The eugenics movement came to prominence in both Europe and the United States during the late nineteenth century, at a time of massive social change. In particular, social and political tensions and discord increased due to rapid industrialization and in the United States were compounded by massive immigration. The period from 1880 to 1910 represented the height of immigration to the United States, and these latest waves of new migrants raised questions concerning the racial impact their arrival would have on the American mainstream. Eugenics provided an analysis of this perceived reproductive
threat and proposed a radical solution to protect the United States’ existing racial mix.
The intellectual roots of eugenics rested with Sir Francis Dalton (1822–1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin and himself a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1869, ten years after Darwin's publication of the Origin of the Species and two years after Karl Marx's first volume of Das Kapital, Dalton published Hereditary Genius, which examined intelligence as a product of family inheritance. Essentially, Dalton's conclusions suggested that selective breeding could produce more desirable people. In 1883 he formulated the term “eugenics” to define the general process where positive natural abilities were passed, through inheritance, from one generation to the next. By studying human communities, Dalton also believed that decaying societies could be analyzed through an examination of inherited characteristics to discover how social problems became manifest.
Dalton's ideas were given a boost in the United States when in 1877 Richard Dugdale (1841–1883) published his study of the Juke family, a name given to a mentally substandard family group, resident in Upstate New York, who had produced a number of criminals and dull-witted family members. If such negative traits could be demonstrated as the product of family inheritance, then actions could be taken to limit reproduction among such peoples. It was also argued that a more careful breeding of humans might improve the races by removing negative traits, as in the selective breeding of both dogs and horses. Such beliefs soon buttressed the emerging science of eugenics, which seemed to offer a favorable method to reform mankind while eliminating the worse aspects of human suffering and social failure.
Increasingly the nation's social ills such as poverty, disease, and violence were also examined in light of the emerging concerns over a changing racial and national makeup. The Immigration Restriction League, created in 1894, saw the arrival of so-called inferior races as the source of many current problems. Their solution was in numerical restrictions on immigrants and the use of literacy tests to restrict citizenship. These goals would later be realized in the immigration quota systems introduced in the 1920s.
Given the nationalist components that formed key sections of the Populist platform, eugenics teaching did appeal to a number of prominent Populists such as Mary E. Lease of Kansas, Texas's Bettie Gay (1836–1921), and North Carolina's Populist Senator Marion Butler, all of whom at different times exploited racial or nativist concerns. Even African American Populists, such as John B. Rayner, on occasion employed eugenics ideas when explaining the black condition in the South. Mary Lease's book The Problem of Civilization (1895) was in effect little more than a racist and imperialist tract that clearly promoted the superiority of the white race.
Although eugenics ideology unfolded during the height of Populism, its concepts were more extensively adopted during the Progressive Era. The eugenics model for racial improvement became entangled with the general reform impulse, and the further influx, during these years, of what was perceived as racially inferior immigrants stimulated many to combine eugenics and reform as part of the same national battle against disorder and moral turpitude.
Prominent proponents of the cause such as the cereal magnate and nutritionist John Harvey Kellogg (1852–1943) made racial improvement a goal of the utmost importance. In 1906, he organized the Race Betterment Organization and promoted the organization's ambitions through conferences held at his Battle Creek, Michigan, home. In 1910 the Eugenics Record Office was founded to argue for not only immigration control but control over marriages and the sterilization of those deemed inferior. The popularity of the movement was reflected in its extensive and positive media coverage and in its several professional associations, such as the Galton Society, created in 1918.
The movement's intellectual foundations were strengthened by a number of important academic supporters such as Charles P. Davenport (1866–1944), a Harvard-trained biologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences who became a leading advocate during the Progressive Era. After becoming director of the Cold Spring Laboratory in 1910, he helped establish the Eugenics Record Office, and his 1911 book Heredity in Relation to Eugenics was extremely popular and widely used for many years as a college teaching text.
In addition, there was Lothrop Stoddard (1883–1950), a Harvard-trained historian whose racial theories were outlined in his popular book, The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (1920), which defined the growth of nonwhite populations as a force that challenged the very existence of Western civilization. Stoddard also served on the boards of several progressive organizations such as the Birth Control League, which later evolved into Planned Parenthood.
Perhaps the most famous eugenicist of the era was Madison Grant (1865–1937), who was educated at Yale and Columbia and was a lawyer by vocation. According to Grant's racial theories, the dominant and superior Nordic European peoples were being eroded by the presence of so many inferior peoples such as those from southern and eastern Europe and the southern hemisphere. He outlined his views in his widely known The Passing of the Great Race (1916). Grant's influence had a great influence upon the development of the hereditary branch of American anthropology. Eugenics remained an influential force until the 1930s, when the brutality of Nazism discredited ideas of racial superiority.
Theodore W. Eversole
See also: Boas, Franz (1858–1942) ; Butler, Marion (1863–1938) ; Grant, Madison (1865–1937) ; Lease, Mary (1850–1933) ; Rayner, John (1850–1918)
Bashford, Alison, and Philippa Levine, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Bruinius, Harry. Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and American Quest for Racial Purity. New York: Vintage Press, 2007.
Cantrell, Gregg. Feeding the Wolf: John B. Rayner & The Politics of Race, 1850–1918. Wheeling, IL: Harlan-Davidson, 2001.
Gillette, Aaron. Eugenics and the Nature-Nurture Debate in the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave-Macmillian, 2007.
Stern, Alexandra. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.