Eugenics Not Possible Without The Power Of The State
R. Cort Kirkwood
by R. Cort Kirkwood
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.
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.
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.
valuable as the book is, however, Black doesn’t draw, at least explicitly,
one important connection: Without the State, eugenics is impossible.
book begins with a chilling description of a government sweep into
southwestern Virginia’s Brush Mountain, where sheriff’s
ran down "imbeciles" for state eugenicists.
authorities had prescribed forced sterilization, an idea that had
humble beginnings in the theories of late 19th-century British statistician
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":
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
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.
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.
"first mission," Black writes, "was to identify the most defective
and undesirable Americans, at least 10 percent of the population."
identifying this "submerged tenth," appropriate "remedies" would
be used to identify "defective germ plasm" and "terminate their
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
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."
first round of sterilization and other remedies targeted 11 million
State – And States – Step In
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.
Woodrow Wilson signed New Jersey’s sterilization law, and one of
his deputies descended to greater fame as a Nazi collaborator at
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.
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."
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."
the eugenicist virus found a hospitable host in Germany. There,
Black concludes, it led to the death chambers of Buchenwald and
to the Nazis, highly praised by eugenicists here, the movement eventually
collapsed. But not before nearly 50,000 Americans were sterilized.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
is the valuable lesson of Black’s important book, and until today’s
"progressives" learn it, ventilating outrage over eugenics is a
review first appeared in Harrisonburg, Virginia's Daily News-Record,
where Kirkwood is managing editor.
columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send
him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record
in Harrisonburg, Va.
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