Eugenics—the practice of encouraging the breeding of the “fit” while discouraging the breeding of the “unfit”—has attracted extensive scholarly interest in the last thirty years. As Thomas C. Leonard argues in his fine book Illiberal Reformers, eugenics was not, as many continue to insist on believing, marginal pseudo-science. It was science, and not only its basic precepts (that “feeblemindedness” was hereditary and that feebleminded persons’ higher birth rates would lead to race suicide) but also its policy recommendations (excluding the eugenically unfit via migration control, birth control, and forced sterilization) were widely shared and endorsed by the scientists, university presidents, journal editors, constitutional court justices, and upper-middle-class activists (among others) who defined American public debate. At least one U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, had once been a strong supporter of eugenics and might well have tempered his support once in the Oval Office only out of political expediency (xii–xiii). Indeed, until the 1920s, critics of eugenics were the marginal ones, and they often founded their opposition to eugenics in nonscientific doctrines such as Roman Catholicism. Leonard reminds us of the extent of eugenics’ appeal, though in itself this point is not an original one. We have known about progressive support for eugenics at least since Michael Freeden’s influential 1979 article “Eugenics and Progressive Thought: A Study in Ideological Affinity” (The Historical Journal 22, no. 3 : 645–671). And recent books by Alexandra Minna Stern, Ian Robert Dowbiggin, and Desmond S. King and myself (none of which is cited) have explored at length the attraction of eugenics to established U.S. opinion-makers. Two features of Illiberal Reformers nonetheless make it an essential read. The first is the sustained attention given to the relationship between eugenics and the progressive movement. Many authors note the appeal of eugenics to progressives, but the last thoroughgoing exploration of it, by Donald K. Pickens, was published in 1968, and that book was marred by errors and a confused argument. The second compelling feature of Leonard’s work is his approach to it as an economic historian: this is a book about progressive economics. The famous Buck v. Bell (1927) decision, which confirmed the constitutionality of state laws on sterilization (and resulted in a great upsurge in them), is accorded only a few lines (115). Instead, Leonard demonstrates that the foundation and expansion of economics as a discipline was inseparable from the progressive movement in favor of government regulation of social and economic life (chaps. 2 and 3). Progressive economists, drawing on the German experience, urged that an expanded and reformed U.S. bureaucracy with extensive regulatory powers be the guarantor of prosperity. Government worked best when apolitical experts—meaning progressive economists themselves, of course—rather than corrupt politicians had the power to regulate economic life. Economist Edwin R. A. Seligman played a pivotal role in laying out the case in favor of progressive income taxes, U.S. corporate taxes, and inheritance tax (43). Other progressive experts played key roles in advocating new agencies, and under progressive president Wilson the Federal Board of Trade, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Permanent Tariff Commission (44) were all created. In conjunction with earlier reforms under Theodore Roosevelt and initiatives at the state level, the result was that by “the end of President Woodrow Wilson’s first term … the fourth branch of government [had been] established” (45). But this achievement, and progressive economic and social reform generally, came at a price. Progressivism and progressive zeal were anti-liberal and hostile to individual rights. The United States, in the progressive view, was an “evolved organism,” a body that needed nurturing and protection from degenerative threats (101). That required marginalizing or eliminating those “deficient” elements. Progressives systematically supported excluding African Americans from the federal bureaucracy (49–50), women from the labor market (chap. 10), people with mental disabilities from reproduction, and immigrants from the United States. As technocrats, they took a dim view of mass democracy. They regarded the decline in U.S. electoral turnout as a cause for relief rather than worry, and they justified the exclusion of African Americans from electoral roles as an anti-corruption measure (49). As was the case with what we now regard as the progressives’ positive achievements—workers’ compensation, banning child labor, mandatory elementary schooling, pensions, minimum wages, and maximum working hours—their exclusionary measures met great success. For this reader, the most fascinating section was on minimum-wage laws. Rather than disputing the economists’ argument that minimum wages create unemployment by pricing certain workers out of the labor market, progressives enthusiastically endorsed it (158–167). Leonard quotes progressive journalist Paul Kellogg, for example, as one who argued that minimum-wage laws “would ‘exclude [Angelo] Lucca and [Alexis] Spivak and other “greeners” from our congregate industries,’ reserving American jobs for ‘John Smith and Michael Murphy and Carl Sneider’” (160). Leonard’s book is a must-read for any student of twentieth-century American history, but—like any book—it is not without its faults. Leonard’s method is vigorously biographical; he takes us through the published writings of a dizzyingly large number of “progressive” thinkers. This is fine in itself, but the reader gets little sense of the relative impact of these theorists (was Kellogg really responsible for U.S. minimum-wage policy?) and none of the wider political contestations surrounding these ideas. We learn about the progressives’ Protestant zeal, but the Roman Catholic Church, which for seven decades fought eugenic ideas and policies with some success, is hardly mentioned. The blithe treatment of politics can lead to unsustainable conclusions. “Inertial force” alone did not lead to the sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans from 1920 (117); rather, the active lobbying of eugenic sterilization’s supporters, including superintendents of homes for the feebleminded (in which the sterilizations occurred), ensured that some sixty thousand Americans were robbed of their fertility rights on eugenic grounds. Moreover, eugenic sterilization did not end in 1929, as the book seems to imply: more forced eugenic sterilizations occurred after the war than before, with sterilization only drawing to a close in the 1970s. Had the book engaged more recent historical and social-scientific scholarship on eugenics, these oversights might have been avoided. My final concern with the book regards boundaries. Leonard does a fine job of exploring progressives’ connections to some of the darker sides of interventionist policy in twentieth-century America (hence the rapturous praise of the book by conservative journalist George F. Will), but other connections remain unexplored. Environmental policy secures a brief mention, but nothing like the attention accorded in Alexandra Minna Stern’s work. The link between eugenics and birth control—a highly politicized topic in contemporary debate—is mentioned, but there is no sustained treatment of the issue. Finally, the author makes only passing reference, in a footnote, to euthanasia, and he says nothing at all about population policy, a eugenicist/progressivist concern from the 1930s. Perhaps these subjects will be the focus of Leonard’s next welcome book. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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