A Journal for Western Man




Of "Liberty and Justice for All":

The American Eugenics Movement

Anna Kaluzny

Issue XII- April 14, 2003


"It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles are enough." (qtd. in Facing History 198)

In the midst of the eugenics movement, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., voiced the opinion of most Americans. The eugenics movement was based on the science that contained within itself the possibility of improving the human race using selective breeding. Lisa Lindquist Dorr, professor of American History, contends that eugenics advocates applied their scientific beliefs to influence class, race, and gender stereotypes and construct a social crisis, the contamination of the Anglo-Saxon race, and that  the solution could only be found in eugenic policies. Thus, the American eugenics movement reflected the prejudices of the time. While prejudices differed slightly by region, the solutions to the social crisis were marriage restriction, segregation, sterilization, and immigration restriction.

While there have been social hierarchies for hundreds of years, eugenics gave scientific backing to these hierarchies. This science rested on the evolutionary theory presented in 1859 in Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species: every organism developed from other creatures over thousands of years. Darwin concluded that a struggle for the survival of the fittest existed. The outcome of the struggle would decide which organisms would become extinct and which would procreate. Darwin’s theory motivated his cousin, Sir Francis Galton to apply the theory of evolution to humans. He deduced that humans were a changing species, and it was unavoidable for the human race to alter in the future. Galton began to question whether men themselves could improve the human race by allowing only the fittest to reproduce (Whitaker 43). His quest for the answer would begin a time when science rationalized dislike.

Galton published Hereditary Genius in 1869 contending that all human characteristics developed from nature, not their environment. Thus, encouraging the humans with the best qualities to reproduce would improve the human race. Galton’s conclusion rested on his study of the families of the English elite. He traced the preceding generations of 1000 English leaders and found that they came from an exclusive group. To Galton, this proved that aptitude and leadership were inherited (43). This idea would not become immensely popular in England, but it would flourish in America.

At the turn of the twentieth century, America experienced a great change in the ethnicity of its population. Earlier waves of immigration brought white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), but the early twentieth century witnessed a new tide of incoming migrants. Yearly immigration increased more than five-fold from 225,000 to 1,300,000; the principal composition of this immigration was no longer of WASPs, but of Italians, Slavs, and Jews (Quinn). Numerous WASPs felt their societal domination to be in jeopardy. They saw America as “becoming less Protestant, less English, and less white” and America as committing “racial suicide” (Whitaker 45). This provided the perfect atmosphere for eugenics to proliferate throughout the country.

The advocates of WASP supremacy took on the job of distinguishing the fit from the unfit, and their decisions exhibited classism and racism. The leading American eugenicists provided statistics to the public that the poor, criminals, and immigrants were a drain on the rest of society. In the 1880s, Richard Dugdale studied the Jukes family and found that the family was plagued with feeblemindedness, poverty, and crime. Moreover, the birthrates were different between the natives and foreigners, creating another reason to worry about racial suicide. While immigrants were having many children, the WASP birthrate was decreasing, and the alleged problem was with women. “White, middle-class, American women were responsible for the decline in the white birth rate through their entry into higher education and the paid labor force, their increased use of birth control, and the allegedly growing numbers of women delaying marriage” (Dorr). With the main exhibitors of such behaviors being college women, there was an increase in sentiment that a woman’s role should be in the home. On the other hand, the Journal of Heredity published many articles focusing on the spread of inferior genes; the unfit were “multiplying rapidly” (Whitaker 48). Eugenicists pointed out if nothing would be done, then soon the low birthrates of WASPs would lead to extinction.

The Progressive Era, in the early twentieth century, sought to solve society’s problems using science and one of the answers was found in eugenics. The eugenics movement overlapped with progressivism in two areas: helping the unfit and improving the human race. Mark Haller, professor of history, points out that “society had a responsibility to care for the dependent and delinquent but society had, at the same time, a responsibility to see that such persons did not contaminate generations to come” (qtd. in Geetter). Whether it was segregation or sterilization, eugenicists argued that these measures offered the best life for the unfit. Accordingly, progressivism fit well with eugenics, since eugenic laws claimed to care for the less fortunate while really helping the dominant class.

The Great War amplified eugenic sentiments. While the most fit went off to fight and die in the war, the less fit were left to reproduce (Whitaker 52). This increased fears for the country’s germ plasm and set off a wave of nativism. WWI generated a nationalistic zeal from which the expression “100% American” was developed (Harris). To begin with, refugees were coming to America in addition to the regular immigrants, increasing xenophobia. Furthermore, immigrants serving in the American army were discriminated against. Doctor David H. Marlowe noted that the diagnosis of mental disorders in America after World War I was racially biased, with Italian, Greek, and Polish soldiers being diagnosed at much higher rates than white soldiers (39). WWI saw an increase in eugenic statues around the country. The apogee of popularity for eugenics came after WWI because “it seemed to make dislike for those peoples a matter of science, not prejudice or ill-will” (Geetter). The time period would see the biggest wave of eugenic statues due to the increased nativism after the Great War.

American isolationism of the late 1930s impacted the eugenics movement as well. There was an increased attitudinal imperative to stay away from the sordid troubles of Europe for Americans who wanted to improve their lives. Americans were no longer willing to risk their most fit to solve Europe’s problems. Also, they were not willing to take in the thousands of refugees that emerged when Hitler’s army invaded Europe. Nativists were concerned that the arrival of immigrants from the Old World would intensify the troubles America already faced with other minorities (Hasian). The St. Louis, a ship of Jewish refugees from Germany, was not allowed to port in America in 1939 on account of the strict immigration restrictions for Jews. This anti-Semitism and discrimination against other groups of people continued through WWII. As in WWI, anti-Japanese sentiment flared at its climax when 90,000 Japanese were interned in camps solely based upon their ethnicity.

Unfortunately, this would just be one of many measures against the Asian immigrants living in America. Germans would also experience the prejudices of Americans during the war when schools prohibited the teaching of German (Harris). In this time of war, the eugenics movement was promoted as patriotism such as any “ideal to be followed like a flag in battle without thought of personal gain” (Hasian). WWII would end Germany’s eugenics program, but it would mark four decades of eugenic practices in the United States that would continued to be applied to America’s unfit.

The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century occurred at the same time as messages of WASP superiority spread throughout the country. The panic after WWI over immigrant radicals and the reappearance of the racist and nativist KKK indicated an extensive eagerness to significantly reduce immigration (Quinn). The KKK revival in the South made this notion more popular than ever before, but this time the KKK broadened its discrimination to Jews and Catholics. This inclusion increased eugenics’ appeal in the South. However, the KKK did not depart from its traditional hatred of African-Americans because “the theory of natural selection had the benefit of providing a method with which to rationalize the widely held belief that the Negro was inferior to the Caucasian” (Reilly 5). The popularity eugenics gained in the United States was strongly influenced by the historical events of the time that created prejudices against female independence, African-Americans, immigrants, the mentally and physically disabled, criminals, and the poor.

The American prejudices first manifested themselves in marriage restrictions. Fueled by the threat of degeneration, the conception of marriage as forming stable households was transformed into a procreative institution that made marriage the state’s means to a superior end. By the Progressive Era, marriage served the “public good” as a method toward a fit citizenry (Lindsay). The many limitations on who would make good parents were influenced by the preconceptions of the lawmakers and eugenicists. Class and racist fears produced those exclusions from the gene pool.

Many marriage restrictions focused on keeping the white and black races from mixing. Southerners feared the African American population because they could potentially slip into and procreate with white society. By the turn of the century, many mulattos could pass for white due to the many generations of interracial marriage in their families. Some people also feared that African Americans would claim to be Native American to marry into the white race because there would be less of a bias against them (Dorr). The Racial Integrity Act of Virginia rendered it illegal for the two races to marry and reproduce. Dorr reports that Virginians “worried that social contract between the races would lead to sexual relationships and result in the destruction of the traditional white civilization.” Many states adopted legislation similar to the Virginia act. These eugenic policies would strengthen present racial hierarchies in the South. African Americans would continue to be denied equal citizenship based on the eugenic evidence that their race was inferior to WASPs.

However, African Americans weren’t the only ones to be denied equal rights; women were also given second class citizenship. While class and race notions about sexual behavior formed these policies, they also “reflected fears of changing gender roles and increasing female sexual agency and independence” (Dorr). White women had long been considered inferior to males, but they were finding independence, living in urban locations, driving cars, and working. The low birth rates of college-educated women added to the fears of Americans. With the threat of racial suicide, Dorr explains that “eugenicists also reified traditional gender distinctions and sought to reduce white women’s social roles to their primary role as mothers.” Women would have to wait with African Americans until the 1960s to receive greater equality.

Other groups of people also lost their right to marry during the eugenics movement. 39 states adopted legislation prohibiting the marriage of feebleminded people by the 1920s (Facing History). Proponents of this legislation claimed that the marriage of two feebleminded people would produce children with the same traits, citing the Jukes family as proof. The cost of caring for the feebleminded encouraged many states to turn to prevention of the birth of feebleminded people; marriage was only one method. The high immigration rate into Northern cities by Eastern Europeans led to increased diagnoses of feeblemindedness (Reilly 26). Marriage was also used to discriminate against Asians. New laws prohibited the marriage between whites and Asians sending the message that “you can work here, but you can’t stay on after the job is done”. Asian women were also restricted from migrating to America to encourage Asian men to move back if they wanted to get married (Reilly 25). The South was prejudiced against African Americans, the North against Eastern Europeans, and the West against Asians. Marriage restrictions, however, proved ineffective and stronger measures were deemed necessary. The offspring of the original couple cost society over 2 million dollars; on the other hand, it would have cost 150 dollars to sterilize the pair and 25,000 dollars to segregate one of them for life (Jasanoff). The Jukes were not the only family to be studied, and news of the cost of degeneracy spread like wildfire across the country. These studies seemed to prove to the WASP ruling class that they were paying for the costly actions and institutions of the unfit.

With the invention of the Binet IQ tests, distinguishing the fit from the unfit became a simple task. These tests also reinforced the prejudices of society against African Americans and immigrants. There were two versions of the test: the alpha test for English speaking readers and the beta test for immigrants or illiterate people. Carl Brigham, president of the American Psychological Association, claimed according to the Stanford-Binet army tests, “American intelligence is declining … owing to the presence here of the Negro” (qtd. in Facing History 160). These tests also demonstrated that people from Eastern Europe were “intellectually inferior” to WASPs (Kevles 82-83). Although some people argued that the tests reflected class divisions by asking test questions about the location of Cornell University or the color of a sapphire, but these people were virtually ignored (Quigley). The majority of the public just saw the statistics as proof that the WASPs were a superior race, and that they were committing racial suicide.

Eugenicists found more evidence to support their theory that WASPs were becoming extinct in America’s institutions for the unfit. Between 1850 and 1880, the United States census counted that the occurrence of insanity increased from one out of every 1,345 people to one out of every 554 people (Whitaker 46). When word spread that the insanity rate had more than doubled in only thirty years, eugenicists went in search for the source. They believed they had found it in immigrants. In 1848, the Charity Hospital of New Orleans had admitted 11,945 patients, of whom 10,280 were foreigners (Reilly 23). This kind of data created a panic in the mainstream WASP community because eugenicists had found proof that Europe was sending its unfit to the United States (Quigley). The bias towards immigrants from Eastern Europe increased with the increasing data that they were threatening the germ plasm of America.

Segregation was advocated by many eugenicists to keep the feebleminded separated by gender and ensure celibacy during their reproductive years. Public institutions were built to house the insane and feebleminded around the country. The Minnesota Institute for Defectives had the responsibility “to keep the persons entrusted to our care until they are past the reproducing age” (Reilly 25). Between 1880 and 1929, eugenicists were able to increase the number of unfit segregated in asylums four-fold; from 31,973 to 272,527 people (Whitaker 57). State mental institutions became home to the “social wastage” of America (69). While middle class families had the funds to pay for private institutions that provided better living conditions or choose for the patient to leave the institution, poor families had no choice about where their relatives would live or whether they could leave (Castles). Classism was noticeably evident in segregation of the unfit. Only half of those housed in public asylums actually had a mental disorder. In New York state hospitals in the 1930s, the mortality rates for the age group twenty to twenty-four was fifteen times higher than that for those living outside the institutions; these were the same people that eugenicists wanted to stop from procreating. Some of these institutions “averaged one doctor for every 277 patients” (69). Segregation became known as “euthanasia through neglect” (69). The advocates of WASP supremacy had unintentionally created their own “concentration camps” to keep the unfit from reproducing, but the American Medical Association intentionally covered it up to save its reputation (70). State institutions had proved to be more effective than marriage restrictions in dealing with the unfit.
Though these conditions were horrible, many eugenicists saw segregation as representative of their duty to help the unfit. Similar to the paternalism evident in slavery and female labor before the industrial revolution, state institutions claimed to assist those who could not care for themselves. According to Henry H. Goddard’s paternalistic sociology, “paupers diagnosed as ‘defective dependents ought to be granted the social status of permanent children’” (qtd. in Geetter). Just like children, eugenicists saw the feebleminded as in need of supervision and help. This treatment went further with patients of all ages being referred to as “boys” and “girls” while staff members were called “momma” and “daddy” (Castles). This paternalism was based on the preconceived notion that some people were inferior to others.

The costs of segregation became too high, and soon this notion of paternalism was transformed into money-saving sterilization. States began to enact sterilization statues to get out of paying for the care of those who years before seemed to need it (Geetter). Institutions began to allow their patients to leave if they conceded to being sterilized. However, most patients who did concede never understood they were going to be unable to have children for the rest of their life. Other times the doctors explained to their patients that sterilization would be a type of therapy. For men, the conservation of sperm was said to increase their mental health because it was the “elixir of life”. For women, their mental health increased when they no longer feared the process of childbirth or motherhood (Whitaker 61). This humanitarian effort that eugenicists advocated was supported by the general public. In 1927, the United States became the first eugenic nation when the Supreme Court upheld the decision to sterilize the unfit in Buck v. Bell by an 8-1 majority (59). Though this decision seemed to be inconsistent with American principles, many people at the time did not believe that the unfit had the right to equal treatment. Dr. William J. Robinson wrote:

"It is the acme of stupidity… to talk in such cases of individual liberty, of the rights of the individual. Such individuals have no rights. They have no right in the first instance to be born, but having been born, they have no right to propagate their kind." (qtd. in Kevles 94)

Buck v. Bell spurred many states to pass their own compulsory sterilization laws.

This practice was based on pure prejudice. The 1920s and 1930s reflected a prejudice against poor whites (Castles). Buck v. Bell was passed because as eugenicist Harry Laughlin said, Carrie Buck was part of those “people [who] belong to the shiftless, ignorant, worthless class of antisocial whites of the South” (qtd. in Sutcliffe). However, by the 1950s, as more black families went on welfare, the ratio of sterilized black women increased significantly (Castles). In 1948, 40 percent of the forced sterilizations carried out in the United States were performed in Puerto Rico (Powell). While the sterilization of white women decreased with the second half of the century, the sterilization of colored women increased, showing the racism inherent in eugenics. Classism was also evident in criminal sterilizations when white collar criminals were never sterilized for “offenses arising out of the violation of prohibitory laws, revenue acts, embezzlement, or political offenses,” but thieves were (Lombardo). California also passed sterilization statues to deal with the immigration of Chinese and Mexicans (Powell). Sterilization policies were biased from their conception, picking and choosing the unfit from the fit based on characteristics absolutely unrelated to mental illness.

Eugenicists argued that it was not enough to sterilize America’s unfit if more were entering the country from Ellis Island. Thus, the 1924 Immigration Act was an integral part of the eugenics movement. “The economic problems caused by the influx of immigrants… and fears for the impact that these millions of strangers would have on America’s racial stock” convinced the Congress and President Calvin Coolidge to pass the 1924 Immigration Act (Reilly 24). While the East and North focused on Southern and Eastern Europeans; the West worried about Asians (Hasian). The shift in the 1920s from immigration restrictions that targeted individual to those that afflicted whole ethnicities “expressed patent racial prejudices… celebrating WASPs and denigrating non-WASPs” (Kevles 95). Representative Robert Allen of West Virginia stated, “the primary reason for the restriction of the alien stream is the necessity for the purifying and keeping pure the blood of America” (Hasian). President Coolidge agreed, “American must be kept American” (Lombardo). Politicians never denied the purpose for keeping immigrants out, but this racism in the immigration law portrayed only one of the many ways that the American eugenics movement exhibited nativism, racism, and classism.

The United States has a great reputation for democracy and equality before the law, and terrible examples of inequality such as the enslavement in the Confederate South of Africans and the coercive treatment of Native Americans and Mexicans by certain divisions of the U.S. Army. However, one untold story remains; the American eugenics movement. It was a perfect example of the racist, nativist, and classist fears of Americans getting the best of them. Based on this bigotry, methods emerged for dealing with those deemed unfit using marriage restrictions, segregation, sterilization, and immigration restriction. While, the federal courts struck down forced sterilization, Buck v. Bell has never been overturned, allowing the promulgation of laws that would permit the sterilization of the “mentally retarded.” While immigration was reopened, there are still restrictions today on many Hispanic countries forcing Mexicans to sneak into America for the American dream of moving into the middle class. America has long been known as a place of liberty and justice for all, but the American eugenics movement is another example of the progress it has yet to make.

Anna Kaluzny is a contributor to The Rational Argumentator.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

Click here to return to TRA's Issue XII Index.

Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.