The Page Act of 1875: In the Name of Morality

38 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2010 Last revised: 1 Jul 2010

See all articles by Ming M. Zhu

Ming M. Zhu

Harvard Law School; Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights

Date Written: March 23, 2010


The Page Act of 1875 is usually characterized as an anti-prostitution law that helped pave the way for the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Most scholars also describe the Page Act as an example of lawmaking restraint, as Congress refrained from broader immigration restrictions out of respect for the existing Burlingame Treaty with China. This Article suggests that such an understanding is inaccurate or at best, questionable. Though the Page Act’s text may be focused on the protection of American morals, a review of newspaper articles, legislative debates, and other historical records indicate that the true driving force was the protection of American labor. Furthermore, while the text maybe have complied with the Burlingame Treaty, the Act’s application was a de facto violation of Chinese immigration protections. The focus on prostitution was thus a strategic victory: the emphasis on morality successfully masked what would otherwise be questionable restrictions on Chinese immigration. The Page Act is thus an early example of legislation purposefully couched in the name of morality in order to avoid legal or political backlash. It should be remembered not as a footnote to the Chinese Exclusion Acts, but as an important episode in the development of both immigration and foreign treaty law.

Keywords: Page Act, Chinese immigration, legal history, Burlingame Treaty

Suggested Citation

Zhu, Ming M., The Page Act of 1875: In the Name of Morality (March 23, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Ming M. Zhu (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights ( email )

294 Washington St.
Suite 443
Boston, MA 02108
United States
617-988-0602 (Phone)


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