The Immigrant, Defective: American Eugenics

The Birth Of American Eugenics

            On November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s book, On The Origin Of Species, was published.  This ushered in a new era of biology as the principles of evolution and natural selection became catalysts of scientific progress.  Darwin, seeing the potential application of his work in regards to human evolution, commented at the end of his book, “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches.  Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.”1  The mental gradations were already established socially, and it was now the goal of science to cement that assumption in fact.  Just like the animals Darwin studied, the ultimate result for humans was clear, “And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.”2  This progression was unfortunately far slower than many people were willing to accept.  These people formed the foundation of the eugenics movement, which according to one American eugenicist, was “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding.”3  The purpose of the present analysis is to examine the beginnings of eugenics as a whole, the factors affecting the rise of eugenics in America, and the impact it had upon immigration legislation.  Also, the tactics used to gain influence will be looked at in the hope of educating the current generation of citizens and scientists to be cautious as the importance of genetics in modern society continues to grow.

         Eugenics was not born.  Although the term, ‘eugenics’ was coined by Sir Francis Galton, the underlying sentiment had been around for a long time. The abolition of slavery in Britain had occurred only decades prior, and racial ideas of superiority and inferiority were commonplace, the biggest difference was an evolutionary frame to hold up these ideas.  After the publication of On The Origin Of Species, Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, centered his research on what Darwin left unsaid revolving around human evolution.  Galton felt that the greatest importance of evolution was to document the history of man in order to determine man’s future.4  He was obsessive in his practice of collecting data and statistics, often applying them as fact rather than subjective observation, a practice applied throughout the history of eugenic propaganda.  An example of his habits can be seen in his analysis of audience boredom during a lecture based on the “frequency, amplitude, and duration of fidgeting.”5  He applied his quantitative science to a study on the pedigrees of many famous men, and sought to prove that the mental faculties of these men were inherited.6  Despite using subjective criteria like the use of reputation as a measure for a man’s mental capacity, his findings were published in his book, Hereditary Genius.  He found that many men above the average rating had other above average family members, and thus stated that hereditary, or nature, was more important in shaping man and his character than exterior influences, referred both as environmental and nurturing factors.7  His results undoubtedly complimented his own heritage, as he often remarked that his interest and prowess in biology stemmed from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, coincidentally the common ancestor between Galton and Charles Darwin.

             His professed biological superiority was also coupled with his disdain for the common man, and he often used his hereditarian science to quantify his social prejudices.  He compared the “slavish aptitudes” of oxen to the capacities and tendencies of average men, and specifically “the black population of Africa.”8  This perspective was also determined after his interactions with the Royal Anthropological Institute.  Unsurprisingly, he found that Anglo-Saxons far exceeded the peoples of Africa, who were of greater intellectual capacity than the most primitive group, the Australian aborigines.  Characteristic of the eugenics movement, Galton assumed that it was a natural process of evolution then, to replace these inferior races with superior ones, resulting in the ultimate extinction of the weaker races.9  Common belief at this point in time was that both inherited characteristics and ones acquired throughout the life of the parents would be passed to their offspring.  Eugenics differed sharply in that Galton, even prior to the rediscovery of Mendel’s genetic work, rejected this notion.  If acquired traits were passed on to progeny, then all that was needed to improve humanity was better health care and other social institutions.  The eugenics movement sought a different approach.

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            In Onieda, New York, a community under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes, was established in 1848.  This community was known as the Onieda Bible Communists and they reflected an early attempt of reproduction similar to the forming ideology of eugenics.  Noyes having read Galton’s work found his theories appreciable but saw Galton as far too conservative to actually follow through.  Noyes took the ideals of better breeding and attempted them, saying, “every race-horse, every straight-backed bull, every premium pig tells us what we can do and what we must do for man.”10  These communists, and self-titled Perfectionists, pledged to breed only if they were deemed the fittest of the group.  Over the following ten years, fifty-eight children were born in the settlement following the rules of better breeding, and coincidentally, at least nine of the children were fathered by Noyes himself.11  Eventually conflict ensued in the settlement and it disbanded in the 1880’s, with eugenicists doing well to avoid association with Noyes and his community.

          The largest initial impact of eugenics on America involved the people surrounding the prison system, insane asylums, and charity organizations.  During an inspection of conditions at an Ulster County jail in New York, Richard L. Dugdale found it peculiar that six of the inmates were related.  Dugdale then investigated the family history of these inmates, known by him as the Jukes, and found that half of the 709 people within this family lineage through both blood and marriage were criminals or prostitutes, or were taking advantage of charitable relief.  He speculated that this lineage cost the public roughly $1.3 million dollars, which caused a huge response when Dugdale’s findings were published.12  Although Dugdale was careful to express that people are reflections of both environment and heredity, strict eugenicists used the lineage of the Jukes to reflect the degeneracy of certain groups.

         Degeneracy, according to Christian tradition, was something passed from parent to child due to the iniquities of the parent.13  This is most evident in the investigation conducted by a Massachusetts teacher for the feebleminded.  Samuel Gridley Howe, in 1848, confirmed that all but four of the 359 congenitally feebleminded individuals at the school were so afflicted due to the parents having been “hereditarily disposed to affections of the brain, causing occasional insanity, or they had intermarried with blood relatives, or they had been intemperate, or had been guilty of sexual excesses which impaired their constitutions.”14  In conjunction with those deemed feebleminded, the insane and others in need of custodial care became the target of investigation.

         Josephine Shaw Lowell, the first female member of the New York State Board of Charities, analyzed the people kept within the state’s charitable and custodial institutions.  She found that a constant stream of women would come through these systems and bear illegitimate children, thus continuing a steady current of federal spending and pauperism.  She founded “reformatories” designed to house these people, but also to “protect the unfortunate women and to protect society from their progeny.”15  Discontent among other representatives, such as John Box of Texas, echoed the growing concerns of not only the feebleminded, insane, and weak citizens of the United States, but also of the growing immigrant population.  John Box accused the growing Mexican population of relying heavily on charitable organizations, and that they “formed communities of misery constituting a heavy charge upon the taxpayers.”16  This charge was not only meant to marginalize their overall value within the country, but also to express their racial inferiority, as the prominent eugenicist Harry Laughlin had already established, “One notices, by the names of the individuals found in institutions, that the lower or less progressive races furnish more than their quota.”17

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         In an attempt to control immigration legislation, the American eugenicists began blurring the lines between race and social class.  Director of the Eugenics Record Office and leader of American eugenics, Charles B. Davenport, openly equated lower class status with inferior genes, while asserting that the upper and middle class individuals typically possessed superior genes.18  Although not a new idea, eugenicists embraced this vision, regarding the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic lineages to the fittest of all races.  One of the greatest fears of the American eugenicists was interbreeding and the taint of the Nordic bloodlines.  Outspoken eugenicist and anti-immigration lawyer Madison Grant spoke of the necessity of regulation, pointing out that “the amount of Nordic blood in each nation is a very fair measure of its strength in war and standing in civilization.”19  As millions of immigrants were pouring into the nation throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eugenicists were scrambling for methods to marginalize non-Nordic races.  After having already spread the misguided statistical correlations between the feebleminded and insane and sub-standard races, eugenicists began targeting the economy to leverage their will.  They accused greedy corporations of bringing in cheap labor from other countries, allowing for the “unfit” races to increase while the “fit” native laborers were losing jobs and losing the financial ability to raise Nordic children.20

          Using tactics like these along with xenophobia and Red hysteria following the Bolshevik revolution, eugenicists were able to greatly influence Congress and pass some important racially and eugenically charged immigration acts.  Eugenicists feared the influx of immigrants after World War I and reasoned that the fittest Europeans would stay and rebuild while the weakest, or “least fit” would travel to the United States.21  To regulate the quality of these incoming immigrants, eugenicists wanted strict inspections and the ability to deny entry to “All idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons.”22  It goes on further to note anyone showing symptoms of disease, previous bouts of insanity and other defects  are not allowed entry to the United States.  This included the vague subjectivity of determining what made up a feebleminded person, compounded with a five-year period of determining whether or not an immigrant showed signs of being defective.  All these determinants constituted the 1917 Immigration Act, as well as the racial lines being drawn in the form of latitudes and longitudes.  The exclusion of South Asian territories from admittance into the United States symbolized the approach of Congress to verify its own “parameters of whiteness.”23  Immediately after the passing of the bill and a small eugenics victory, eugenicists were already pushing for stricter measures.  Using data from a study on mental acuity in the United States Army by eugenicist and Harvard professor Robert M. Yerkes, a colleague of his named Carl Brigham said, “These army data constitute the first really significant contributions to the study of race differences in mental traits.  They give us a scientific basis for our conclusions.”  The study concluded that nearly two million immigrants were below the average intellectual capacity of the Black population, thereby demeaning one group with the marginalization of another.24  This data, coupled with the authority of congressman Albert Johnson and his association with eugenicist Harry Laughlin, helped to sign into law the Immigration Act of 1924, or Johnson-Reed Act thereby reducing the percentages of immigrants allowed into the United States.  The act stipulated the need to maintain a quota restricting more than two per cent of the total population of immigrants from a given nation within the United States based upon the Census of 1890.25

          These immigration policies are only a few examples of the legislative acts that eugenicists played a role in, with the rest left for analysis at a later date.  A little over a decade after the Johnson-Reed Act, a book was published, entitled Tomorrow’s Children.  Written by Ellsworth Huntington and made in conjunction with The Directors of the American Eugenics Society, it echoed the harsh feelings of the eugenics movement as a whole shortly after their American heyday.  When asked what role does immigration have in eugenics, Huntington offered this example

          Those who go as families and migrate far in the face of great difficulties and dangers, and for the sake of high ideals, are generally of unusual value eugenically.  Their descendants tend to be above the average.  On the other hand, if the migration is easy, if it consists mainly of unemployed or unsuccessful men with few women, if poor types of people are helped to migrate, and if low-grade migrants find work more easily than high-grade ones, an adverse or dysgenic selection takes place. In such cases the children of the migrants tend to be of poor quality.  Thus immigration to America may be either desirable or undesirable, and has undoubtedly been of both kinds.26

Which immigrant pattern did Huntington relate to?








1.  Charles Darwin, The Origin Of Species by Means of Natural Selection (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 383.

2.  Ibid., 384.

3.  Mark H. Haller, Eugenics: Hereditarian Attitude in American Thought (Rahway, N. J.: Quinn & Boden Company, Inc., 1963), 3.

4.  Ibid., 9.

5.  William H. Tucker, The Science and Politics of Racial Research (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 37.

6.  Haller, Eugenics, 9.

7.  Ibid., 10.

8.  Tucker, Science, 39.

9.  Haller, Eugenics, 11.

10.  Ibid., 37.

11.  Ibid., 38.

12.  Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 19.

13.  Haller, Eugenics, 22.

14.  Ibid., 26.

15.  Ibid., 28.

16.  Nancy Ordover, American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 34-35.

17.  Ibid.

18.  Kenneth M. Ludmerer, Genetics and American Society: A Historical Appraisal (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 20.

19.  Ibid., 23.

20.  Ordover, American, 23.

21.  Ibid., 16.

22.  Ibid., 17.

23.  Ibid.

24.  Ibid., 26.

25.  Ibid., 27-31.

26.  Ellsworth Huntington, Tomorrow’s Children: The Goal of Eugenics (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1935), 94.


About aflorin8

Simply a friend, biologist, photographer, avid reader, volleyball nut, humanitarian, and man.

One comment

  1. Pingback: A pragmatic look at eugenics at Mary P Madigan's Journal

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