Eugenics Not Possible Without The Power Of The State

by R. Cort Kirkwood
by R. Cort Kirkwood

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War Against The Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, by Edward Black. 550 pp, with notes, appendices and bibliography. Four Walls Eight Windows, New York.

With vigor and eloquence, Pope John Paul II has spoken against the "culture of death." Without too much thought, one might believe that culture is of recent vintage and found in legal abortion and the debate over legalizing euthanasia.

But the culture of death is much older, and may well have its roots in the eugenics programs of the early 20th century. Writing in "War Against The Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create A Master Race," Edwin Black casts an unwelcome spotlight on an ugly time when American leaders and philanthropic institutions virtually created eugenics and sought to stop the "unfit" from reproducing.

As valuable as the book is, however, Black doesn’t draw, at least explicitly, one important connection: Without the State, eugenics is impossible.

Early Eugenics

The book begins with a chilling description of a government sweep into southwestern Virginia’s Brush Mountain, where sheriff’s deputies ran down "imbeciles" for state eugenicists.

The authorities had prescribed forced sterilization, an idea that had humble beginnings in the theories of late 19th-century British statistician Francis Galton.

A pioneering meteorologist who also discovered that fingerprints were unique in each individual, Galton believed intelligence was inherited. He wrote about the subject and studied inherited intelligence, then coined a word using the Greek words for "well" and "born": eugenics.

The idea soon found fertile ground in the minds of American sympathizers, who thought controlling the birth of "imbeciles" and the "feebleminded" would "better society." Anyone could be a target for the eugenicists. Epileptics, also considered "feebleminded," were a particular eugenicist concern.

The man who launched American eugenics was Yankee Congregationalist Charles Davenport, born on the soil of New England Progressivism, which spawned feminism, prohibitionism and other reformist isms that plagued the 20th century.

With the help of the American Breeders’ Association, an animal husbandry group, Davenport drew support from such luminaries as Andrew Carnegie, the Harriman heirs and eventually the Rockefeller philanthropy. Alexander Graham Bell even rang in.

Davenport’s "first mission," Black writes, "was to identify the most defective and undesirable Americans, at least 10 percent of the population."

After identifying this "submerged tenth," appropriate "remedies" would be used to identify "defective germ plasm" and "terminate their bloodlines."

Davenport and his eugenicists "plotted a bold campaign of ‘purging the blood of the American people of the handicapping and deteriorating influences of these anti-social classes’," meaning the "socially unfit," such as epileptics, the "feebleminded," the deformed, the deaf, mute and blind.

The eugenicists believed "the great mass of humanity is not only a social menace … but it harbors the potential parenthood of the social misfits of our future generations."

The first round of sterilization and other remedies targeted 11 million "unfit" Americans.

The State – And States – Step In

Thus did the State, and the states, step in, beginning with Indiana, where yet another Congregationalist led the eugenicist charge. Indiana gave America its first sterilization law.

President Woodrow Wilson signed New Jersey’s sterilization law, and one of his deputies descended to greater fame as a Nazi collaborator at Buchenwald.

Pennsylvania’s legislature passed an "Act for the Prevention of Idiocy," but the governor vetoed it, saying the state may as well start chopping off heads. Other states, however, joined the crusade.

And again, eugenics attracted the support of prominent Americans. Progressive Theodore Roosevelt summed up eugenicist theory: "Society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce." Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the famous opinion upholding Virginia’s decision to sterilize a woman named Carrie Buck: "Three generations of imbeciles," he averred, "are enough."

Other supporters were Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, and in Britain, Winston Churchill and Major Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, postulator of evolution. Britain originated the idea of "lethal chambers" for its "unfit."

Eventually, the eugenicist virus found a hospitable host in Germany. There, Black concludes, it led to the death chambers of Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Thanks to the Nazis, highly praised by eugenicists here, the movement eventually collapsed. But not before nearly 50,000 Americans were sterilized.

An Irony

An irony of this book is that its publisher hails itself as "progressive." As the late economist and historian Murray Rothbard wrote, "Progressivism" was a movement in New England born of Yankee Pietism in the early 19th century. By the early 20th, it had matured into a Messianic ideology of pervasive social controls to better the world: prohibition of alcohol, statist government regulation of business, even the "war to end all wars," World War I. And, of course, eugenics was there, too.

Religion is important to the story of eugenics, which is often incorrectly perceived as dealing strictly with matters of race. Eugenics involved race, and as Black writes, it was also a war against the weak: the retarded, the blind, the deaf, all those whom Christ enjoined us to treat with charity, meaning love of God.

But eugenics also veered into cultural and religious fanaticism. The "unfit" not only included swarthy southern Europeans, particularly Italians, but also the fair-skinned Irish. They were Catholics having too many babies, outpacing the Yankee Progressives, who imbibed the hoary anti-Catholic creed of the Know Nothings and Pietists.

Unsurprisingly, eugenics coincided with Sanger’s birth control movement and with Progressivist dominion of public schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Progressivists wanted public schools to "Christianize" their pupils, particularly Catholics and Lutherans. Thus, the same people who would ensure that all children would sing the right Christian hymns in public school, and extirpate "Romish superstition," as Rothbard explained, also wanted to ensure the wrong children were never born.

The Missing Thesis

Despite too much detail and too many pages, which led to some dry, laborious prose more suitable to a term paper, the book proves the verity of Lord Acton’s admonition: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The power to control human reproduction may be the most absolute power of all. Government had it.

Not one involuntary sterilization could have occurred just because a few obsessed ideologues or rich industrialists wanted it. They hadn’t the legal power to sterilize anyone. They needed the omnipotent State.

Its elected and hired managers (politicians and bureaucrats), a high-minded elite believing itself omniscient, arrogated illegitimate authority and unjust dominion over others that defied Scriptural and natural law and the tradition of limited government, the cornerstones of American liberty.

That is the valuable lesson of Black’s important book, and until today’s "progressives" learn it, ventilating outrage over eugenics is a futile exercise.

This review first appeared in Harrisonburg, Virginia's Daily News-Record, where Kirkwood is managing editor.

September 11, 2003

Syndicated columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

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