Grant, Madison (1865–1937)

Madison Grant was born in New York City and lived a life of privilege. He attended private schools, summered at the family estate on Long Island, and attended Yale, then Columbia University, from which he received a law degree. Grant became interested in natural science and conservation and became secretary of the New York Zoological Society. Grant wrote articles such as “The Vanishing Moose, and Their Extermination in the Adirondacks” (1894), “Condition of Wildlife in Alaska” (1910), a pamphlet on the Rocky Mountain goat (1905), and an account of the movement to save California redwoods (1919).

Grant's naturalist writings display a taste for precise description of such things as the dimensions of a breed of an animal's skull, distinctions between species, and their population ranges, as well as a concern for the survival and even the dignity of the animals. In his pamphlet on the Rocky Mountain goat, Grant wrote, “As a result of this scarcity of direct knowledge many myths have gathered around this mountain dweller, leading, as usual in our North American game animals, to an abundance of inappropriate names. The name ‘goat’ is objectionable [for example].” (Grant, Rocky Mountain Goat, 11 ) Grant clearly abhorred the practice of shooting the animals from the decks of steamers “by hunters who took a wanton delight in seeing the wounded animals fall down the precipitous banks” (Grant, Rocky Mountain Goat, 13 ).

Grant began his article “Saving the Redwoods” by raising the alarm about the accelerating pace of the destruction of animal and plant populations, noting that however fast conservation efforts have developed, “it has been too slow to keep pace with the forces of destruction. . . . The forests are now threatened with annihilation” (Grant, Saving the Redwoods, 91

In 1916, after his pamphlet on the Rocky Mountain goats and before taking up the plight of the redwoods, Grant published what was to become his most widely read and notorious work, The Passing of the Great Race; or, The Racial Basis of European History. In this work Grant presented his view of the superiority of the “Nordic” racial type, a population he felt had originated in a migration of proto-Teutonic people to the hardier climate of Scandinavia where weaker specimens died off. He characterized the “Nordic race” as having light straight brown or blonde hair, light skin, a straight nose, and a “long skull” (Grant, Passing of the Great Race, 167 ). He contrasted this type to the “Slavic Alpines,” whom he described as “peasant stock,” and to the “Mediterraneans” of Spain, Italy, parts of Greece, and North Africa.

Grant's book was a success. The changing patterns of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century meant that there were fewer northern and western Europeans arriving in the United States and a great influx of people from eastern and southern Europe. A great number of Americans feared this change. This led to the rise of the eugenics movement, which professed the belief that there were superior and inferior races and that the superior races should be encouraged to lead the country while other races should be kept from entering the country and kept from intermarrying with the superior whites. The inferiors, eugenics supporters held, should at a minimum be kept out of the country, and the most inferior—which included the physically and mentally disabled, the “immoral,” and even the poor—should be forcibly sterilized. Grant advocated the establishment of ghettos for “inferior races” and even considered the idea of extermination. The Passing of the Great Race was translated into German in 1925 and was taken up by the National Socialists (Nazis). Hitler wrote Grant that the book was his “Bible” (Spiro).

Grant's work was attacked by scientists and anthropologists, including Franz Boas. Grant was forced out of the American Anthropological Association in 1918 and formed his own organization, the Galton Society, to promote eugenicist views. He helped pass laws restricting immigration. Grant and his ideas fell out of favor in the 1930s, in part due to his association with the rise of the Nazis in Germany and because Americans began concentrating their racial struggle on black versus white, but he continued to be a force against unregulated immigration. Grant also continued his conservation efforts until his death in 1937.

William C. Bamberger

See also: Boas, Franz (1858–1942) ; Environmentalism ; Eugenics ; National Parks ; Progressivism


Grant, Madison. The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1921.

Grant, Madison. The Rocky Mountain Goat. New York: New York Zoological Society, 1905.

Grant, Madison. Saving the Redwoods. New York: New York Zoological Society, 1919.

Spiro, Jonathan P. Synopsis of Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant. Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2006.