American Eugenics Trinity: The U.S. Axis of Eugenics in the Progressive Era—Academia, the Press, and the State

Part One in a Two-Part Series

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The notorious pseudoscience of eugenics, which helped to define the progressive era of the early twentieth century in the United States, utilized a combination of academic and intellectual experts with white supremacist ideology to rationalize its race-based claims of scientific proof of the genetic weakness of nonwhites. Simply put, the eugenics movement in the United States would not have been able to gain the influence and credibility it did without the shared racism within its three largest institutions: academia, the press, and the state. All three were complicit in the movement’s influence and share responsibility legitimizing the worst tendencies of the eugenics movement. Each acted to forward the inevitability and veracity of the dominance of whites, physically and intellectually. Universities sponsored and facilitated eugenic research and seminars. The press advertised the validity of race purity, and the American government—at both the state and federal level—used the data of the universities and popularity of eugenics pushed by the media to further rationalize its already long history of ill treatment of nonwhites, including Asian Americans, African Americans, and American Indians. These three entities, taken together, this work will come back to time and again and will refer to as the American eugenics trinity. This three-pronged assault of a racial and genetic purity agenda had wide and far-reaching influence.

This trifecta of colleges, newspapers, and the state created a solid foundation upon which eugenics would thrive as official policy within the United States for much of the twentieth century, justifying everything from the second-class citizenship of African Americans to the further erosion of Native Americans’ way of life. While much of eugenics concerned itself with decreasing the numbers of the “feeble minded” and other parts of the disabled population, a fair amount of emphasis was also put into the supposed purity and superiority of the white race. Advocates of eugenics supported the sterilization of criminals in prisons, as well as those within mental institutions, to further purify away the undesirable elements of human stock. Additionally, a race-based movement to reduce numbers of nonwhites carried the same impulse. This was founded on the assumption of inherent white superiority and a need to preserve white dominance in the United States. More than merely an aim of creating a race of perfected humans, the American eugenics trinity was motivated by a desire to purify American human stock ethnically; culling the human weeds from the desired pure-white bloodline. Delineating various objectives of such a large agenda can be problematic, but examining the role of the parties involved within the American eugenics trinity will provide a clearer picture of how the movement was able to sustain itself for as long as it did.

            This eugenics trinity was able to play the supposed credibility of one to rationalize the actions of another. Academia provided the science, the press distributed the evidence, and the state ratified and codified the conclusions into law. This unconscious collusion implicitly facilitated the eugenic groundswell in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The focus of this work concerns itself most with how the complicity of these three entities contributed to the race-based eugenics agenda, saturating all aspects of American life—influencing the citizenry through higher learning institutions (as well as public schools), Jim Crow laws and Native American subjugation policies, as well as garish advertisements and articles in newspapers all over the nation which advocated eugenics programs. This loose collection of vested interests with similar aims framed the narrative and influenced the eugenics movement for decades. The axis of eugenics in the United States exploited long-held sentiments of racism and superiority and was able to channel it into the “safe harbor of scientific thought, thus rationalizing destructive actions against the despised or unwanted.”[1]

The beginning of the eugenics movement, especially within academic circles, has most often been credited to the British scientist Francis J. Galton. Influenced by his predecessors in the world of biology and other sciences, Galton took many of the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin, the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, and others, and sought to find connections with them and his idea that many human qualities could be traced to one’s genetics. “Galton postulated that heredity not only transmitted physical features, such as hair color and height, but mental, emotional and creative qualities as well. Galton counted himself among the eminent, since he was Darwin’s cousin, and both descended from a common grandfather.”[2] Drawing from the influence of both Darwin and Spencer, Galton attempted to rationalize the difference between social classes in England as being the result of natural, biological differences among different parts of English society. In a way, Galton had used this early form of British-style eugenics theory to reassert the Old English concept of the Great Chain of Being—that certain people are pre-destined to rule or to be ruled. Galton had merely replaced divine order with biological design.

This line of thinking was transported from Great Britain to the United States, where Galton’s theories took root in the American universities and institutions of research. However, where Galton had used eugenic thought to rationalize class distinctions, academics in the U.S. would provide a racial bent. “What in England was the biology of class, in America became the biology of racial and ethnic groups. In America, class was, in large measure, racial and ethnic.”[3] The fact of the matter, however, was, whether it was Galton’s class distinctions or the rationalization of race superiority by eugenicists in the U.S., eugenics was quite anti-science in the sense that it presumed the desired result and then sought information which would confirm predisposed assumptions. “Eugenics was a protoscience in search of vindicating data.”[4]

Regardless of the ethically dubious reasons for the rapid growth of eugenics in the world of academia, most notably within biology and medicine, interest in eugenic theory continued to grow unabated. As soon as the theories reached American shores, it seemed to fulfill a psychological matrix by many, as if it explained perspectives many already believed to be true, yet now had evidence to confirm. This was no truer than the idea of natural racial supremacy. “In the context of the late nineteenth century’s popularized Darwinism, civilization was seen as an explicitly racial concept.”[5]

Zoologist Charles Davenport became one of the most visible and vocal leaders of the American eugenics movement. He was ardently anti-immigration because he believed that if immigration in the U.S. continued at the rate it was in the early twentieth century, America would “rapidly become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, more attached to music and art, more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, rape and sex-immorality.”[6] Davenport thus gave every indication that, as he saw it, the genetically poor could be identified on purely ethnic grounds. Davenport’s views were so popular that his texts were among those which found their way into universities. “Methodologically, eugenic texts, especially Davenport’s, were integrated into college coursework and, in some cases, actually spurred a stand-alone eugenics curriculum. The list was long and prestigious, encompassing scores of America’s finest schools [including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, University of Chicago, and Northwestern University].”[7]

Perhaps even more influential to the broader public, during a time when a small fraction of the U.S. population attended college, was the use of eugenic texts in public schools. Around the nation, high schools began adopting eugenic textbooks, such as George William Hunter’s high school biology textbook, A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems. In the book, it stated that “[unfit families were] spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. They take from society but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.”[8] By the 1920s the racial eugenic element found its way into such texts, like Carl Brigham’s 1922 book, A Study of American Intelligence, which postulated that African American intelligence “was predestined by racial heredity, but could be improved by ‘the greater amount of admixture of white blood.’”[9]

Suddenly, the superiority of whites over nonwhites as well as the superiority of some nations over others (a convenient discovery just as the U.S. was embracing a new imperialist philosophy) could now be argued to be scientific fact. Looking at it through this lens, American imperialism over nonwhite, less “civilized” peoples was a natural impulse, the maltreatment of African Americans could be justified equally as par for the course, and the near-eradication of American Indians and their continued marginalization could be chalked up to being the result of a superior race legitimately conquering an inferior one. The entire history of United States policy and its aims of being a world player in the quest for empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were all of a sudden warranted by science.

The treatment of African Americans during this period was reasoned to be sensible due to their supposed inferior genetic qualities. Among the inferior traits was their lack of manliness. Manliness during the progressive era referred to a sense of refined maturity and especially self-restraint. In the U.S., white men were assumed to be the embodiment of this kind of self-restraint, while it was believed that black men were incapable of self-control.[10] One of the most popular, and most horrendous clichés about black men during the progressive era was connected to the idea that they were incapable of controlling themselves, and so were akin to animals. The best example of this was the accusation that black men could not be trusted around white women. Many lynchings during the post-Civil War period, on into the progressive era, were due to the alleged raping of white women by black men. In this scenario, an African American lacked the manliness (the essential civilized human quality of willpower) to behave himself and thus must be exterminated like the common animal he was. No one would judge someone for killing a wild animal in the name of self-defense or defense of the community, and the lynching of an African American man after the alleged rape of a white woman, for example, was seen as equivalent.

The American press, including those in the north, reinforced the rationalization of lynching black men. When some would recount the story of a lynching, they would do so by actually casting the white perpetrators in a positive light. In 1893, the Providence Journal reported a Louisiana lynching: “Three negroes were lynched in a quiet, determined manner by a mob of white men on Friday night… The lynching was one of the coolest that has taken place in this section…”[11] Similarly, the New York Times reported a story of a Memphis lynching, “it contrasted the ‘quick and quiet’ demeanor of the white men in the lynch mob with the unmanly emotion of the ‘shivering negroes’ who were murdered.”[12] The growing sentiment of race-based eugenic theory informed and legitimized such reporting while the reports reinforced the theory’s credibility.

The press popularized eugenics much more directly as well, to the point of outright advocacy. By doing so they added to its clout and respectability. An article in the Sunday edition of the Omaha Daily Bee on November 2, 1913, alerted the public: “Wanted at Once – A Husband – A Wife: New York Scientists Offer Money Prizes to Any Man or Woman who Fulfills Their Ideas of Soundness of Body and Mind and Who Will Agree to Marry Each Other and Make a Practical Test of Eugenics, $500 for Your Wedding Gift, $500 for Your First Baby.”[13] The article’s sub-headline read, “What Science Hopes To Do.”[14] Clearly, by the 1910s the country had grown enough used to the idea of eugenics that a paper in Nebraska would be willing to advocate so nakedly. The proposed program called for one man and one woman, “practically perfect,”[15] to marry and, in the name of a better future and a better state, produce “eugenically perfect children in accordance with the precepts of the new science of eugenics.”[16] This program for a near-perfect man and woman to get together, marry, and produce even nearer-perfect children was facilitated by The Medical Review of New York, “a committee of well-known scientists and social reformers.”[17] Here we begin to see the implicit and explicit cooperation between the news media, the scientific/academic community, and activists. The program and the article promoting it give no credence to what they argue to be an outdated notion of love being necessary to a healthy relationship and a healthy family (purportedly the entire reason for the experiment in the first place). The idea of love is not exactly refuted in the article as much as it is redefined in pseudoscience-speak, as it explains that “the selected candidates must meet one another and desire to marry. This… is equivalent to saying that they are in love with one another. Scientists have argued that love in the best sense is a natural affinity between the germ-plasm of two individuals of opposite sex.”[18]

Once one looks at an article such as this, and the program proposed, questions may arise as to what kind of success a eugenics social experiment would deliver. Nearly two years later the Omaha Daily Bee, again a Sunday edition, published the article, “Why the Eugenics Marriages are Turning Out So Badly.”[19] This article, rather than investigate the difficult facts which contributed to the failure of eugenic parents, attempts to put a positive spin on the issue as it tries to explain away lack of procreation, divorces, and even a suicide. Selma Huldricksen, author of the article and a “famous Norwegian Psychologist and Feminist,” rationalizes some of the failed programs while simultaneously gushing over the newest novel eugenic idea: the pre-arranged marriage of toddlers. “Alene Houck and Charles Flynn, aged four, who, themselves eugenic babies, have been pledged to a eugenic marriage by their mothers. By the time they grow up enough to marry, men and women will probably have accepted State supervision in all details of married life, and so these two will have no troubles.”[20] There are a number of inferences to be unpacked from such a statement. First, the state will (and should) be directly involved in the most personal sphere of one’s life: marriage. Second, it will become so widely accepted that these two children will not have the same difficulty as eugenic families were currently having. Third, eugenic families were having difficulties not because of the artificial nature of these arranged eugenic marriages, but because the system had yet to find its footing and gain universal acceptance. By unpacking this one statement, we begin to see an academic, also a member of the press, advocating for greater state control in the name of eugenics.

Concerning the failed eugenic marriages previously mentioned, one couple sought legal separation for lack of being able to conceive a child, another couple divorced, and Jessie Dana, the grandniece of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a eugenic wife and mother, “killed herself because she thought she had failed as a eugenic mother.”[1] Concerning the suicide of Jessie Dana, Huldricksen gave no ground and refused to see the eugenics social experiment as anything other than a success. “To sentimentalists it is a sad story. But what does it mean to science? Simply that eugenics is right, that it is scientifically sound, and that it will eventually be accepted and generally practiced… That Jessie Dana died, self-slain, at twenty-nine merely shows her own errors in the practice of eugenics.”[2] Not only is this tremendously insensitive—but it is also ironic that a woman who was chosen to be part of the eugenics movement’s growth and popularity would be labelled, retrospectively, as having been unfit for the cause.

Huldricksen then makes an astounding statement as to the state of the eugenics social experiment. “Are eugenists [sic] discouraged by these failures? No. The first to essay the working out of a truth are always sufferers, are in a degree, indeed, victims. The pioneers in a new country die of the pangs of hunger or in the fangs of wild beasts. The first squad of men to storm a trench know that they will perish. Theirs is the glory of providing a bridge on which other soldiers will charge to victory.”[3] Perhaps one should not be surprised by the amount of romanticism of one who believes that human beings can be biologically perfected. Huldricksen then goes on to reinforce that eugenic unions should have the aid of the government, eugenic children (as well as their parents) should be wards of the state and be compelled to military service as young adults, or some other form of civil/government service, and that marriages entered into on account of love with no eugenic aims whatsoever “might still go on… But they would not be seriously taken, and their progeny would be negligible factors in the State.”[4]

Thus, Huldricksen advocated for the arranged marriage of eugenic toddlers, themselves the products of eugenic marriages, with over-arching control by the state in the most intimate aspects of the lives of individuals, in the name of perfecting the human stock—as supported by the medical and scientific communities. Marriages based on traditional notions of love would still be permitted but would naturally diminish over time as the veracity of a eugenically-based social structure would logically become the prevailing culture.

This way of life, championed by Huldricksen as well as many other academics, journalists, and intellectuals for a whole new age of state-sanctioned eugenics policy, was uncontroversial enough to be advocated for in a mainstream paper like the Omaha Daily Bee. These ideas, by the 1910s, had become so pervasive and topical that it seemed that the future had already been written. Similarly, rural areas added to the pro-eugenic culture by entering into competitions at their local county and state fairs. These competitions, called The Fitter Families contests, saw people judged according to their supposed genetic value. Medals were given to the most fit families, genetically, or rather eugenically, speaking.

[End of Part One]


[1]Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), 9. [2] Black, War Against the Weak, 15. [3] Black, War Against the Weak, 21. [4]Ibid., 16. [5]Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 25. [6] Black, War Against the Weak, 74. [7] Black, War Against the Weak, 75. [8]Ibid., 75-76. [9]Ibid., 83. [10] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 50-51. [11]  Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 50-51. [12] Bederman, Manliness & Civilization, 51. [13] “Wanted at Once – A Husband – A Wife: New York Scientists Offer Money Prizes to Any Man or Woman who Fulfills Their Ideas of Soundness of Body and Mind and Who Will Agree to Marry Each Other and Make a Practical Test of Eugenics, $500 for Your Wedding Gift, $500 for Your First Baby,” The Omaha Daily Bee, November 2, 1913, Sunday edition, 24. [14]Ibid. [15]Ibid. [16]Ibid. [17] “Wanted at Once – A Husband – A Wife: New York Scientists Offer Money Prizes to Any Man or Woman who Fulfills Their Ideas of Soundness of Body and Mind and Who Will Agree to Marry Each Other and Make a Practical Test of Eugenics, $500 for Your Wedding Gift, $500 for Your First Baby,” The Omaha Daily Bee. November 2, 1913, Sunday edition., 24. [18]Ibid. [19] Selma Huldricksen, “Why the Eugenic Marriages are Turning Out So Badly,” The Omaha Daily Bee, July 11, 1915, Sunday edition, 18. [20] Selma Huldricksen, “Why the Eugenic Marriages are Turning Out So Badly,” The Omaha Daily Bee, July 11, 1915, Sunday edition, 18. [1] Huldricksen. “Why the Eugenic Marriages are Turning Out So Badly,” 18. [1] Huldricksen. “Why the Eugenic Marriages are Turning Out So Badly,” 18. [1] Ibid. [1] Ibid.