Progressives advocated eugenics and race science

Progressives advocated eugenics and race science January 27, 2017

Thomas C. Leonard’s new book, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, & American Economics in the Progressive Era details the time when progressives believed “inferior” races should be marginalized and eliminated through abortion, sterilization, and minimum wage laws.  They were inspired by Darwin and included the likes of evangelical minister Washington Gladden and president Woodrow Wilson.  Just like progressives today, they were impatient with civil and religious liberties that got in their way, and believed that only the state–not individuals and communities–can solve basic human problems.

Here are some excerpts from Sam Gregg’s review:

“In his Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin prophesied that ‘the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.’

“Social gospellers such as Washington Gladden, lawyers such as Felix Frankfurter, efficiency experts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, economists such as Richard T. Ely, and politicians such as Woodrow Wilson believed they simply knew better [than ordinary Christians about how to remedy social ills].

“’God works through the State,’ Ely proclaimed. Another economic progressive, John R. Commons, ‘told his Christian audiences that the state was the greatest power for good that existed among men and women.’ The church, apparently, just wasn’t that important.

“For a long time, eugenics and race science enjoyed great respectability. For at least three decades, Leonard notes, ‘eugenic ideas were politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream.’ They flourished, he adds, in ‘nearly all non-Catholic Western countries.’ In 1911, for example, the Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, signed forcible sterilization legislation that targeted what eugenicists regarded as ‘the hopelessly defective and criminal classes.’ Likewise, the claims of race science were widely accepted by progressives. In his History of the American People(1902), for instance, Wilson asserted that southern and eastern Europeans had ‘neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.’

“Economic progressives also concluded that the ‘unemployable’ (such as the mentally and physically disabled) or those who threatened to drag down the wages of inherently more productive Anglo-Saxons (such as Eastern European Jews or migrants from Asia and Southern Europe) had to be squeezed out of labor markets in the name of greater economic productivity. Economic progressives subsequently designed regulatory measures to achieve this end.

“This included advocacy of minimum wage laws. These, it was held, would ensure that ‘only the productive workers were employed’ by pricing low-skilled migrants out of labor markets.

“Leonard does not draw explicit comparisons between the progressives and today’s modern liberals. Nevertheless, they are not difficult to discern. One is faith in self-identified elites who purport to know better than everyone else. Another is impatience with those political, economic, civil, and religious liberties that get in the way of grand designs imposed from the top down. A third is a preferential option for the state, based on disbelief in the ability of individuals and communities to resolve many of their own problems.”

You can follow Gerald McDermott  on Twitter, @DrGMcDermott


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