Martial Law in Seattle

February 9, 2022

Feb. 9, 1886, saw President Grover Cleveland’s declaration of martial law in Seattle to curb the forcible demands for Chinese expulsion by white, working-class citizens. This antagonistic day was fueled by two catalysts: racial injustice and economic unrest. Many whites were deeply angered by feeling supplanted with cheaper labor and the perceived lack of the Chinese’s integration into Western culture. This caused a series of violent riots and even shootings.

Governmental Intervention

The morning of February 9th, most of the violence from the previous days had actually cleared. By this time, Seattle’s Governor Squire had made his own declaration of martial law. The conflict had subsided significantly, and the Knights of Labor, a major working-class white labor union, indicated that they wanted peace. Yet despite the quietude of the morning, the fact that Governor Squire had not issued troops to keep that peace caused concern and alarm among those who were more temperate in their views. His later attempt to do so failed.

Telegrams to the federal government quickly reached President Cleveland. In his role as Commander in Chief, Cleveland deployed military force to suppress the violence instigated by such groups as the Knights of Labor. His project was peaceable–in defense of the freedoms of all people for which the executive branch was responsible for upholding. Before his ultimate success, however, these violent mass riots had caused the displacement of over 200 Chinese people living in Seattle.

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