The History of Eugenics in America, Part IV

Social and Legal Implications of Eugenics:

Eugenicists claimed to have demonstrated that a number of human traits were unit characteristics, that were assumed to reside on single genes. Charts displayed at the 1929 Kansas Free Fair showed the “Mendelian Laws” of human heredity. “Unfit human traits such as feeble-mindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism, pauperism and many others run in families and are inherited in exactly the same way as color in guinea pigs.” These assertions, if true, had sweeping implications for social policy.

Fig. IV.1: Eugenics poster ‘The Triangle of Life’ sets out arguments regarding heredity and ‘fitness.’

For example, it made little sense to spend money educating the “feeble-minded,” since they were doomed by heredity to remain morons. Furthermore, eugenics advocates argued that the feeble-minded should not actively participate in a democracy, or retain their civil rights. The appropriate and humane action would be to house them in institutions, and segregate them from ‘normal’ society. Since the feeble-minded carried these defective genes, it was imperative that society prevent them from procreating, either by segregating the sexes or by sterilizing them (or, even worse, euthanizing them).

In addition, eugenics advocates claimed that efforts to improve the lot of workers were actually misguided. For example, restrictions on child labor were viewed as counter-productive. The argument was that with young children unable to join the workforce, ‘responsible’ working-class citizens would reduce their birthrate. However, the ‘unfit,’ being unable to control their sexual urges, would continue to reproduce. In addition, providing relief to the poor would simply exacerbate the problem, as the feeble-minded would inevitably reproduce at a higher rate than the ‘fit.’ The issue of birth control was contentious for the eugenics movement. Advocates of contraception maintained that it would be a means for the poor to control their rates of reproduction. However, some opponents of birth control argued that it would be used predominantly by the higher classes, and not the lower classes; thus, the net result would be dysgenic, leading to a decrease in the birthrate for ‘normal’ citizens and hence to an increasing fraction of the unfit.

In the 1930s, the British Government’s Joint Committee on Mental Deficiency reported that their testing indicated the presence of at least 300,000 mental defectives in England and Wales. This was twice as many as had been found in a 1908 study. Not surprisingly, those individuals were concentrated among the lower classes. And the mental defectives had much larger numbers of “insane persons, epileptics, paupers, criminals (especially recidivists), unemployables, habitual slum dwellers, prostitutes, inebriates, and other social inefficients” than normal families.

In Britain, social policy was nationalized and was legislated by Parliament. In the U.S., many of these issues were under the control of individual states. Daniel Kevles points out that in this era, many states had adopted the “Wisconsin idea” promulgated by Progressive governor Robert La Follette. La Follette advocated using expert advice from state university staff and other experts when developing policies in areas such as “taxes, agriculture, regulation, and public health.” This practice, adopted in the spirit of good government, meant that a relatively small number of ‘expert’ eugenics advocates on a university faculty (or staff at state mental institutions) could have a major impact on state policy. This would particularly be the case in states where there was little organized opposition to eugenics.

In the U.S., the “central clearing house” for eugenics advocacy was the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Springs Harbor, under the direction of Charles Davenport. Davenport’s office churned out a regular series of publications and statistics. But perhaps most important, the Eugenics Record Office produced a steady stream of field workers who would migrate from Cold Springs Harbor to state mental institutions. There, they carried out eugenics research with the inmates of those institutions; and they formed alliances with politicians on the issues of the heritability of mental defect, and the “menace of the feeble-minded.”

Harry Laughlin and Compulsory Sterilization:

Eugenics advocates were, in general, strongly opposed to social welfare programs, on the grounds that they interfered with the “natural order” that resulted from heredity. It was argued that successful leaders occupied their position in society by virtue of their superior genes; conversely, the status of the poor and powerless reflected their innate inferior qualities. Thus, it was unwise to allow programs such as welfare, education and medical care to be made available to all citizens, since this allowed the propagation of inferior genes to subsequent generations. David Starr Jordan wrote that “indiscriminate charity has been a fruitful cause of the survival of the unfit. To kill the strong [in war] and to feed the weak [with social welfare] is to provide for a progeny of weakness.”

As discussed in Part II of this series, Henry Goddard’s solution to the “feeble-minded menace” was to build institutions, such as his Vineland Training School, where the feeble-minded would be housed and cared for. However, there were other obvious, efficient and permanent solutions to this problem. One remedy was to sterilize the feeble-minded, a practice that would prevent their unfit genes from being passed on to further generations. A common argument was that the feeble-minded were less able to curb their carnal appetites than ‘normal’ citizens. A British social worker summed up the reasoning: “The weaker the intellect … the greater appears to be the strength of the reproductive facilities. It is as though where the higher faculties have dwindled the lower, or merely animal, take command.” The idea of compulsory sterilization of ‘defectives’ gained support, buttressed in part by Goddard’s apparently meticulous and Mendelian Kallikak family tree.

A uniquely American remedy was to identify potential immigrants who were feeble-minded, and prevent them from entering our country. This required the development of ‘cutting-edge scientific techniques’ to distinguish normal individuals from the feeble-minded. This was a powerful motive behind the new field of ‘scientific’ intelligence testing. IQ testing was reviewed in Part II of this post. In this section we will discuss the role of IQ testing on American immigration policy,

In addition to Goddard’s genealogy of the ‘Kallikaks,’ a second study of family history also had a major impact on American legislation and efforts to sterilize the “unfit.” This was a study of the “Jukes family.” Around 1870 Elisha Harris, the former president of the American Health Association, claimed that a woman named “Margaret” was the head of a family of misfits: Harris described them as “a race of criminals, paupers and harlots.” In 1874, sociologist Richard Dugdale undertook an extensive history of this extended family, to which he gave the pseudonym “Juke family.” Dugdale’s genealogical history traced the family back to an American frontiersman Max, who was born between 1720 and 1740. The woman “Margaret” named by Harris had married one of Max’s sons.

Dugdale claimed to have identified 76 convicted criminals, 18 brothel-keepers, 120 prostitutes, over 200 relief recipients, and 2 cases of “feeble-mindedness.” In addition, Dugdale showed that the family was plagued with disease and poverty. Although Dugdale emphasized that “the Jukes” were actually a composite of 42 families, and that only 75% of these were definitely blood relatives, this fact was generally disregarded. Dugdale then calculated that the `Jukes family’ had cost the State of New York over $1.3 million.

Fig. IV.2: A newspaper article comparing NY state appropriations, including state aid to “socially aided classes.” Source: Image Archive. 

Dugdale examined the roles of heredity and environment, concluding that “nurture” was the most important determinant of the issues confronting the Jukes. He stated that “environment tends to produce habits which may become hereditary,” and he concluded that “public health and infant education… are the two legs upon which the general morality of the future must travel.” Note that Dugdale’s conclusions were more or less the opposite of the ‘scientific eugenics’ advocates. However, Dugdale’s original work was followed up by a study from Arthur Estabrook of the Eugenics Records Office (titled The Jukes in 1915). Estabrook extended Dugdale’s study to include four times as many individuals. Despite the fact that his data showed that current members of the extended family experienced fewer problems than earlier generations, Estabrook claimed that the Jukes family “were ’unredeemed’ and suffering from as much ’feeblemindedness, indolence, licentiousness and dishonesty’ as they had been in the past.  Estabrook now calculated that over time the Jukes family members had cost the state of New York $2 million. Estabrook’s conclusions were subsequently used to justify more punitive legislation sought by eugenics advocates.

Fig. IV.3: Mug shot of one of the ‘Juke family,’ from Arthur Estabrook’s book The Jukes in 1915. Source: Image Archive.

Genealogical histories of the Kallikaks and the Jukes were important elements in the history of compulsory sterilization in America. Using Estabrook’s analysis of the Jukes family, the American Eugenics Society issued a pamphlet that included the following Q&A comparing the costs and benefits of segregating the ‘feeble-minded’ in institutions vs. sterilizing them.
“Q: How much does segregation cost?
A: It has been estimated that to have segregated the original “Jukes” for life would have cost the State of New York about $25,000.
Q: Is that a real savings?
A: Yes. It has been estimated that the State of New York, up to 1916, spent over $2,000,000 on the descendants of these people.
Q: How much would it have cost to sterilize the original Jukes pair?
A: Less than $150.”

My own state of Indiana became the first to enact a compulsory sterilization law in 1907. This was largely due to the efforts of Dr. Harry Sharp, physician to the Indiana State Reformatory in Jeffersonville. Sharp had pioneered the procedure of vasectomy to sterilize male patients. In 1911, Iowa passed a comprehensive bill that made eligible for sterilization “inmates in public institutions who had been incarcerated for a variety of reasons, including drug addiction, sexual offenses, and epilepsy. The Iowa statute compelled the sterilization of twice-convicted sexual offenders, of thrice-convicted other felons, and of anyone convicted just once of involvement in white slavery.” However, these early state laws were deemed to have several drawbacks.

The person who was most influential in advocating for eugenical social legislation was Harry Laughlin. In 1920, Laughlin was hired as “Expert Eugenical Agent” for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. As we will see, Laughlin became one of the most prominent and effective advocates in favor of restrictions on “biologically inferior” immigrants to the U.S.

Fig. IV.4: American biologist and Eugenical Records Office director Harry H. Laughlin. Source: Image Archive.

Harry Laughlin was also a strong advocate for compulsory sterilization of the ‘unfit.’ He stated that “it ought to be a eugenic crime to turn a possible parent of defectives loose upon the population.” Carrying forward this line of thought, Laughlin drafted a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that he published in 1922, Eugenical Sterilization in the United States. Laughlin listed the following categories of individuals as candidates for compulsory sterilization: the feeble-minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, blind persons, deaf persons, deformed persons, and indigent persons. Note that in addition to mental defectives (“feeble-mindedness” and insanity), Laughlin’s definition included people suffering from various handicaps, including blindness, deafness, epilepsy and physical deformation. It also included conditions such as alcoholism and poverty. Several states then passed sterilization laws that were based on Laughlin’s model.

Initially, the rates of compulsory sterilization were rather low. Despite the fact that a majority of states passed eugenics statutes based on Laughlin’s model, from 1907 to 1928 fewer than 9,000 people had been sterilized. However, that changed in 1927, when a case was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court. That case was brought as a test of Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, part of the Commonwealth’s eugenics program. The issue was whether a Virginia citizen, Carrie Buck, should be sterilized. Ms. Buck’s mother Emma had been an inmate in a home for the feeble-minded. Carrie had been raised by foster parents and had been an average student in elementary school. She became pregnant after being raped at age 17 by a member of her foster parents’ family. Shortly after she gave birth to a daughter, Vivian, Carrie’s foster parents had her committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded on the grounds of “feeble-mindedness, incorrigibility and promiscuity.” Despite the fact that her pregnancy resulted from rape, Ms. Buck’s condition as an unwed mother was deemed sufficiently embarrassing that it warranted institutionalizing her. Below is a photo of Carrie Buck (L) and her mother Emma.

Fig. IV.5: Carrie Buck (L) and her mother Emma. Source: Image Archive.

The state of Virginia deliberately took their case to the Supreme Court to test the validity of their state law. At that hearing, despite the fact that he had never met Carrie Buck or any members of her family, Harry Laughlin testified that Carrie’s feeble-minded condition was largely hereditary, and that she and her family “belong to the shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites in the South.” A crucial issue was whether Carrie’s daughter Vivian was also feeble-minded. A Red Cross worker was asked to examine Vivian; she testified that Vivian had “a look” that was “not quite normal” (at this time, Vivian was seven months old!). Arthur Estabrook administered an intelligence test to Vivian (prior to her first birthday), and concluded that she was below average for her age. He also testified to the Court that feeble-mindedness was hereditary and that it conformed to Mendelian laws of inheritance.

The Supreme Court voted 8-1 that the Virginia law was not unconstitutional, that it satisfied due process (the procedure required a hearing and the individual could appeal the verdict), and that the law promoted the best interests of the state. In the case of Buck v. Bell (Bell being the surgeon who eventually sterilized Ms. Buck) Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, shown in the photo below, authored the majority opinion ruling that laws such as Virginia’s performed an important societal function. In Holmes’ view, compulsory sterilization could be equated with compulsory vaccination (others argued that if the state had the power of capital punishment, then surely it could regulate reproduction). Holmes wrote in his majority opinion: “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, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Fig. IV.6: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court, 1902 – 1932.

Holmes’ opinion is a textbook description of negative eugenics. There were two major arguments underlying the sterilization statutes. The first was that scientific principles should be utilized to ‘improve’ the human race. Goddard’s persuasive Kallikak family history (reproduced below) appeared to show that feeble-mindedness was genetically transmitted. Sterilizing the feeble-minded would result in a more intelligent and morally improved society. A second notion was that a democracy could only function effectively if it was governed by the most competent individuals. This was also the rationale for institutions for the feeble-minded. People of lower intellectual and moral character would be identified, isolated from the general public, and cared for.

Fig. IV.7: The ‘family tree’ for the Kallikaks, produced by H.H. Goddard.

The case of Buck v. Bell was one of the major triumphs of the American eugenics movement. After her appeal of the verdict was denied, Carrie Buck was sterilized. Once the Virginia statute had been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court, many states in the U.S. passed laws that would allow various categories of persons to be sterilized, or began to enforce laws already on the books. In the early part of the 20th century, at least 33 states had laws that would allow compulsory sterilization. Fig. IV.8 shows the status of compulsory sterilization laws in the U.S., as of 1935.

Fig. IV.8: Status of compulsory sterilization laws in U.S. states in 1935. Source: Image Archive.

Roughly 65,000 people in the U.S. were sterilized under these statutes; and 61% of these procedures were performed on women. It is interesting that sterilization of men was most commonly performed to curb their aggression or their criminal behavior, while women were often sterilized as a result of their sexuality. Although America was a world leader in the field of eugenics, the U.S. was by no means the only country adopting the ‘negative eugenics’ policy of sterilizing certain classes of citizens. Such policies were also implemented in several European countries, including France, Germany, Sweden and Belgium. Brazil and Japan also developed similar policies.

In addition to the compulsory-sterilization laws, sterilization was performed on many people without their knowledge or consent. For example Doris Buck, the sister of Carrie Buck of Buck v. Bell, was sterilized when she was treated for appendicitis. She was never informed that this procedure had been performed; in fact, she only discovered this decades later, after she and her husband had tried for years to have children. Another common practice was to sterilize poor women immediately after giving birth, without informing them of the procedure they were undergoing. We have no idea of the number of people (predominantly women) who were sterilized without their consent; however, the practice was sufficiently common that it was given the nickname “Mississippi appendectomy.”

Compulsory-sterilization laws were much more pervasive in the U.S. than in Britain. Daniel Kevles has suggested several reasons for this discrepancy. First, such laws were the province of individual states in the U.S., while similar statutes in Britain required an act of Parliament. Second, there were fewer opponents of such laws in the U.S.,  particularly in states where a handful of eugenics advocates could dominate debate on the subject. In Britain Karl Pearson, the director of the Galton Eugenics Laboratory, was opposed to participation of his organization in political activity. He was also reluctant to share data from his laboratory with politicians; he even refused to join the Eugenics Education Society. Pearson was also engaged in a feud with British eugenics advocates, as he had published a study demonstrating that children of alcoholics tended to have normal intelligence, physique and resistance to disease. Furthermore, some staff members at the Galton Eugenics Laboratory had (correctly, we realize in hindsight) criticized papers published by Charles Davenport of the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, for being sloppy and for drawing unjustified conclusions regarding the heredity of feeble-mindedness.

In addition, several scientists and politicians in Britain were openly skeptical about the claims of eugenics advocates. Even some members of the Eugenics Education Society argued against compulsory sterilization legislation, either because they opposed such actions by the state on libertarian grounds, or because they were convinced that these  procedures should only be carried out on a purely voluntary basis.

But what about the ‘Kallikak’ hereditary family tree of Fig. IV.7, produced by Goddard? Nowadays, one can employ genealogical archives to map out family histories. Early in this century, researchers re-visited the “Kallikak” family tree. The real name of the woman in Goddard’s institution was Emma Wolverton. Studies of the Wolverton family and their descendants revealed that the supposedly feeble-minded “Martin Kallikak Jr.” was actually a prosperous landowner, and all of his siblings were literate. Among the “bad side” of the Kallikak/Wolverton family were school teachers, an Army Air Corps pilot, and a bank treasurer. In other words, Goddard’s family tree shown in Fig. IV.7 was a complete fiction.

In similar fashion, Arthur Estabrooks’ conclusions regarding the problems of the Jukes family were also based more on prejudice than on data. Daniel Kevles makes the point that the “link” between feeble-mindedness and immorality was profoundly circular. “Immoral behavior was taken as evidence of feeble-mindedness, while at the same time feeble-mindedness was said to cause immoral behavior.” We have already pointed out that ‘feeble-mindedness’ was a catch-all phrase that included everything from inherited qualities such as epilepsy or fetal alcohol syndrome, to social characteristics such as poverty, substance abuse or criminal activity, to immoral behavior. And `immoral behavior’ could include anything outside of conventional norms of sexuality, including homosexuality or pedophilia (predominantly men), unwed mothers, women who had babies while receiving poor relief, and prostitution or promiscuous behavior (nearly always women).

There was a direct connection between the American compulsory-sterilization laws and the Nazi regime, which passed a Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933. This was part of a Nazi program that would expand in 1939 to a campaign of euthanasia that was applied to mentally diseased and disabled individuals, and also to Jews and Roma. This would later be followed by the death camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The Germans claimed that their 1933 sterilization law was influenced by the American precedent, and indeed their initial program was closely modeled after Harry Laughlin’s work. In 1936, the University of Heidelberg awarded an honorary doctorate in medicine to Laughlin for authoring the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law. By this time, objections to American sterilization programs had grown considerably; however, Laughlin not only accepted the award, he wrote to the Heidelberg authorities that the award was “evidence of a common understanding of German and American scientists to the nature of eugenics.”

Fig. IV.9: Newspaper article mentioning Harry Laughlin’s honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1936. Source: Image Archive.

We now understand that the compulsory sterilization programs instituted by many states in the U.S., which represented a major triumph for the eugenics movement, were based on the totally false “proof” that feeble-mindedness was a heritable characteristic governed by a single gene.

The 1924 Immigration Restriction Act:

Although the United States is a nation made up of immigrants (even the Native Americans had earlier arrived from Asia by land bridges), the reaction of current Americans to new arrivals has always been fraught with tension. My own family heritage is Irish, and I am sensitive to the “no dogs or Irish” signs that appeared in the windows of American shops, or “no Irish” in 19th century classified employment advertisements.

Fig. IV.10: Sign in a shop window denying service to Irish, blacks and dogs.

Up to the middle of the 19th century, there were very few barriers on immigration, during a period when the U.S. absorbed large numbers of immigrants from Europe. Beginning with the California Gold Rush in about 1850, significant numbers of Chinese and Mexicans migrated to the West Coast. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the pattern of immigration to the U.S. changed significantly. Earlier immigrants from Britain, Scandinavia and Germany were now outnumbered by immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. In addition, there was large-scale immigration from Asia. Many immigrants from China served as laborers, working on projects such as the Central Pacific transcontinental railroad or in the mining industry. There was also significant immigration from Japan, beginning shortly before 1900. A US-Japanese treaty in 1894 allowed free immigration from Japan to the U.S.

Increasing numbers of Asians in the American West led to a backlash from a diverse coalition. Labor unions opposed immigration as they saw the Chinese and Japanese as a source of cheap labor. Politicians were concerned that immigrants might import radical or revolutionary views. And nativists were convinced that a tide of inferior immigrants would dilute the character and fitness of Americans. Such groups argued that a “Yellow Peril” was in danger of polluting our native bloodlines. Eugenics advocates provided the racists with pseudo-scientific ammunition, in the form of ‘proofs’ that American fitness was declining due to an ‘invasion’ of immigrants carrying defective genes. And social workers argued that Asian immigrants would represent a new source of poverty, crime and disease, particularly in major West Coast cities where large ‘Chinatown’ slums appeared.  The cartoon below depicts the presumed danger from Asian immigrants, particularly to American women.

Fig. IV.11: Cartoon “Yellow Terror” depicting an Asian terrorist standing over a victimized woman.

The resulting political pressure led to a series of measures designed to limit immigration from Asia. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law prohibited new immigration from China for a period of ten years; the law was then extended for an additional ten years. Japanese immigration was limited by the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907. Under this agreement, Japan would not allow further emigration to the United States. In return, the U.S. agreed to allow entry to families of immigrants currently in the States, and to avoid segregation of Japanese children in American schools. This agreement remained in effect for 17 years, despite the fact that Congress never ratified it.

By the year 1924, there was a rise in anti-immigrant legislation that included much input from eugenics advocates. Eugenical arguments were added to pressure from labor unions to keep out potential sources of cheap labor, and fear of immigrants with radical views (particularly after the Russian Revolution in 1917). The eugenical case for immigration restrictions was summarized by Congressman Robert Allen, who stated that “The primary reason for the restriction of the alien stream … is the necessity for purifying and keeping pure the blood of America.”

Eugenics advocates would play a significant role in the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. That act prohibited all immigration from Asia, except for the Philippines, which had become an American colony following the Spanish-American War. This law was a continuation of Chinese exclusion policies from the late 19th century. However, the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act also rescinded the US-Japan Gentlemen’s Agreement, provoking a serious complaint from the Japanese government. But the area where eugenics advocates had the most influence on the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act was the targeted limits on immigrants from specific areas of Europe and the Middle East.

By the end of World War I, intelligence testers had administered IQ tests to 1.75 million American soldiers. The results of these tests were sorted by the country of immigration. Knowing that Congress would be debating new immigrant legislation, Robert Yerkes urged Princeton University Press to speed up the release of a popular book by his IQ testing colleague Carl Brigham. In 1923 Brigham’s book, A Study of American Intelligence, was published. It gave a straightforward and compelling summary of the results of the Army IQ tests, and it subsequently had a significant impact on the Congressional debate over immigration policy.

The Army IQ tests appeared to show that European immigrants varied greatly in their intelligence (or mental age) according to their country of origin. “Nordics,” who represented earlier immigrant populations from Scandinavia and Britain, registered the highest average mental age, 13.84; this was followed by those of Russian origin, Italians, and Poles. Although we now know that the Army IQ test results were strongly influenced by environment (in particular, IQ scores increased linearly with the amount of time an immigrant spent in the U.S.), they were widely touted as ‘proving’ that the current crop of European immigrants, including large numbers from Southern and Eastern Europe, was distinctly inferior to the ‘Nordic’ strain.

Harry Laughlin, whom we discussed in the section on compulsory sterilization, also weighed in on the debate preceding the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. A few years earlier, he told the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee that immigrants, particularly those from Southern and European countries, made up a disproportionate number of patients in public mental institutions. We now know the population of mental institutions was determined by a number of factors in addition to disease or mental defect – for example, poverty (in many states, being a pauper was cause for a person to be institutionalized), illiteracy, promiscuity or inability to speak English. Nevertheless, Laughlin’s statistics were widely cited in the debates over the immigration bill.

Fig. IV.12: The 1911 Report on Immigration and Insanity, by the U.S. Immigration Commission. Source: Image Archive.

Robert Yerkes was notably effective in the congressional debate on new immigration statutes. Yerkes called the attention of the immigration committee chairmen in both Houses of Congress to the apparent mental inadequacies of Eastern and Southern Europeans. Several Congressmen spoke in favor of strong limits on immigrants from Southern and Eastern European ‘races.’ The resulting 1924 Immigration Restriction Act passed with sweeping majorities in both Houses of Congress, and the bill was quickly signed by President Calvin Coolidge. When he was Vice President, Coolidge had declared that “Biological laws show … that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with any other race.” For eugenics advocates, the passage of this bill marked a major victory for their cause, and was heralded as a triumph of scientific racism.

The Immigration Act set a total quota of 165,000 immigrants per year, which was an 80% reduction from the average levels before World War I. In addition to banning immigration from all Asian countries not part of the American colonial system, the 1924 Immigration Act imposed strict quotas on the number of immigrants allowed from each European country. The immigration ceiling for each country was set at 2% of the corresponding component of the U.S. population as measured in the 1890 census. That date was chosen specifically to limit the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as there were relatively few Americans from those regions in 1890. The 1924 Immigration Act dramatically limited immigration from countries such as Italy, Greece, Poland and other Slavic countries; it also sharply curtailed immigration of Jews.

In one sense, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was simply one of a series of Congressional actions or international agreements that placed limits on the number of immigrants allowed, depending on their country of origin. However, the 1924 act is notable because the limits on European immigration were strongly motivated by arguments from eugenics advocates. Racist historians argued that the nation’s historic ‘bloodlines’ would be adversely affected if significant numbers of ‘inferior’ immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were allowed into the country. These arguments were buttressed by ‘scientific’ studies of the genealogy of ‘fit’ versus ‘unfit’ families, and further supported by conclusions drawn from the Army IQ tests.

Fig. IV.13: Cartoon depicting recent immigrants bringing various unsavory qualities with them.

Today, most observers see the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 as an example of ‘scientific racism’ at work. European immigration quotas were determined in large part by pseudo-scientific arguments regarding the innate superiority of Nordic cultures, and the inferiority of groups labeled as Mediterranean or Alpine. However, it should be noted that the current rise of populist governments in the U.S. and several European countries has been fueled in large part by opposition to new waves of immigration from countries labeled as ‘undesirable.’ But these recent anti-immigrant sentiments are not justified by ‘scientific’ or ‘eugenic’ arguments, as was the case in 1924.

Continued in Part V