and states controlled the arrival of foreigners as well as mobility within and across their borders. In a slaveholding republic with sovereignty divided between the states and the national government, mechanisms for controlling the mobility of different groups of people were closely interrelated. My book demonstrates how slavery, abolition, and its legacies shaped American immigration policy as it moved from the local to the national level over the course of the nineteenth century.
CS: Why do you think it’s so important for us to recognize how the legacies of slavery shaped our national immigration policy?
KK: Let me first enter a caveat. Although enslaved Africans and their descendants migrated involuntarily, I am not seeking to subsume their history into immigration history. On the contrary, my book seeks to explain how slavery set the conditions for immigration policy. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, with its system of arbitrary removal, lack of due process, and lack of judicial oversight, prefigured postbellum federal policies for deporting immigrants. Antebellum state laws that required free Black people to register and carry papers and subjected them to corporal punishment and expulsion, provided models for federal policies directed at Chinese immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s. The abolition of slavery cleared a path toward a national immigration policy, but the first iteration of that policy—Chinese exclusion—rested on a distorted version of antislavery ideology that cast so-called coolies as slaves. When confronted by horrendous images from the Texas-Mexico border in recent years, it is difficult not think of some of these precedents for policing migrant bodies in the nineteenth century.
The dilemmas of immigration federalism, which my book examines in the era of slavery, also continue to play out in the present. The federal government controls admissions and expulsions today, but states and cities continue to regulate the lives of immigrants once they have entered the country. Many local jurisdictions monitor and punish immigrants, in ways that one legal scholar has compared to Jim Crow. Others pass pro-immigrant laws facilitating access to benefits, education, and work, and some provide sanctuary against federal surveillance. There is a parallel here with the antebellum era, when northern states passed personal liberty laws refusing to comply with federal fugitive slave policy. States cannot defy federal law, but neither can they be ordered to enforce that law. They can refuse to cooperate.
CS: While perhaps not a focal point, the impact of the Civil War figures prominently in this work. Who are the main groups in The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic and how did their history unfold in the context of the Civil War and the fight for power between the federal government and individual states?
KK: The Civil War is the fulcrum on which the book turns, just as it was the fulcrum on which nineteenth-century US history as a whole turned. The main groups in my story are African Americans, Chinese immigrants, European immigrants, and Native Americans. Let me discuss here how the Civil War affected the first two of these groups and, on that basis, the politics of mobility and immigration more generally.
First, and most important, the Civil War brought slavery to an end. As a direct result of the war, the civil rights laws and the Fourteenth Amendment repudiated the Dred Scott decision, which had denied citizenship to all African Americans. The Fourteenth Amendment defined national citizenship for the first time, writing the principle of birthright into the Constitution. It also extended due process and equal protection to all persons under US jurisdiction, not just citizens—including Chinese immigrants who were barred by federal law from naturalizaion. And the American-born children of these immigrants, like all others, were citizens at birth.
Second, the transition from a local to a national immigration policy began during the Civil War with the Coolie Trade Prohibition Act (1862), which outlawed American involvement in the transportation of Chinese contract workers to foreign destinations (with Cuba and Peru in mind). This law correctly classified Chinese laborers who came to the United States as voluntary immigrants and therefore had no immediate effect on American immigration. But restrictionists in the American West denounced all Chinese migrant workers as coolies, falsely claiming that they were the equivalent of slaves and insisting that they should be excluded from the United States. Chinese exclusion in the 1870s and 1880s rested on this distorted version of antislavery ideology.
Overall, the Civil War Reconstruction had a double-edged impact on immigration policy. As the balance of power shifted from the local to the federal level, so too did authority over immigration. The Supreme Court invalidated state-level immigration controls in 1875, but the new national state that emerged as a result of the Civil War—as restrictionists realized—could regulate and exclude immigrants much more effectively than any individual state.
CS: What were some of the challenges you faced when researching, writing, and conceptualizing the narrative structure of The Problem of Immigration?
KK: This was a new kind of history for me. As a social historian with no prior training in legal, constitutional, or policy history, I had to learn by doing. I followed an inductive method, plunging into the sources—especially court cases and legislative records—and then working my way back out to the secondary literature. When I encountered concepts such as “police power,” “commerce power,” and “sovereignty” in these sources, I came to them fresh rather than from a class in constitutional law. This approach was not without its perils, but several legal scholars and historians generously read drafts of my manuscript and saved me from several blunders.
One challenge I faced when crafting the argument had to do with the balance between structure and contingency. The secession of eleven southern states, followed by the abolition of slavery, removed the political and constitutional obstacles to a national immigration policy. Yet it did not make that policy inevitable. Even in the absence of slavery, Congress would not have regulated—let alone restricted—European immigration earlier. Following the example set by the states, Congress might have excluded the most vulnerable passengers, just as it did when it passed the first general immigration act in 1882, but nobody before the end of the nineteenth century—not even the Know-Nothings in the 1850s—wanted to restrict European immigration numerically. Some nativists in the antebellum era called on Congress to extend the waiting period for naturalization of Irish immigrants or to regulate migration by paupers, but without success. Admission remained the norm for European immigrants until 1920s. The historical contingency that tipped the scale in favor of a national immigration policy, then, was the arrival of significant numbers of Chinese laborers. The need to clarify these developments and their sequence emerged from conversations with one of the colleagues who kindly read the manuscript for me.
CS: Sovereignty is a key concept in The Problem of Immigration. Can you say more about the development of the logic of sovereignty and race as you saw it change through legislative debate and the social and political results of the Civil War?
KK: As a historian, I approach sovereignty as a contested claim to authority rather than a form of power whose meaning can be determined a priori. Sovereignty in this sense cannot be grasped in the abstract, only in particular and evolving contexts. Claims to authority over immigration in the nineteenth-century United States were part of an ongoing political and constitutional argument about who had the right to control borders, mobility, and citizenship in the age of slavery and emancipation. I my book I examine laws as debated and written by legislatures, and as interpreted by courts, more than laws applied in practice as policy. Put another way, I examine judicial opinions and decisions, legislative debates, statutes, and official reports to see how the logic sovereignty and race justified control over mobility. Strikingly, just as the antebellum states policed their borders based on local sovereignty, the postbellum federal government claimed control over immigration based on national sovereignty—citing the same legal authorities in both cases, especially Vattel’s The Law of Nations.
CS: Your book provides such a thorough analysis of sovereignty as a concept. One of the many aspects that I appreciated about your analysis was the attention given to multiple understandings of sovereignty. Could you briefly discuss how Native American conceptions of sovereignty intersected with the logic that you trace through US legislative debate?
KK: In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832), John Marshall’s Supreme Court defined Native American nations as “distinct, independent political communities,” subject to the jurisdiction of the federal government but not the states. Marshall’s decision, however, lacked an enforcing mechanism and did nothing to prevent the expulsion of Native Americans from their homelands. In United States v. Rogers (1846), Roger Taney’s Court rejected Marshall’s position, ruling that Native tribes were not sovereign communities but collections of individuals bound together by race, endowed rights by the federal government. These two conceptions—tribal autonomy versus minority status—operated in uneasy tension throughout the nineteenth century. Federal immigration policy, based on powers inherent in national sovereignty and largely immune from judicial review, developed in tandem with federal Indian policy, based partly on the Rogers decision. Federal immigration control rested on the claim that the United States had exclusive power over the national territory. Yet hundreds of Native nations living within the borders of the United States also claimed sovereign status within that territory.
A top-down, external approach to sovereignty, however, can take us only so far. In a sense, this is where my work ends and yours begins in Pacific Confluence. I examine Native American sovereignty as recognized by the United States government; you examine Indigenous conceptions of sovereignty based on the relationship between people and place. That’s one of reasons I find your own work so compelling.
CS: Another aspect of this book that I appreciate is your consideration of the ways in which attempts to control the movement of marginalized populations both within and outside the US impacted the development of a national sovereignty. What, if anything, was challenging about thinking through these concurrent developments in relation to each other?
KK: The federal government sponsored schemes to remove free Black people to Africa and passed laws mandating the return of fugitive slaves and the expulsion of Native Americans.
For the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, however, Congress played almost no role in the admission, exclusion, or removal of immigrants. Individual states, exerting their sovereignty within the Union, regulated the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of their residents based on their conception of the public good. They used their police powers, for example, to pass quarantine laws, regulate paupers and vagrants, extract taxes or bonds from ship captains for passengers who might require public support, and to patrol the movement of free and enslaved Black people within and across their borders.
The constitutional battle over mobility in the nineteenth century pitted federal commerce power against local police power. Which level of government had authority, local or national? If federal courts invalidated state imposing taxes or bonds on foreign paupers, what were the implications for similar laws punishing free Black seamen, laws in Southern states expelling emancipated slaves, or laws in both the North and the South barring the entry of free Black people? In a slaveholding republic, the Supreme Court was unable to resolve these questions before the Civil War.
CS: The Problem of Immigration is one of several historical monographs that you’ve authored. When you think of the arc of your scholarship, what are the analytic threads that connect your books? How did you move intellectually from one project to the next? Do you have any advice for those of us who are working on first or second books?
KK: My first two monographs zeroed in on a small incident (the execution of twenty mine workers in the first case, and a notorious Indian massacre in the second) in which I located some of the major themes in North Atlantic history (e.g., migration, colonialism, land, violent protest, and war). I alternated between this kind of approach and broader synthetic works, including an interpretive survey of Irish-American history, an edited collection on empire, and a short book on the idea of diaspora in global history. The analytic threads here would take some untangling, but maybe I can offer some advice based on how I write—in the knowledge, of course, that everyone writes differently.
Writing a second book can be easier than a first book because you have the experience and the confidence, but harder because of the ever-increasing demands on your personal and professional time and because second projects often broader in scope. Here are some practices I follow. First, I don’t allow myself to start writing until I have a sense of the whole. I always write from a detailed outline, written after I have organized my sources, so I know where I am heading and roughly how I will get there before I set off. The act of writing clarifies and changes what I think, of course, but having a map helps demystify what can otherwise be a quite intimidating or demoralizing process. Second, I establish in my mind who I am writing for, try to figure out what they need (and do not need) to know, and share with them the intellectual excitement of what I learned in my research. Third, I have learned to share drafts of my work early, when it needs most help, rather than waiting until I think I have perfected my arguments. People will help, not least within our own very supportive IEHS community.
CS: Although The Problem of Immigration is based in the nineteenth century, like many of the best works in history, it speaks so much to the present condition that we are in. Can you say more about why it’s so important for us today to recognize the historical roots of our immigration policy, especially in relation to its emergence in the context of slavery? What can this tell us about the US as a nation-state?
KK: Let me address three ways in which I think the history of immigration in a slaveholding republic helps us understand the United States as a nation-state, not only in the nineteenth century but also today.
First, the enduring importance of the Fourteenth Amendment. I begin and end my US immigration survey class with the Fourteenth Amendment. At the outset, many students have only a vague notion of this measure. I ask them to consider their lives without it. We then learn where the amendment came from and why birthright citizenship matters for all Americans, including immigrants.
Second, the continuing relevance of immigration federalism. Some states today oppose and discriminate against immigrants, but others help and protect them. The harsh, repressive dimensions of local immigration laws are, understandably, very much in the news. But local sovereignty can also entail an obligation to protect all residents regardless of their origin or background. Rights that are defined and protected by the federal government are obviously more effective than local measures. Yet at times when the federal government is itself anti-immigrant, local measures—including sanctuary, access to benefits, and partial voting rights—can act as an important counterweight to federal power.
Third, the nature of federal authority over immigration. Plenary power over immigration in the United States, as established by the Supreme Court in The Chinese Exclusion Case (1889), rested on starkly racist grounds. National security supposedly justifies sweeping power over immigrant admissions and expulsions, largely immune from judicial review—regardless of how and why people actually migrate. As recently as 2018, in Trump v. Hawaii, the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s so-called Muslim travel ban by citing The Chinese Exclusion Case (1889). Knowing the origins of things, as you point out in your own work, allows us to consider alternatives.
Part II: Kevin Kenny Interviews Christen Sasaki.
Kevin Kenny (KK): I learned an enormous amount from your book, both about a kind of history I did not know and about concepts that are central to our field, such as empire, sovereignty, race, nation, state, and citizenship. Before we discuss the main arguments in Pacific Confluence, could you summarize the historical developments that provide the context for your book? In other words, what happened in Hawai‘i at the turn of the twentieth century?
Christen Sasaki (CS): This is such a great question—there is so much that happened in Hawai‘i at the turn of the twentieth century. Pacific Confluence frames these events from a Hawai‘i-based perspective and uses an island-centered methodology in order to open up different ways of seeing and understanding oceanic connectivities and circulations of power across the Pacific Island world.
There is a long history of US interest in Hawai‘i. Perhaps what’s most relevant to the book is the developing political and economic interest in the islands that starts to ramp up during the years of the US Civil War. The American South could no longer meet the demand for sugar in the country and so the sugar industry in Hawai‘i developed rapidly to meet this need. Many of Hawai‘i’s sugar plantation owners at this time were descendants of the first American Christian missionaries who arrived in the islands in the early 1820s. By the 1860s these families had grown to make up a powerful plantocracy who worked to diminish the power of the Hawaiian monarchy through actions like the 1887 “Bayonet” Constitution, through which the haole (white/foreign) oligarchs forced the reigning King Kalākaua to give electoral rights to men who were residents, as opposed to citizen subjects of the kingdom. Between 1890 and 1891 two important events occurred—the US passed the McKinley Tariff, which stripped plantation owners of profits that they were making through their exported sugar to the US. We also see the passing of the crown to Kalākaua’s sister, Queen Lili‘uokalani. With the urging of members of the Hawaiian Patriotic Leagues, the Queen attempted to instate a new constitution which would restore the monarchy’s power by limiting the ability to vote to men who had taken an oath of allegiance to the Hawaiian Kingdom—basically reversing what had happened in the 1887 Bayonet Constitution. The haole-led oligarchy understood that their economic positions were in jeopardy because of the McKinley Tariff. They also knew that if the Queen had her way and the new constitution passed, that this would jeopardize their political power in the islands and so in 1893 they instigated the illegal coup and installed a provisional government.
KK: You discuss your own positionality at the start of the book and then carefully and respectfully connect indigenous history and migration history in the context of empire. Could you say more about this personal and intellectual “confluence” (to borrow a key word from your title)?
CS: Thinking through my positionality as a fourth generation Japanese settler in Hawai‘i was something I felt that I had to do in order to write this book. Writing about the only place that I know as “home” and yet am not from, pushed me to wrestle with the violence of empire and push back against a teleology of immigration assimilation that upholds the settler state. One of the questions that I kept coming back to as I was writing was, “What kinds of histories are revealed when thinking through Asian diaspora studies as methodologically committed to anti-imperialism and decolonization?” This question continues to guide my scholarship, as I examine the workings of domination, extraction, and expropriation that are necessary to understand the multiple conditions of and intersections between Asians in diaspora and the US imperial project during the late nineteenth century.
KK: Your work draws from and enriches the “transpacific turn” in recent historiography. How does it do so?
CS: In this book I really wanted the reader to reconsider what we mean by “transpacific.” Instead of focusing on the Pacific Rim (and thus flying over the center of the Pacific itself) Pacific Confluence draws from recent works which center the people and places of the Pacific and asks us to consider how an island-centered methodology opens up different ways of seeing and understanding oceanic connectivities and circulations of power.
KK: At the outset of this conversation, I borrowed your term “confluence” to refer to your trajectory as a historian. But this term also provides the key to your argument As I understand it, the “Pacific Confluence” is the point where all the multiple strands in your story intersect—the local and the global, the indigenous and the external (migrants and settler colonists), the insular and the imperial (the American, Japanese, and European empires), the marginalized and the elite. Tell us more about this Pacific Confluence, which as you say, provides the “organizing theme” for your book.
CS: This question ties in well with our discussion regarding the transpacific. As you point out, “confluence” is a key organizing theme that I use in order to think through the numerous intersections that I follow in the book. I deploy the term in order to simultaneously accentuate the plurality of social relations that those living in Hawai‘i were embedded within while also leaving room to highlight specific state reactions. One of the key methodological arguments that the book makes is that this ability to see multiple intersecting strands, to examine this confluence between the local and global, indigenous and external, marginalized and elite, is only possible when one looks out from an island-centered and island-based point of view.
KK: As this forum is hosted by the IEHS, let’s talk about “immigration and ethnic history.” The term “ethnic” can mean different things, and some historians don’t use it at all, but for the purpose of this conversation let’s say that “immigration and ethnic history” refers not just to migrants but to their descendants as well. In that sense, who are the main groups in your book and how did their history unfold in the context of empire (or, perhaps more accurately, at the intersection of empires)?
CS: One of the aspects that I enjoyed exploring through this book is, as you mention, not just following the many groups as they navigate this complicated time in Hawai‘i, but also tracing the ways that their communities are brought together through the context of empire. Each one of the chapters in Pacific Confluence follows the ways in which actions taken by island-based individuals and communities reverberated globally—largely because of the interimperial condition of Hawai‘i at this time. The main communities that I follow are members of the Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) monarchy, po‘e aloha ‘āina (Hawaiians working to maintain their political autonomy), Japanese laborers, merchants, and diplomats, leaders of the haole plantocracy/oligarchy, and Portuguese diplomats and laborers.
KK: Beyond the Japanese and Portuguese cases that feature centrally in your book, do you want to offer some more general reflections on immigration and empire? What can immigration historians learn by putting their subjects in imperial contexts?
One of the points that I wanted to make through this book is that we need to change the way we discuss “American expansion.” This narrative of expansion reifies the notion of the inevitability of American empire and naturalizes the imperial structure. Each chapter of the book begins with a seemingly minor island-based event and follows the global reverberations. For example, when compared to the 1893 coup, the failed attempt by Japanese immigrants to gain voting rights in Hawai‘i may at first appear to be a non-event in the recounting of a state-based history. But by reading for and recounting moments that don’t fit neatly within the narrative of Hawai‘i as “pre-ordained 50th state” Pacific Confluence illuminates the fragility of the imperial project and the contingency of empire.
Through this book I also wanted to emphasize the possibilities, choices, power, and vulnerabilities that immigrants face in the context of empire. I found that these positions were accentuated in an interimperial space like Hawai‘i. The immigrants that I follow in the book are very much impacted by the boundaries of the nation-state, with many of them being pulled on by multiple centers of power and empires-in-the-making. But as I demonstrate through each episode, they are also working within and beyond these state-based boundaries to create opportunities for themselves, many times at the cost of Hawaiians.
KK: Settler colonialism is key concept in your work. Where does that concept comes from, what does it mean to you, and how do you deploy it in your book?
CS: I first learned about the concept of settler colonialism through reading the work of Haunani Kay Trask and Patrick Wolfe. Understanding settler colonialism as a structure rather than an event helped me come to terms with my position as an Asian settler in Hawai‘i. Pacific Confluence began as a way for me to think through the tension of being a settler in the only place I know as home. The book situates much of its analysis at the intersection between Japanese and US settler colonialism. For me, as someone who works in the field of Asian American Studies, writing from this intersection complicated the way I think and write about Asians in diaspora, as both the subjects and agents of empire. For much of the history covered in the book we see Asian settlers being pulled on by both the US and Japan, as times subjected to the exploitation of empire, but also making choices at the cost of Hawaiians, in order to further their own lives.
KK: Sovereignty is another key concept in your work. The protagonists of your book attach different meanings to this word and deploy it in different ways. Can you say more about its various meanings and, in particular, its relationship to different conceptions of land and territory?
CS: Thinking through the various conceptions of sovereignty as they are deployed throughout the book was such an eye-opening experience for me—it forced me to consider how much of my life is organized around the concept of the nation-state. To imagine alternative formulations of what it means to be sovereign was as liberating as it was challenging. In terms of this book, I utilized the concept of ea, which Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua explains is an expansive principle that confounds the distinction between politics and culture to encompass both independence and interdependence and is based on the relationship between people and place. Pacific Confluence challenges us to conceive a way of being that exists beyond the limitations of state-based sovereignty—how would this impact our relationship to place and community? How might it impact our relationships with each other?
KK: What challenges did you face, both conceptually and at the practical level of research, in bringing these multiple dimensions together as related parts of one story? It is an ambitious goal, and the payoff is considerable.
CS: Thank you so much for saying that! There were numerous aspects that I found challenging while working on this book. As you point out, one of the greatest challenges was conceptualizing how to tell a story with so many dimensions and moving parts. I had to find a way to narrate the global ripple effect of an island-based event in a cohesive manner and so I turned to the organizing theme of confluence. Another challenge for me was putting myself in the position of those who might have had different understandings and conceptualizations of terms and ideas that I take for granted—concepts like people’s relationship to place and understandings of citizenship and nation. There’s definitely much more that I struggled with, but these are two aspects that remain with me and I know I will continue to reflect on them as I move to the next project.
KK: Writing a history book involves striking a balance between narrative and analysis, melding the thematic or topical with the chronological. Your book tells a story of change over time, with each chapter broadening out from a specific moment or focal point. How did you arrive at this organizational scheme? To what extent does the structure of the book resemble the structure of your dissertation?
CS: This is an interesting question. I realized while conducting my dissertation research that what I found most interesting were stories of everyday people that resulted in unexpected global ramifications. Tracing the global connections took a considerable amount of time and space in the narrative and so while writing the dissertation I decided to make each episode a chapter. One of the challenges I faced when turning the dissertation into the book was finding the narrative thread that would bring the episodes together into a cohesive whole.
KK: Pacific Confluence ends by taking the story forward in time through the first half of the twentieth century, as the myth of the “frontier” as an empty space in need of American farmers culminates in the emergence of the industrial pineapple plantation, dependent on Filipino migrant labor. What do the various steps in that process tell us about land, property, and capitalism in the context of empire?
CS: This last chapter was so much fun for me to write. It started with me being curious about the street names of Wahiawa town—I wondered why there were so many names that referenced California. Your question articulates the violence of empire that I was analyzing—especially in the context of how capitalism impacts and commodifies relationships to land and place. The different claims that were made—from the Land Act of 1885 to Wahiawa Colony to the industrial pineapple plantation—are all examples of the violence of the “frontier” myth as it spread beyond the continental United States to Hawai‘i.
KK: Many of the best history books turn givens into contingencies—allowing us, as you put it, to “reflect on an see beyond current political formations that seem inevitable, necessary, and natural.” Pacific Confluence challenges conceptions about the triumph of empires, about sovereignty, and about the relationship between race, nation, and state. Can you say more about this aspect of your work and how historical analysis reveals alternative modes of social and political belonging, both past and present?
CS: Thank you so much for this question—I think it really gets at the heart of what I was trying to do with this book. To answer you, I want to come back to this concept of an island-based methodology. Telling this history from a Hawai‘i-based point of view illuminated the many different conceptions of political and social organization that existed at the time. I use the flashpoint events covered in each chapter to engage with these various political formations with the hope of pushing readers to think beyond what exists now and imagine what still could be in terms of alternative modes of social and political belonging.