American history: recent shadow

Recently I was reminded of H. L. Mencken and found his obituary of J. Gresham Machen. Mencken liked Machen for his resistance to prohibition and probably his opposition to militarism. He also appreciated Machen’s scholarship and his theological consistency. Theological liberalism seemed to him to be totally inconsistent.

But Mencken’s main praise of Machen was to contrast him to William Jennings Bryan. I never minded this. I never thought much of populism and assumed the worst of any religious leader who would oppose it.

But did you know that Bryan never believed in six-day creationism? I thought he was a “literalist” (like me!). But that wasn’t the case at all. What Bryan hated was the rising ideology that all unfit people should be sterilized or killed. It wasn’t the age of the earth that motivated him, it was the politics of killing people.

I’m going to quote from a book that I think is basically flawed as a history of the Presbyterian Church but contains what are, in my opinion, some true nuggets of information–chapter seven especially. These are really lengthy quotations, but I think they throw some necessary light on what was going on in the early twentieth century.

To begin with here is a little information about the editorialists whom the New York Times had attack Bryan’s anti-evolutionary views.

Henry Fairfield Osborn’s response to Bryan was prominently featured on page 2 of the March 5 Sunday supplement. It is important to understand who he was and what (and who) he represented. He was one of America’s earliest trained evolutionists, having studied under Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”).(42) In 1922, he was president of the Museum of Natural History in New York. He was professor of zoology at Columbia University. More important, he was a leading eugenicist, dedicated to the proposition that the scientific breeding of men is both possible and desirable. He had been a co-founder of the pro-eugenics Galton Society in 1918.(43) Galton, the origintor of eugenics, was Darwin’s cousin. He had been knighted in 1908 and in 1909 had been awarded the Copley Medal, the highest honor of Britain’s prestigious Royal Society.(44)

Eugenics and Nordic Supremacy

Another co-founder was his lawyer friend, Madison Grant,(45) author of the then-famous (and now infamous) book, The Passing of the Great Race, published by Scribner’s in 1916,(46) which by 1921 was in its fourth edition. It was a defense of the Nordic master race theory. Osborn wrote the prefaces to the first and second printings, which were retained in subsequent editions. This was reciprocated by Grant, who identified Osborn as one of the two men whose works he relied upon most heavily. The other was economist William Z. Ripley, who wrote The Races of Europe (1899).(47)

Osborn’s Preface to the 1916 first edition made plain his own views: in European history, “race has played a far larger part than either language or nationality in moulding the destinies of men; race implies heredity and heredity implies all the moral, social, and intellectual characteristics and traits that are the springs of politics and government.”(48) Grant’s book is a “racial history of Europe,” which, Osborn insisted, “There is no gainsaying that this is the correct scientific method of approaching the problem of the past.”(49) He called this methodology “modern eugenics.”(50) The book is about the “conservation of that race which has given us the true spirit of Americanism. . . .”(51) In the second printing (1917), he made himself perfectly clear: “. . . the Anglo-Saxon branch of the Nordic race is again showing itself to be that upon which the nation must chiefly depend for leadership, for courage, for loyalty, for unity and harmony of action, for self-sacrifice and devotion to an ideal. Not that members of other races are not doing their part, many of them are, but in no other human stock which has come to this country is there displayed the unanimity of heart, mind and action which is now being displayed by the descendants of the blue-eyed, fair-haired peoples of the north of Europe.”(52) With the passing of the great race, the whole world faces a crisis: “. . . these strains of the real human aristocracy once lost are lost forever.”(53)

In Chapter 4, “The Competition of Races,” Grant warned against the reduced birth rate of successful, wealthy races. It leads to “race suicide” when the encouragement of “indiscriminate reproduction” is heeded by the “undesirable elements.”(54) Altruism, philanthropy, and sentimentalism are a threat because they “intervene with the noblest purpose and forbid nature to penalize the unfortunate victims of reckless breeding,” which leads to “the multiplication of inferior types.”(55) He then made his point clear: “Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.”(56)

There is now scientific hope in this regard: “A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit–in other words, social failures–would solve the whole question in a century, as well as enable us to get rid of the undesirables who crowd our jails, hospitals and insane asylums. The individual himself can be nourished, educated and protected by the community during his lifetime, but the state through sterilization must see to it that his line stops with him or else future generations will be cursed with an ever increasing load of victims of misguided sentimentalism.”(57)

This book became a best-seller in the United States when Adolph Hitler was a corporal in the German Army. Chronology here is important.

Grant, in turn, wrote the Introduction for fellow eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard’s book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, published by Scribner’s in 1921, the year that Scribner’s published the fourth edition of Grant’s book, one year before the company published Stoddard’s The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Underman. (Scribner’s was systematically cashing in on a rising tide of color: green.) In his Introduction, Grant informed his readers, “The backbone of western civilization is racially Nordic. . . . If this great race, with its capacity for leadership and fighting, should ultimately pass, with it would pass that which we call civilization. It would be succeeded by an unstable and bastardized population where worth and merit would have no inherent right to leadership and among which a new and darker age would blot out our racial inheritance” (pp. xxix-xxx). Wherever they looked, backward or forward, eugenicists saw a dark age. Christianity gave us the old one; Asians, Jews, southern and eastern Europeans, and Negroes threaten to give us a new one. The Nordic race is just barely hanging on for dear life: “. . . competition of the Nordic with the alien is fatal, whether the latter be the lowly immigrant from southern or eastern Europe or whether he be the more obviously dangerous Oriental against whose standards of living the white man cannot compete” (pp. xxx-xxxi). German translations of Grant and Stoddard were read widely years before the Nazis came to power in 1933.(58)

Eugenics was a widely received faith among American Progressives after 1900. Walter Truett Anderson has described the origins of eugenics in the United States from the early years of the century. “America’s gates swung open for eugenics. Lavish support came forth from the wealthy families and the great foundations. [Charles] Davenport established a research center–the Station for the Experimental Study of Evolution–with a grant from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and later added a Eugenics Record Office with grants from the Harriman and Rockefeller families.”(59) Davenport’s Station was set up in 1904.(60) The Eugenics Record Office was established in 1910 with money from Mary Harriman, Averell’s sister. Over the next decade, she put at least $500,000 into the project.(61) John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated money to it.(62) He also gave money to start the American Eugenics Society,(63) which was co-founded by Osborn.(64) It was organized in 1923. It published A Eugenics Catechism in 1926, which included this insight: “Q. Does eugenics contradict the Bible? A. The Bible has much to say about eugenics. It tells us that men do not gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles. . . .”(65)

Eugenics and Forced Sterilization

The eugenics idea had political consequences. In 1907, Indiana passed the first compulsory sterilization law in America.(66) States passed laws against marriages between people who were “eugenically unfit.” By the late 1920’s, 28 states had passed compulsory sterilization laws; some 15,000 Americans had been sterilized before 1930. This figure rose by another 15,000 over the next decade.(67) (In 22 states, Federally restricted versions of these laws still existed in the mid-1980’s.)(68) This was also the era of laws against interracial marriage; 30 states passed such laws between 1915 and 1930.(69) (These laws no longer exist.)

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell (1927), upheld Virginia’s model sterilization law, which was carried out on 19-year-old Carrie Buck. By a vote of 8 to 1, the Court upheld this before the girl was sterilized; her guardian had opposed the action. The Court included Progressives William Howard Taft and Louis Brandeis, who voted to uphold. The lone dissenter was Pierce Butler, a conservative, who wrote no opinion.(70) The Court’s opinion, written by justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, announced: “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”(71) Holmes was the justice most closely associated with the ideal of evolutionary law, whose book, The Common Law (1881), had articulated this ideal. Here was political modernism in action: the State as biological predestinator.(72)

There was no vocal opposition. Writes Kevles: “Buck v. Bell generally stimulated either favorable, cautious, or–most commonly–no comment. Few if any newspapers took notice of the impact of the decision on civil liberties in the United States.”(73) Carrie’s daughter Vivian, who died young of an intestinal disorder, went through second grade. Her teachers regarded her as very bright.(74)

Virginia also sterilized Carrie’s sister Doris in 1928. She found out about this 52 years later. The physicians had told her that the operation was to remove her appendix. When she found out, she broke down and cried. “My husband and me wanted children desperately. We were crazy about them. I never knew what they’d done to me.”(75) Obviously, the woman was a hopeless imbecile; she should have said, “My husband and I,” and she used an indefinite pronoun reference: “they.” No children for her! The U.S. Supreme Court, the state of Virginia, and Progressive Darwinian science agreed: “The Bucks stop here.”

The United States became the model for pre-Nazi German racial hygienists after World War I.(76) The Nazis merely applied on a massive scale a program that their liberal predecessors had recommended. A decade before Hitler came to power, G. K. Chesterton predicted what was coming in Germany. He explained why in his book, Eugenics and Other Evils (1922). He called eugenics “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.”(77) The influence of the eugenics movement in Germany accelerated after Hitler came to power in 1933. Sterilization had been illegal in Germany prior to Hitler; he changed the law in July, 1933.(78) Two million people were ordered sterilized by the Nazi’s Eugenics Courts as eugenically unfit, 1933 to 1945.(79)

In 1939, the year of the “Duty to be Healthy,” the Nazi program of sterilization went to the next phase: “mercy killings” of mentally and physically handicapped people who were incarcerated in hospitals and mental asylums. One estimate is that some 200,000 people were killed in this way during World War II. Physicians superintended the massacre.(80) Proctor writes: “For several years [prior to 1939], German health officials had campaigned to stigmatize the mentally and physically handicapped as people with `lives unworthy of living.’ Films like `Erbrank’ (`The Genetically Diseased’) portrayed well-groomed, white-coated psychiatrists patronizing ill-kempt patients cast as human refuse. . . . Propaganda efforts of this sort were important, for though the operation was both secret and illegal (a euthanasia law was drafted but never approved), there was an obvious need to deflect potential opposition–especially from the churches.”(81) The Nazis understood in 1939 what the humanist media in the United States had understood in 1922: churches could have become a major threat to their genetic ideal and program of forced sterilization for genetic purposes. As it turned out in both countries, however, churches remained mute on the issue.

In 1921, Osborn had used the Museum to host the Second International Congress of Eugenics.(82) At that Congress, he had announced: “The right of the state to safeguard the character and integrity of the race or races on which its future depends is, to my mind, as incontestable as the right of the state to safeguard the health and morals of its people. As science has enlightened government in the prevention and spread of disease, it must also enlighten government in the prevention of the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society, the spread of feeble-mindedness, of idiocy, and of all moral and intellectual as well as physical diseases.”(83) Sanctions must be applied.

Osborn in 1922 was safely inside Rockefeller’s charmed circle. He became one of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s advisors on conservation issues after he and Madison Grant created the Save-the-Redwoods League in 1919, which Rockefeller supported.(84) When Junior would bring his boys to visit the Museum of Natural History, Osborn would sometimes personally conduct their tour.(85) The Osborn family’s connection to the Rockefellers went back to the days of John D., Sr.(86) Junior put Frederick Osborn, Henry’s nephew, on the board of the Rockefeller Institute in 1938. It was through Frederick that the Rockefellers were drawn away from eugenics and into the population control movement.(87) (Liberalism’s faith in population control has replaced its earlier faith, equally confident, in the now-politically incorrect eugenics movement as a means of reducing the number of those who, in Grant’s words, “are themselves of no value to the community.” Between 1965 and 1976, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations poured $250 million into population control projects.)(88)

And here is more on Bryan’s motives:

Bryan vs. Eugenics

Bryan recognized that a ruthless hostility to charity was the dark side of Darwinism. Had Darwin’s theory been irrelevant, he said, it would have been harmless. “This hypothesis, however, does incalculable harm. It teaches that Christianity impairs the race physically. That was the first implication at which I revolted. It led me to review the doctrine and reject it entirely.”(109) He cited the notorious (and morally inescapable) passage in Darwin’s Descent of Man: “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”(110) He could have continued to quote from the passage until the end of the paragraph: “It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”(111) It is significant that Darwin at this point footnoted Francis Galton’s famous 1865 Macmillan’s magazine article and his book, Hereditary Genius.

Darwin in the next paragraph wrote that sympathy, “the noblest part of our nature,” leads men to do these racially debilitating things.(112) Bryan replied: “Can that doctrine be accepted as scientific when its author admits that we cannot apply it `without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature’? On the contrary, civilization is measured by the moral revolt against the cruel doctrine developed by Darwin.”(113)

Darwin was taken very seriously by many Progressives on the matter of charity. In her book, The Pivot of Civilization (1922), Margaret Sanger criticized the inherent cruelty of charity. She insisted that organized efforts to help the poor are the “surest sign that our civilization has bred, is breeding, and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents, and dependents.”(114) Such charity must be stopped, she insisted. The fertility of the working class must be regulated in order to reduce the production of “benign imbeciles, who encourage the defective and diseased elements of humanity in their reckless and irresponsible swarming and spawning.”(115) Swarming (like insects), spawning (like fish): here was marvelous zoological rhetoric from the lionized founder of Planned Parenthood. “If we must have welfare, give it to the rich, not the poor,” she concluded.(116) “More children from the fit, less from the unfit: that is the chief issue of birth control.”(117)

Bryan’s challenge to the science of evolution seemed to threaten the continuation of the Nordic aristocracy in America by obstinately denying the theoretical basis of eugenics and proclaiming that all men are made in God’s image. The dedicated eugenicists who were called in by the Times in 1922 to refute him were defenders of both Darwin and Galton; they wanted to push Darwinism to its logical conclusion. Over the next two decades, they did. So did Adolph Hitler, beginning eleven years later. When Hitler’s experiment in applied Darwinism failed politically, Bryan’s critics very quietly took this section of Descent of Man, as well as their own public careers in defense of eugenic sterilization, and dropped them down the Orwellian memory hole, where the data still rest in peace alongside the long-forgotten moral critique by Bryan, who had opposed Darwin on principle on this, the only known practical application of Darwin’s thesis. Bryan is still pictured as a scientific buffoon in the history textbooks, and his detractors are still pictured as the fearless defenders of autonomous science. And what of the 30,000 Americans who were forcibly sterilized in the name of Darwinian science? Long dead, long forgotten, and therefore no longer a potential embarrassment.

Let me be real clear. I am not arguing that any of this disproves evolution. I am arguing that our history of heroes and villains is seriously inconsistent and mythical. William Jennings Bryan was a radical leftist who didn’t believe in six-day-creation. He was a “national socialist” who wanted no genocides. The other leftists won.

I sometimes wonder if the only reason eugenics didn’t win global hegemony is because Hitler did it so ruthlessly that everyone else got embarrassed enough to behave like Christians for a few more decades.

4 thoughts on “American history: recent shadow

  1. Steven W

    At the risk of losing credibility, I would recommend Gary North’s “Unknown History of the 20th Century.” He does a great job on Jennings-Bryan and the Monkey Trial. He links that event with the fall of conservativism as a serious intellectual option for the first part of the 20th century. Of course with the rise of Goldwater and then the once and future Reagan, all is restored 😉

  2. Allen

    Do you know of a better history of the Presbyterian church? If not, could you describe what you think the flaws are? I’ve been meaning to read _Crossed Fingers_ for a while, so I’d be interested in knowing what to be careful of.

  3. Kevin

    Hey, no fair. You have to give a reason that you consider the book to be “flawed’.
    I read it several years ago and liked it.

    Then again I am probably not qualified to judge since I am self-evidently stupid. After all I read Steve Wilkins response on-line and I failed to find the heresy that others much smarter then me can see in it so…
    How would I “know” anything?


Leave a Reply to Allen Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *