Going Green for White Supremacy: Preserving the Frontier
Part of our series on books that we read so you don’t have to
Many of the worst ideas of our century can be traced back to pseudoscience in the last century. Eugenics, phrenology, and innate racial disparities may be debunked, but their ghosts are still with us today thanks to the influence of one fascinating, despicable, and complex man: Madison Grant.
In Defending the Master Race (University Press of New England, 2009, 487 pages) Castleton University Professor Jonathan Spiro immortalizes Grant, one of history’s forgotten giants and one of the lost founding fathers of the eugenics movement. This is a breakthrough book, not least because so little information about Grant’s life remains today. We have his family to thank for that, who destroyed many of Grant’s personal papers after his death in 1937, by which point eugenics and racial pseudoscience were entering their final freefall. Add to that erosion by time and weather, and there’s not much of this once-influential man’s life left to examine.
As a result, Grant is frequently mentioned as a leading racist and eugenicist, yet extraordinarily little work has been done on his own misdeeds. Reconstructing Grant’s life, in other words, is a monumental feat, and Spiro treats his subject with respect while pointing out Grant’s ugly support for some of the 20th century’s ugliest experiments.
Grant—an irreligious, forward-thinking, science-minded “progressive”—was certainly a product of his age. Born in New York City in 1865—just seven months after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, ending the Civil War—Grant was the quintessential Yankee patrician: an unmarried, politically active bachelor from an old-money family descended from English Puritans. He was a Northeastern Republican, which entailed a serious interest in solving social problems—such as alcoholism, urban crowding, and use of natural resources—with government action. Like his peers also descended from America’s founders, he considered himself a proud father of the nation at a time when mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe was transforming the country’s ethnic makeup.
The solution, he believed, was a rational application of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to American society.
By the turn of the 20th century, Western science had long since overthrown biblical categories in favor of natural selection. Applying Darwinian ideas to “fit” and “unfit” animals was one thing; applying them to humans led to some uneasy conclusions.
Spiro is no Grant admirer—quite the opposite—which makes his deft handling of this tricky subject so admirable. To put it in perspective, most modern Americans struggle to examine the past fairly. For many, postmodern assumptions have colored their view of past generations, making past generations out to be rubes who weren’t as knowledgeable or wise as we are today. Presented with the horrors of slavery, National Socialism, or race-based immigration quotas most moderns will wonder how people of those generations could have tolerated such self-evident evils. Many will assume that now we know right from wrong better than they did. Regrettably, this kind of thinking, which treats living in the past as a sort of sin, makes it all but impossible to grasp how past generations thought.
To that end, Spiro provides remarkable insight into Grant’s mindset. He lets the man speak for himself, and the results are fascinating and disturbing in equal measures.
Grant, for instance, was one of the pioneers of the modern environmental movement. He loved nature and sought to use federal law to preserve America’s natural beauty and wildlife—the genesis of the national parks and many of the zoos we enjoy today. Grant practically saved the bison with help from his close friend Theodore Roosevelt. He also helped preserve Northern California’s endangered redwood trees. One tree, the “Madison Grant Tree,” was even dedicated to this fierce conservationist. The tree was removed in 2021.
But he also wanted to use government force to preserve “Nordic” racial supremacy in America. Grant led the campaign to exterminate sickly infants, forcibly sterilize the “unfit,” enact race-based immigration laws, and deport black Americans to Africa. As with many of his contemporaries, Grant was convinced that conservation and eugenics—the Darwinist pseudoscience of “beautifying” the human race through selective breeding—“were two sides of the same coin.”
Saving the “master race” from extinction was merely an extension of saving plants and animals.
Preserving the Frontier
Grant, a prolific hunter, was horrified by the destruction of America’s frontier and wildlife at the close of the 19th century. Channeling medieval European nobility, he saw the nation’s vast forests as the aristocrat’s private domain whose animals must be preserved—so that it could be shot.
Grant was something of a “gentleman’s man,” an aristocratic hunter who enjoyed long, arduous expeditions to America’s wild interior to kill big game. Traveling to the Dakotas or Yosemite was expensive and time-consuming. Men who could afford to hunt out West reaped high honors back East and naturally came to view animal conservation as part of their patrician duties.
The advent of the railroad was both a blessing and a curse to this mission. Affordable mass transit encouraged vacations to the interior, which gave Americans a grasp on the importance of preserving the wonders they saw for future generations. On the other hand, it encouraged thousands of amateur hunters to flock to the wilds and shoot everything they saw, exactly what Grant et al. hoped to avoid.
The answer was “conservation,” a word coined by one of Grant’s close allies in 1907. It entailed balance: Too few animals left in the wild meant conservationists had failed to preserve what they’d found; too many encouraged profligate hunting by ordinary folk.
In 1887, Grant helped organize the Boone and Crockett Club with future President Theodore Roosevelt; National Audubon Society founder George Bird Grinnell; Henry Fairfield Osborn, later president of New York’s famous American Museum of Natural History; and other science-minded patricians who aimed to preserve the West. These were the cosmopolitan philanthropists of their day, active in progressive politics and cutting-edge science. Osborn, for instance, sponsored expeditions which discovered the Tyrannosaurus rex—his name for the terrible lizard dug up in Montana—and popularized dinosaurs across America.
Amazingly, this small, elite organization almost single-handedly established America’s national parks system and saved the 19th century’s most endangered species, the buffalo. It helped found the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s first big game preserve, to replenish the buffalo population that had dwindled from untold millions to less than 600 by the turn of the century. The club also had a role in founding Denali and Glacier National Parks in Alaska, Florida’s Everglades National Park, and the Olympic National Park in Washington, among others.
Naturally this meant lobbying for legislation in Washington, D.C., to save the West, even where westerners didn’t care to be saved. The Boone and Crockett Club’s members had the influence to accomplish that mission and funding from railroad magnates Collis P. Huntington and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Rockefellers, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan.
With an eye to frontier mining and agriculture still springing up in the West, Grant predicted that mass destruction of wetlands and forests in the twentieth century would do more harm to native animals than hunters could. His ideas soon evolved from conserving wild game to preserving animals because they have an “inalienable right to exist” (the earliest origins of today’s animal rights movement), marking a split with the traditional conservationist movement.
He wasn’t alone. By the early 1900s, conservationism had branched into preservationism, competing ideologies whose adherents bickered over exactly how to treat the animals they sought to protect. Some radical preservationists, for example, sought the wholesale extermination of wolves, coyotes, eagles, and other predatory “vermin” to protect game animals.
Congress agreed—and in 1915 authorized $125,000 to fund a research commission that declared a virtual continent-wide war on “undesirable” predators, which “no longer have a place in our advancing civilization” and so were to be shot or injected with strychnine en masse. Millions of animals died. Grant, to his credit, opposed this practice and convinced many preservationists to halt it.
Blunders aside, the Boone and Crockett Club encouraged multiple presidents, most famously its own Teddy Roosevelt, to set aside vast wildlife reserves in the west in the 1890s, the origins of our national parks system. This jived both with paternalistic sensibilities about conserving the past for future benefit as well as progressives’ “enthrallment with ‘scientific management,’ rational use of resources, and large-scale and long-term planning,” Spiro notes.
In short, it was the country’s first step towards social engineering and a reliance on government to solve all problems.
We’re still living with the good and the bad it produced. Preservationism, for instance, grew up into the modern environmentalist movement when Rachel Carson launched a war on pesticides with her book Silent Spring (1962). Her crusade abolished DDT, a problematic pesticide, and inaugurated a wave of crop failures, famines, and malaria plagues in the developing world that killed millions.
Since then eco-activists have moved on to ozone layer depletion, global cooling, and global warming. But a glance at this history shows that nature-conscious conservatives don’t have to; they can support genuine conservation without falling for environmentalism and the “green” movement’s mania.
In the next installment, Madison Grant shifts his attention to evolutionary theory’s application in human society.