Two Sides of the Same Coin
Eugenicists’ fear of racial intermixing made them natural allies with the feminists of the powerful birth control movement. While contraception is widespread today, few people are aware that in the 1920s “birth control” doubled as an ideology of women’s liberation from childbearing. This put it squarely between the two other reigning ideologies of the day: Eugenics and socialism, which themselves occasionally overlapped. Sanger’s father, for instance, was a radical socialist and amateur phrenologist while her husband was close to leading communists and syndicalists (a strain of labor union-led socialism).
Sanger herself is oft-remembered for her colorful, offensive phrases, virtually all of which she borrowed from the eugenicists: “Unfit,” “human weeds,” “irresponsible procreation,” a “race of morons,” “feebleminded,” “racial degeneration,” and (channeling Marx) “indiscriminate charity.”
Sanger maintained a “Selected Reading List on Sterilization” that included Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race. At one point she even declared that eugenics and birth control “should be and are the right and left hand of one body” since both movements were concerned with who reproduces and how often.
The American Birth Control League’s board was filled with eugenicists from the Right and Left, among them Lathrop Stoddard and Georges Lapouge, a close friend of Grant who argued that France should replace its revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” with the decidedly colder “Determinism, Inequality, Selection.” (Amazingly, Lapouge predicted in the 1880s that people in the twentieth century “will slaughter each other by the million because of a difference of a degree or two in the cephalic index,” a prophecy that came true because of his racial theories.)
Eugenicists (including Grant, Davenport, and Laughlin) joined birth control advocates such as Marie Stopes (whom I’ve called Britain’s Margaret Sanger) at the 1935 World Population Conference in Berlin, two years after Hitler took power. The conference unabashedly called for government restrictions on reproduction and the need for eugenics to carve a path for the future.
Stemming the Immigrant Tide
Grant and his allies soon turned to halting the flow of new “inferiors” to the country. Immigration to the United States was nothing new in the 1890s; what was new was the scale and origin. While concerns about Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants seem quaint to us today, recall that at in Grant’s era there was no example for this kind of assimilation.
The period between 1880 and 1920 experienced an unprecedented surge of immigration in human history, with the percentage of foreign-born Americans averaging an incredible 14 percent of the total population. (For reference, it dropped to under 8 percent in 1990 and rose again in 2020 to 13.5 percent). The short-term effect was to destabilize much of the country’s eastern half as millions of new Americans jostled with native-born citizens. For example, mass immigration transformed the entire character of Boston from old-stock English Puritanism to the “Irish Riviera.” New York practically exploded with Jewish ghettos—an import from Italy and eastern Europe—and ethnic slums and neighborhoods (Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Poland, etc.).
With the benefit of over a century of hindsight—and two world wars behind us—it’s easy to recognize many of our own ancestors in this “melting pot” (a term eugenicists scorned) and think that their assimilation into was inevitable. American culture didn’t break down, it flourished and expanded. Still, the nation at the turn of the century also needed time to absorb its recent millions before it could take in more. Yet it’s next to impossible to separate anti-mass immigration hawks’ genuine concerns from racial motives.
Grant and his contemporaries saw that America’s proud colonial past was inexorably slipping away. His skepticism of unbridled immigration was founded both on Aryan theories as well as a sharp knowledge of how ancient Rome was brought down: The entrance of huge Germanic hordes who failed to uphold the empire’s language, customs, or law.
More mundanely, many Americans feared that the nation would be swamped with people coming from authoritarian states who didn’t understand (or care) for its republican political traditions—a belief confirmed when they watched new immigrants sell their votes to the Democratic political machine at New York’s Tammany Hall. Few of these immigrants spoke English or grasped English Common Law, the mortar holding the country together, nor were they Protestant, the religion of practically all of the founders.
Even sympathetic observers could reasonably ask how so many millions could be assimilated in a few generations. Grant and his allies were certain they couldn’t be. They declared that it was only a small step from Ellis Island to drowning the country in foreigners who couldn’t possibly continue the spirit of the American founding.
Grant and the Eugenics Committee launched a lobbying campaign to enact severe immigration restrictions against “lesser” races in Europe and Asia. Congress responded by enacting a literacy test in 1917, an emergency racial quota in 1921, and a near-halt to all immigration in 1924, which it justified using The Passing of the Great Race.
But that was just the start. With immigration curbed, the eugenicists turned to sterilizing the “unfit.” They found an ally in the Supreme Court’s “progressive” majority, which upheld Virginia’s forced sterilization law in Buck v. Bell (1927). That decision allowed states to sterilize prison inmates deemed too “feeble-minded” or “imbecilic” for their own good.
As justice and “progressive” icon Oliver Wendell Holmes famously explained, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Of course, eugenicists wanted to go much further—one supporter applauding the decision called for all Christian “fundamentalists” to be sterilized as well, reflecting the battle between liberals and orthodox Evangelicals raging at the time. A few more aimed to deport black Americans to Africa as part of a proposed “Racial Integrity Act.” Amazingly, they found support in a radical black nationalist and segregationist: Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant to the United States who believed integration with whites to be “race suicide” for the “new Negro.” (Garvey also anointed himself provisional president of the united Africa he proposed to build.)
In the next installment, by the 1920s, eugenics was beginning to lose influence except in Nazi Germany.