The History of Eugenics in America, Part III:

Madison Grant’s Racial History:

Madison Grant was an American lawyer, scientist and writer. He was born in 1865 and died in 1937, and he was an important figure in the Progressive Movement. Grant is famous today for two primary activities. First, he wrote one of the most influential books of the time in the area of ‘scientific racism;’ this was the book The Passing of the Great Race: the Racial Basis of European History. We will discuss his book at length in this Part of our series.

Fig. III.1: American biologist, conservationist, and racial historian Madison Grant (1865-1937).

In addition, Grant was a prominent conservationist. He was friends with U.S. Presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. Together with colleagues like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, Grant worked hard to identify and preserve areas of natural beauty such as the early National Parks in Yellowstone and Yosemite. Grant was also an explorer and big-game hunter, qualities that he shared with Teddy Roosevelt. Grant was also a prominent wildlife biologist. As chairman of the New York Zoological Society and a trustee of the American Museum for Natural History, Grant realized that the American bison was in danger of extinction. As co-founder of the American Bison Association, Grant oversaw an operation that rounded up many of the surviving bison and transported them to what is now the Bronx Zoo. There they were raised and bred until their numbers recovered sufficiently that they could be relocated to areas like Yellowstone Park.

Grant was also an important figure in identifying and preserving stands of California Redwoods (he was a co-founder of the Save The Redwoods League), and he was influential in creating sanctuaries such as Muir Woods. Grant was active in the founding chapters of the Sierra Club. However, because of his notorious association with racist theory, until recently groups such as Sierra Club had erased any acknowledgment of his contributions to their organization. This has changed in the recent past.

At first sight, the combination of advocacy for racist eugenics and a commitment to conservation may seem unusual. However, in both cases the motivations appear similar. The conservationists viewed their environment and wildlife as precious resources that were currently endangered. They saw their role as educating the public and advocating for public policies that would preserve and protect these vital areas. Their commitment to eugenics stemmed from very similar motives: they believed (incorrectly, as we now realize) that moral and intellectual qualities were directly inherited and passed down from one generation to another. They felt that the “racial purity” of American society was in danger, and they advocated for policies that might prevent the ”replacement” of strains of ‘Nordic’ stock by what they perceived as inferior elements.

Grant was by no means alone in voicing these racist eugenical concerns. The preface to Grant’s book was provided by Henry Fairfield Osborn, Research Professor of Zoology at Columbia University. Osborn wrote: “What is the greatest danger which threatens the American republic today? I would certainly reply: The gradual dying out among our people of those hereditary traits through which the principles of our religious, political and social foundations were laid down and their insidious replacement by traits of less noble character.” President Teddy Roosevelt encouraged sexual sterilization for criminals and individuals with certain cognitive disabilities (the so-called ‘feeble-minded’). Roosevelt feared that if such actions were not taken, the United States would be committing ‘race suicide’, and that the American ‘race stock’ would deteriorate. Oliver Wendell Holmes, whom Roosevelt appointed to the Supreme Court, wrote the majority Court decision that upheld compulsory sexual sterilization laws in the United States — we will review this in Part IV. Even John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, made racist remarks in his writings, commenting on the presumed laziness of “Sambos” and the “dirty and irregular life” of Native Americans.

Although it claimed to present results from both the natural and social sciences, Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race is not a scientific analysis but more of a polemical rant. Although the book was not widely appreciated when it appeared, and was never a best-seller, it eventually became an extremely important work. It is now considered a prime example of what is known as ‘scientific racism.’ As we will show, despite the fact that its major claims from both science and social science have been thoroughly refuted, many of its basic arguments continue to be quoted through the continuing decades. With the recent advent of nationalistic regimes in Europe, and various statements by President Donald Trump, such racist sentiments have moved from more furtive regions of the Dark Web to international prominence.

In his book, Grant provides a review of European history, facilitated by the use of pseudo-scientific arguments espoused by eugenics advocates. Grant’s book also exploited extreme racial stereotypes. He claimed that modern and even ancient history was best understood through the lens of racist arguments. Grant divided white Europeans into three major groups that he termed “races:” the Nordics, the Mediterraneans, and the Alpines.

Fig. III.2: The cover of Madison Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race. Source: Image Archive.

Grant’s identification of three different European ‘races’ and the qualities that each race was said to possess, was not original. Earlier, French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau claimed in his 1853 Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races that the German people were the prime modern example of the Aryan race. American philosopher Charles Morris, in his 1888 book The Aryan Race: Its Origins and Achievements, argued that Aryans could be distinguished by their long blond hair and long skulls. And French anthropologist Vacher de Lapouge argued in his 1889 book L’Aryen: Son Role Social that these long-skulled Aryan peoples were natural leaders, who were destined to rule over cultures and countries with more round skulls. In his book, Grant was continuing a classification popularized by William Z. Ripley in his 1899 book The Races of Europe (except that Ripley called the group ‘Teutonics’ that Grant assigned ‘Nordics,’ and Grant’s Nordics have much in common with the ‘Aryans’ discussed by earlier authors). Grant used three major physical criteria in his effort to identify and classify these groups. They are stature; physical characteristics such as hair and eye color and the form of the nose; and cranial features.

A Short Digression on Craniometry:

Grant placed an enormous emphasis in his book on using the size and shape of the skull to differentiate between various cultures or ‘races.’ This classification scheme arose from efforts in the 19th century to make quantitative determinations of physical characteristics. One such effort was to measure the volume and shape of skulls of people from various cultures and periods of history.

An early proponent of these activities was the American scientist and physician Samuel George Morton. Morton amassed a large collection of skulls from around the world, and starting in the 1830’s he measured the cranial capacity of his skulls, and compared his results from a number of cultures. Morton carried out painstaking studies filling skulls first with mustard seed and later with BB pellets. Morton eventually concluded that Caucasians had the largest skulls, followed by Mongolians, Malays, and Ethiopians. It was assumed that measurements of skull volume would correlate with the brain size, and hence the intelligence of members of these groups. Since the results corresponded with the prior prejudices of European scientists, Morton’s studies were highly praised by his peers.

Fig. III.3: American physician and scientist Samuel George Morton (1799-1851).

Of course, there were inherent difficulties with such measurements; in particular, it was necessary to make careful corrections for natural variances in skull size. For example, the skull of a youth will be smaller than that of an adult, women are generally smaller than men in both height and weight, and certain groups of people (e.g., African pygmies) are substantially smaller than the average adult. In the mid-19th century, these differences were not taken into account unless the outcome suggested conclusions contrary to the prejudices of the examiners. Thus, corrections to skull size for overall height and weight were not accounted for until Eskimo skulls were found to be larger than Europeans’. A particularly thorny difficulty was that skulls of prehistoric (and arguably less intelligent) humans, the Cro-Magnons, were significantly larger than those of contemporary humans.

A second major thrust of craniometry arose, where the size of the brain itself was measured. The working assumption was that brain volume would correspond directly with intelligence. This was immediately confounded by the fact that the brains of some known geniuses and leaders turned out to be embarrassingly small. Nor was it always the case that the brains of eminent individuals had more complex convolutions than those of less celebrated persons. A final puzzle was that the brains of executed criminals turned out to be distressingly large. When confronted with these setbacks, scientists began correcting for factors such as the size of the individual, and the age and health of the person before death.

Another quantity widely used by 19th century scientists was the cranial index: this was the ratio of maximum width to maximum length of a skull. Relatively long skulls, with a cranial index of 0.75 or less, were called dolichocephalic; relatively short and more rounded skulls with a cranial index greater than 0.8, were called brachycephalic (the two types are shown below). The cranial index is simply a number that succinctly describes the frontal vs. posterior skull size. Individuals with a larger frontal region of the skull will generally have a smaller cranial index than persons with more of the skull volume in the back and sides. In the mid-19th century it was believed that higher mental functions were located in the frontal areas of the brain, while the posterior areas were associated with less important functions such as sensation, emotion and involuntary motion. Consequently, it was argued that people with relatively long skulls and slender faces were likely to be more intelligent than round-faced individuals.

Fig. III.4: Two types of skull: dolichocephalic or narrow-skulled, and brachycephalic or round-skulled.

The cranial index was defined by the Swedish anatomist Anders Retzius (1796-1860), who used it extensively. By comparing cranial indices for people from various cultures, Retzius argued that the differences between them were sufficiently large that they could be considered to belong to different races. On the assumption that the universe was roughly 6,000 years old, Retzius argued that God must have created the different races separately, a theory called polygeny. Retzius claimed that Nordic or Teutonic peoples tended to have narrower skulls (note that Retzius was a Swede), while more rounded skulls were found in cultures such as the French, Finns and Lapps. Retzius then turned his attention to earlier epochs. He concluded that more ancient and presumably less intelligent Stone Age peoples of Europe were brachycephalic, or had round skulls. They were replaced by the later and smarter Bronze Age peoples, whom Retzius argued had long and narrow skulls.

Although Retzius’ classification scheme and his conclusions regarding the intelligence of various populations were extremely influential in his time, the cranial index had many problems. A major difficulty was that the world’s most dolichocephalic populations were Africans and Australian aborigines. Also, Cro-Magnon skulls were not only large but were also relatively narrow.

Fig. III.5: French anthropologist and physician Paul Broca (1824-1880).

A major competitor of Retzius in the field of cranial studies was the French physician and anthropologist Paul Broca. Broca, being a round-headed Frenchman, took great offense at the conclusions drawn by Retzius. He accused his Swedish colleague of prejudice. But Retzius’ claims spurred Broca to consider counter-arguments that might explain away the difficulties presented by the cranial index. Broca began comparing the size of the frontal area of the brain to that of the posterior area. He used the frontal/posterior brain measurements between individuals in various countries to classify different “races.” Broca separated brains from various world cultures into three categories, “races frontales” (predominantly whites with anterior and frontal lobes more developed), “races parietals” (Mongolians with mid lobes most prominent) and “races occipitales” (blacks with most brain volume in the back).

In an application of this technique, Broca examined the skulls of Polynesian males that turned out to be embarrassingly large. This culture had a practice where they deformed and decreased the front of the skulls of some male children, a practice that made the posterior skull develop a bulge. It was believed that this procedure produced courageous warriors. Broca argued that “Frontal deformation produced blind passions, ferocious instincts, and animal courage, all of which I would willingly call occipital courage. We must not confound it with true courage, frontal courage, which we may call Caucasian courage.” Broca’s remarks also highlight a common feature of early quasi-scientific methodology: in analyzing the results of investigations, precise quantitative techniques were combined with blatant cultural prejudices.

Next, Broca took on Retzius’ argument that Nordic long-faced Swedes were more intelligent than round-faced Frenchmen. Broca claimed that the French had an admirable amount of brain in their frontal lobes, and that their relatively round skull resulted from additional quantities of brain at the side of their heads; thus Broca argued that the French were more intelligent than their Teutonic counterparts. As we see, the scientists of the day could use their cultural prejudices to draw completely opposite conclusions from exactly the same data.

The ‘Three Major European Races’ and Grant’s Racial History:

Grant made use of a number of different physical characteristics in defining his three major European races (unless otherwise referenced, all quotes in this section come from Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race.  I used the 3rd (1921) edition of this book). For Grant, the cranial index was of major importance in differentiating these three “races.” The physical characteristics of the ‘Nordics’ included large stature, blond hair, blue or light colored eyes (not brown or black), and long faces or relatively narrow skulls. Nordic types are found in Scandinavia, and to some degree in all coastal and seafaring regions of northern Europe. In addition to these physical features, Grant also ascribed moral and intellectual characteristics to his three races. “The Nordics are, all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers and aristocrats in sharp contrast to the essentially peasant and democratic character of the Alpines. The Nordic race is domineering, individualistic, self-reliant and jealous of their personal freedom both in political and religious systems and as a result they are usually Protestants. Chivalry and knighthood … are peculiarly Nordic traits and feudalism, class distinctions and race pride among Europeans are traceable for the most part to the North.“

The second of Grant’s major races was the Mediterranean or Iberian race. “This race occupies the shores of the [Mediterranean Sea] and extends along the Atlantic coast until it reaches the Nordic species. It also spreads far east into Southern Asia. It is long-skulled like the Nordic race but the absolute size of the skull is less. The eyes and hair are very dark or black and the skin more or less swarthy. The stature is distinctly less than that of the Nordic race and the musculature and bony framework weak.” Grant argued that eye color was an extremely important method for distinguishing the races, since blue, grey and green eyes appear almost exclusively in Nordics. Dark eyes, on the other hand, point to a more ancient and primitive past. “Dark eyes are all but universal among wild mammals and entirely so among primates, man’s nearest relatives. It may be taken as an absolute certainty that all the original races of man had dark eyes.” Grant maintained that the Mediterranean race, “while inferior in bodily stamina to both the Nordic and the Alpine, is probably the superior of both, certainly of the Alpines, in intellectual attainments. In the field of art its superiority to both the other European races is unquestioned, although in literature and scientific research and discovery the Nordics far excel it.”

Grant’s third major race was the Alpine race. “The Alpines are round-skulled, of medium height and sturdy build both as to skeleton and muscles. The coloration of both hair and eyes was originally very dark and still tends strongly in that direction … Alpines occupy all central and eastern Europe and extend through Asia Minor to the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs …The Alpine race is always and everywhere a race of peasants, an agricultural and never a maritime race. In fact they only extend to salt water at the head of the Adriatic and, like all purely agricultural communities throughout Europe, tend toward democracy, although they are submissive to authority both political and religious being usually Roman Catholics in western Europe. This race is essentially of the soil and in towns the type is mediocre and bourgeois.”

As can be seen from these definitions, Grant’s ‘racial theory’ was no more than a collection of physical features grafted onto a set of extremely prejudicial notions regarding moral and intellectual qualities. Furthermore, Grant had no doubt that Nordics were superior to the Mediterraneans, and that both groups were superior to the Alpines. In fact, one could deduce the current ‘standing’ of a given European nation by measuring the amount of ‘Nordic’ blood, and contrasting this with the fraction of ‘mixed types’ in the population. “In the Europe of today the amount of Nordic blood in each nation is a very fair measure of its strength in war and standing in civilization. The proportion of men of pure type of each constituent race to the mixed type is also a powerful factor.” The entire history of modern civilization, and in particular western Europe, was then analyzed through the lens of Grant’s prejudices.

In addition to reviewing European history, Grant also discussed more distant eras. As we mentioned earlier, the skull of Cro-Magnon Man was larger than other ancient civilizations and also larger than the average for modern humans. Grant thus attributed “Nordic qualities” to Cro-Magnon Man, because of the large skull size of Cro-Magnon skeletons (he thus assumed that the Cro-Magnon Man brain was larger than for modern humans). Grant concluded that the disappearance of Cro-Magnons and “replacement” by Neanderthals is “the earliest example of the replacement of a very superior race by an inferior one.” Grant surmised that the Cro-Magnons might have been annihilated once “what appear to be degraded savages” developed the bow and arrow. “This new weapon from the South may have played its part in the destruction of the Cro-Magnons; otherwise it is hard to account for the disappearance of this race of large stature and great brain power.”

It is interesting to contrast the conclusions drawn by other scientists from the same data. French scientist Paul Broca observed the large skulls of the Cro-Magnon man; however, he surmised that the Cro-Magnon brain was largest in the rear of the skull. Thus, Broca concluded that modern humans were considerably more intelligent than the Cro-Magnons. Grant, on the other hand, noting the large skull of the Cro-Magnon and cave art that dates from this period, concluded that the Cro-Magnons were a super-intelligent stock (thus, he argued that the Cro-Magnons were probably the ancestors of his favorite Nordic types).

To give some idea of how easily Grant’s arguments can be changed to suit his purposes, “in Grant’s first edition of his popular book [released in 1916, before the U.S. had entered the war], he classified the Germans as being primarily Nordic, but in his second edition, published after the USA had entered World War I, he had re-classified the now enemy power as being dominated by “inferior” Alpines.” So, in the space of a couple of years, Grant’s depiction of the Germans changed from being primarily Nordic to a country dominated by Alpines.

Groups that showed leadership, adventurous spirit and particularly military victory, were interpreted as acting through their “Nordic” heritage. Thus, not only did Grant view Scandinavian military conquest in this way, but he was led to some bizarre conclusions. For example, wherever he found military leadership or adventurous explorers, he felt compelled to attribute this to ‘Nordic’ tendencies. Thus, when discussing British explorers and early settlers of the American West (obviously Nordic types), he maintained that: “among marksmen, it has been noted that nearly all the great rifle-shots in England or America have had light colored eyes.” At another point, Grant asserted: “it is said that practically every one of the Forty-Niners in California was of Nordic type.”

Grant extended these arguments by claiming ‘Nordic’ influences in cases of literary and artistic excellence. The appearance of intellectual genius in classical Greeks (ostensibly pure Mediterranean types) presented a problem, so Grant concluded “Socrates and Diogenes were apparently quite un-Greek and represent remnants of some early race, perhaps of Paleolithic man.” It is telling how Grant accounted for the splendid civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, given his prejudice that Mediterraneans were inferior to Nordics, particularly in terms of leadership and warfare. He stated that the Mediterranean race “gave the world the great civilizations of Egypt, of Crete … It gave us, when mixed and invigorated with Nordic elements, which probably predominated in the upper and ruling classes and imposed their guidance upon the masses, the most splendid of all civilizations, that of ancient Hellas, and the most enduring of political organizations, the Roman state … The traditions of the Eternal City, its love of organization, of law and military efficiency, as well as the Roman ideals of family life, of loyalty and truth, point clearly to a northern rather than a Mediterranean origin, although there must have been some Alpine strains mixed in with the Nordic element.”

Grant’s prejudices were in agreement with those of other contemporary historians. H.R. Hall summarized the racial origins of the greatest accomplishments of Greek civilization: “The Mediterranean possessed the artistic sense without the sense of proportion; the Aryan (or Nordic) had little artistic sense but had the sense of proportion and justice, and with it the political sense. The result of the fusion of the two races we see in the true canon of taste and beauty in all things that had become the ideal of the Greeks.” In a similar vein, is his analysis of notable Italian Renaissance figures Grant concludes: “The chief men … were of Nordic blood … which is recognized easily by a close inspection of busts or portraits in northern Italy. Dante, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci were all of Nordic type, just as in classic times many of the chief men and the upper classes were Nordic.”

Grant drew parallels between the decline of the Roman empire and what he saw as the impending decline of America. “With the expanding dominion of Rome the native elements of vigor were drawn year after year into the legions and spent their active years in war or in garrisons, while the slaves and those unfit for military duty stayed home and bred. In the present Great War (World War I) while the native Americans are at the front fighting the aliens, immigrants are allowed to increase without check and the parallel is a close one. Slaves began to be imported into Italy in numbers in the second century B.C. to work the large plantations – latifundia – of the wealthy Romans. The importation of slaves and the ultimate extension of the Roman Citizenship to their manumitted descendants and to inferior races throughout the growing Empire and the losses in internal and foreign wars, ruined the state. In America we find another close parallel in the Civil War and the subsequent granting of citizenship to Negroes and to ever increasing numbers of immigrants of plebeian, servile or Oriental races, who throughout history have shown little capacity to create, organize or even to comprehend Republican institutions.”

As the focus of Grant’s book was a racial account of European history, Grant discussed in passing Negroes and Mongoloids (Asians), but they were not a major part of his book. However, Grant did make some remarks about Negroes in the course of his book, and we will review these later.

As an extension of his racist history of Europe, Grant provided a review of American history. For example, he maintains that “The (U.S.) Civil War was fought almost entirely by unalloyed native Americans (i.e., of Nordic heritage). The Irish immigrants were … confined to a few States and, being chiefly domestic servants or day laborers, were of no social importance … The German immigrants … formed a more docile and educated element than the Irish … neither the Irish nor the Germans played an important part in the development of policies of the nation as a whole.”  It might be quite a surprise to Americans of German or Irish descent to learn that their forebears played little to no part in the development of the U.S.

Grant’s book was first published in 1916, during World War I. Grant described that conflict: “All the states in the present world war have sent to the front their fighting Nordic element and the loss of life now going on in Europe will fall much more heavily on the blond giant than on the little brunet. As in all wars since Roman times from a breeding point of view the little dark man is the final winner … In most cases the blood of pioneers has been lost to their race. They did not take their women with them. They either died childless or left half-breeds behind them. The virile blood of the Spanish conquistadores, who are not little more than a memory in Central and South America, died out from these causes. This was also true in the early days of our Western frontiersmen, who individually were a far finer type than the settlers who followed them.”

Grant’s opposition to war paralleled that of many advocates of eugenics. They emphasized that wars tend to kill off young men in their prime. From the standpoint of eugenics, this is bad because war tends to eliminate a source of good genes. For example, the dysgenic effect played by wars in killing off young and fit males was a central point of the 1901 book by David Starr Jordan, The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit. Jordan claimed that “the survival of the unfittest [due largely to the dysgenic effects of war] is the primal cause of the downfall of nations.”

However, for Grant war was doubly problematic. In his racist ideology, Nordic types are drawn to warfare by their nature, and make up a large fraction of military leadership. Thus, war will preferentially kill off Nordics, and hence dilute the fraction of ‘Nordic blood’ in a population. Grant’s ‘racial history’ is an ever-repeating tale where ‘blond giant’ Nordic military leaders are killed off or have their blood stock diluted by intermarriage, leaving the ‘little dark man’ as the survivor and winner.

The Pseudo-Scientific Basis of Grant’s Racial Theories:

Grant attempted to underpin his racial theories by appealing to what passed for cutting-edge science in the early 20th century. In most cases his arguments agreed with contemporary scientific thought, but occasionally his hypotheses were contradicted by the scientific consensus. When this happened, Grant simply asserted that science would be forced to change, to accommodate his theories. For instance, Grant’s discussion of European ‘races’ was essentially a description of three different species. In fact, Grant argues that the differences between his three ‘races’ were at least as great as distinctions between different species. “The existing classification of man must be radically revised, as the differences between the most divergent human types are far greater than are usually deemed sufficient to constitute separate species and even subgenera in the animal kingdom.”

The concept of ‘species’ presented a problem for Grant, as species generally referred to classes of animals that could not interbreed (indeed, the same distinction holds today). However, as is well known the various ‘human races’ breed with one another. So, Grant announced that these prior definitions of species would have to be modified or dropped altogether. “The old idea that fertility or infertility of races of animals was the measure of species is now abandoned.” In contrast to Grant’s claim, the identification of speciation with inability to cross-breed soon became a central aspect of the so-called Modern Synthesis of evolutionary theory, boosted particularly by fruit fly experiments carried out by Theodosius Dobzhansky and described in his 1937 book Genetics and the Origin of Species.

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists had recently re-discovered Mendel’s experiments and thus had a hazy knowledge of the laws of genetics. At this time it was widely assumed that a wide number of traits would be inherited, just as physical features such as hair and eye color were assumed to be hereditary. Indeed, Grant asserted that “Moral, intellectual and spiritual attributes are as persistent as physical characters and are transmitted substantially unchanged from generation to generation.” In this respect, Grant’s claims were aligned with eugenics advocates, for whom this was a major point of emphasis. In Part II of this series we showed that Henry Goddard asserted that his investigations of family genealogy proved that a trait called ‘feeble-mindedness’ was genetically transmitted through successive generations. Eugenicists claimed that moral and spiritual qualities were almost completely determined by heredity rather than environment.

Grant argued that public policy must acknowledge the dominance of race over environment . “The continuity of physical traits and the limitation of the effect of environment to the individual only are now so thoroughly recognized by scientists that it is at most a question of time when the social consequences which result from such crossings [of different ‘races’] will be generally understood by the public at large. As soon as the true bearing and import of the facts are appreciated by lawmakers a complete change in our political structure will inevitably occur and our present reliance on the influence of education will be superseded by a readjustment based on racial values.”

For Grant’s theories to be correct, these ‘moral, intellectual and spiritual attributes’ would have to be unit characteristics that pass from generation to generation. Presumably they were traits determined by a single gene; thus they would be inherited in the same way that hair and eye color were believed to be inherited. However, as the field of genetics developed, it became clear that even attributes as ‘simple’ as hair and eye color were genetically rather complicated. Thomas Hunt Morgan demonstrated this in his experiments on genetics and transmission of attributes in fruit flies. On the question of the inheritance of these attributes and attempts to determine ‘racial’ types, Morgan stated “A little goodwill might seem more fitting in treating those complicated questions than the attitude adopted by some of the modern race-propagandists.” Several prominent scientists strongly opposed Grant’s assumptions about heredity. We will review these objections in section V of this post.

In the 19th century, many intellectuals classified Negroes as belonging to an inferior group. In fact, much discussion by race theorists focused on whether the Negroes were merely a more backward form of human, or whether they constituted a different race altogether. However, fewer scientists were inclined to follow Grant in treating various European cultures as constituting separate races. Grant’s claims about racial identity were in general agreement with American biologist Charles Davenport, who argued that the Poles, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews and other national groups were all biologically different species.

With the passing of time, the various races had intermarried and merged. For Grant, this was a serious problem, especially given his prejudice that qualities such as leadership, adventure and militarism were uniquely concentrated in the Nordic race. The fact that the ‘pure races’ had so thoroughly interbred made it difficult for Grant to identify them. “One of the greatest difficulties in classifying man is his perverse predisposition to mismate.” And Grant insisted (with no evidence) that when people of two races breed, this eventually leads to offspring that display the qualities of the ‘inferior’ race. “Whether we like it or not, the result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting to the more ancient, generalized and lower type. The cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro … and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew” (Grant assumed that Jews were a separate race and did not belong to any of his three European racial types). Furthermore, the lower the racial species, the faster they reproduce; “in the crossing of two diverse races the relative prepotency of the various human subspecies in Europe appears to be in inverse ratio to their social value.”

One of the qualities that racists maintained was inherited as a unit character was ‘genius,’ and for Grant it was a quality that was closely correlated with race. Grant asserted that: “’Genius’ is not a matter of family, but of stock or strain, and is inherited in exactly the same manner as are the purely physical characters … This is what education or opportunity does for a community; it permits in these rare cases fair play for development, but it is race, always race, that produces genius.”

We can summarize the ‘scientific claims’ advanced by Grant: they are all totally lacking in merit. First, his identification of three European ‘basic racial types’ was nothing but prejudicial speculation. Also, his arguments based on craniometry, specifically that members of long-faced groups were generally more intelligent than those from round-faced groups, is bogus. Next, Grant’s claim that moral, intellectual and leadership qualities were passed from one generation to another as recessive unit characters is completely false. Hence, his assertion that interbreeding of different ‘racial types’ inevitably leads to a decline of the ‘superior race’ is without merit. Grant’s claim that modern humans originated in Asia is false. In fact, not only was he wrong that Negroes constitute a different (and inferior) race, but we now realize that all modern humans are descended from African ancestors.

Proposed Solutions to the ‘Race Problem’:

For Grant, the preferable form of government was an aristocracy, as it provided the greatest opportunity for ‘natural leaders’ to maintain their power over inferior races. Of course, Grant assumed that aristocrats achieved their power by virtue of their natural superiority. “True aristocracy or a true republic is government by the wisest and the best, always a small minority in any population.” Another advantage of aristocracy was that it had the greatest chance of maintaining racial purity, through its emphasis on restricting marriage between the ruling and servile classes. According to Grant, democracy was inimical to the ‘natural order,’ since democratic societies provide equal voting power to aristocrats and to the undeserving. An important drawback of democracy is that ‘racial purity’ will be corrupted, once the lower classes were allowed to interbreed with the master race. For Grant, the only thing worse than democracy was socialism, where this unnatural interracial equality was enforced with even more vigor than in a democracy.

Racial purity can be maintained to some degree by restrictions on interracial marriage; however, as long as groups reside in the same area there will necessarily be inter-breeding and a subsequent degradation of the blood of the ‘superior’ race. “Invasions of new races have ordinarily arrived in successive waves, the earlier ones being quickly absorbed by the conquered, while the later arrivals usually maintain longer the purity of their type. Consequently the more recent elements are found in a less mixed state than the older, and the more primitive strata of the population always contain physical traits derived from still more ancient predecessors.”

Grant saw little hope for America, so long as it allowed democratic principles to have full sway. “In America we have nearly succeeded in destroying the privilege of birth: that is, the intellectual and moral advantage a man of good stock brings into the world with him. We are now engaged in destroying the privilege of wealth; that is, the reward of successful intelligence and industry and in some quarters there is developing a tendency to attack the privilege of intellect and to deprive a man of the advantage gained from an early and thorough classical education.” [in 1913, the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave Congress the right to levy a federal income tax.]

As for slavery, Grant not only approved of it, he viewed it as a natural (but temporary) consequence of the subjugation of inferior peoples by leaders from a superior race. “When a conquering race is imposed on another race the institution of slavery often arises to compel the servient race to work and to introduce it forcibly to a higher form of civilization. As soon as men can be induced to labor to supply their own needs slavery becomes wasteful and tends to vanish. From a material point of view slaves are often more fortunate than freemen when treated with reasonable humanity and when their elemental wants of food, clothing and shelter are supplied … What the Melting Pot actually does in practice can be seen in Mexico, where the absorption of the blood of the original Spanish conquerors by the native Indian population has produced the racial mixture which we call Mexican and which is now engaged in demonstrating its incapacity for self-government. The world has seen many such mixtures and the character of a mongrel race is only just beginning to be understood at its true value.”

Grant’s theories of race led him to some nasty policy recommendations. First, he asserted that the only way to maintain racial purity was to take active steps to prevent race mixing (note that Grant is talking not just about intermarriage between blacks and whites, but between ‘Nordics’ and ‘Alpines’ and Jews). “When it becomes thoroughly understood that the children of mixed marriages between contrasting races belong to the lower type, the importance of transmitting in unimpaired purity the blood inheritance of ages will be appreciated at its full value and to bring half-breeds into the world will be regarded as a social and racial crime of the first magnitude. The laws against miscegenation must be greatly extended if the higher races are to be maintained.”

Next, Grant concluded that programs that provide financial support and health care to the poor are completely misguided, as such measures simply allow the ‘inferior races’ to multiply. Logical steps to improve a society would include active measures, such as birth control and sterilization, to reduce the number of ‘defectives.’ “Where altruism, philanthropy or sentimentalism intervene with the noblest purpose and forbid nature to penalize the unfortunate victims of reckless breeding, the multiplication of inferior types is encouraged and fostered. Indiscriminate efforts to preserve babies among the lower classes often result in serious injury to the race. At the existing stage of civilization, the legalizing of birth control would probably be of benefit by reducing the number of offspring in the undesirable classes.”

Grant was thus in favor of birth control, provided that it was applied only towards decreasing the population of ‘undesirable classes.’ But Grant goes even further, proposing even more active measures to ‘obliterate’ the ‘unfit.’ “Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life 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.

“It is highly unjust that a minute minority should be called upon to supply brains for the unthinking mass of the community, but it is even worse to burden the responsible and larger but still overworked elements in the community with an ever increasing number of moral perverts, mental defectives and hereditary cripples. As the percentage of incompetents increases, the burden of their support will become ever more onerous until, at no distant date, society will in self-defense put a stop to the supply of feebleminded and criminal children of weaklings.”

Grant then provided more detail about his ‘final solution’ to the problem of ‘social failures’ in the population. He outlined an ever-widening program of sterilization, beginning with criminals, the insane and diseased, but then progressing to ‘weaklings’ and ‘worthless race types.’ “Those who read these pages will feel that there is little hope for humanity, but the remedy has been found, and can be quickly and mercifully applied. 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 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. This is a practical, merciful and inevitable solution of the whole problem and can be applied to an ever widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased and the insane and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types … By this method mankind might ultimately become sufficiently intelligent to choose deliberately the most vital and intellectual strains to carry on the race.”

Just as Grant saw birth control as a positive step when applied to ‘inferior races,’ he viewed polygamy as having significant advantages, provided that it was limited to dominant racial types. “At the same time, polygamy has greatly strengthened the hand of the dominant Turk. In fact, among the upper classes of the higher races monogamy and the resultant limitation in number of offspring has been a source of weakness from the viewpoint of race expansion.” When practiced by ‘the upper classes of the higher races,’ polygamy allowed the dominant males to produce far more offspring than they might otherwise. Note that this scheme would work only if all wives were also members of the ‘higher race.’

Of course, Grant was an outspoken opponent of immigration into America; to be more precise, he was strongly opposed to immigration from ‘non-Nordic’ countries. Grant claimed that the original immigrants to America were primarily ‘Nordics,’ but he asserted that American immigration in the late 19th century amounted to an invasion from countries with ‘inferior races.’ “These new immigrants were no longer exclusively members of the Nordic race … European governments took the opportunity to unload upon careless, wealthy and hospitable Americans the sweepings of their jails and asylums. The result was that the new immigration, while it still included many strong elements from the north of Europe, contained a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish Ghettos. Our jails, insane asylums and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam and the whole tone of American life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarized by them.”

Grant’s prejudices and pseudo-scientific ideas unfortunately had profound impact on government policies during the first half of the 20th century. As we will discuss in the next section, in 1924 the U.S. Congress passed an Immigration Restriction Act that placed tight quotas on immigration to the U.S. from various European countries. Quotas were based on the belief that while northern European countries contained large numbers of ‘Nordics,’ Southern and Eastern European countries had much larger numbers of inferior ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘Alpine’ types. Furthermore, Grant argued that immigrants from these countries were among the ‘lowest stratum’ of ‘human flotsam.’ As we will see, the eugenics community successfully advocated for quotas in the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act that favored nations providing ‘superior’ immigrants.

Madison Grant’s ‘racial history,’ and his suggestions for ‘solving’ the problems created when different races live together, were not lost on the Nazis. After they came to power in Germany in the early 1930s, Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race was the first book translated from English into German by the Nazi Reich Press. In fact, Grant received a letter from Adolph Hitler declaring that Grant’s book was “his Bible.” Grant (who died in 1937) proudly showed Hitler’s letter to his friends.

Fig. III.6: The Nazi translation of Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race.Source: Alamy Stock Photo.

At the Nuremberg Trials following World War II Karl Brandt, who had been Hitler’s personal physician and who headed the Nazi euthanasia program, introduced Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race as part of his defense. He argued that the Nazi programs of forced sterilization and euthanasia had simply adopted proposals from American eugenics advocates, and Grant in particular. After reading Grant’s ‘racial history,’ it appears that Dr. Brandt had a point. Although Grant advocated the practice of involuntary sterilization rather than murder, he did state that “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.” Furthermore, Grant proposed sterilization as the solution to the problem of the ‘unfit,’ and recommended that it “can be applied to an ever widening circle of social discards, … extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.”

It seems but a short step from Grant’s advocacy of compulsory sterilization (in order to “obliterate” the “unfit”) to euthanasia. Although not as monstrous as the Nazi death camps, Grant’s abhorrent proposals should give us pause.

Grant on the Negro Problem:

Grant seemed to believe that Negroes were sub-human. For example, in his role as Secretary of the New York Zoological Society, Grant had Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy from the Mbuti tribe, displayed in a cage at the Monkey House of what is now the Bronx Zoo. Benga was released from the Zoo only after strong pressure from the African-American religious community. Today, we know that homo sapiens originated in Africa and afterwards the population radiated outward to Asia and hence to Europe and around the globe. As a result, all humans today are descendants of African ancestors; thus Grant’s contempt for Negroes was particularly ironic. Grant claimed: “Man’s place of origin was undoubtedly Asia.”

Fig. III.7: Congolese pygmy Ota Benga in his cage at the Bronx Zoo.

Grant fleshed out his theory that Negroes are by nature ‘servient.’ “The black men [are] willing followers who ask only to obey and to further the ideals and wishes of the master race … as long as the dominant imposes its will on the servient race and as long as they remain in the same relation to whites as in the past, Negroes will be a valuable element in the community … [but] if the purity of the two races is to be maintained they cannot continue to live side by side and this is a problem from which there can be no escape.”

Grant proposed that different races be separated, presumably by force, in order that racial purity be maintained. He asserted that “Negroes have demonstrated throughout recorded time that they are a stationary species and that they do not possess the potentiality of progress or initiative from within.” If different races were allowed to live together, the result was necessarily a degradation of the blood stock of the dominant race. ”When two distinct species are located side by side … either one race drives the other out, as the Americans exterminated the Indians and as the Negroes are now replacing the white in various parts of the south; or else they amalgamate and form a population of race bastards in which the lower type ultimately preponderates.” In order to avoid this degradation of American (presumably Nordic) blood stock, Grant recommended that the races be separated. “It is quite evident that the West Indies, the coast region of our Gulf states, perhaps also the black belt of the lower Mississippi Valley must be abandoned to Negroes.”

To a contemporary reader, it is apparent that Grant’s summary of ‘Nordic’ characteristics was largely an exercise in narcissism. Tall stature, blond hair, blue or green eyes, narrow face? Check. Adventurer and explorer? Check. Ruler and organizer? Check. Individualistic, self-reliant aristocrat? Check. However, Grant’s ideology was typical of many eugenics advocates. He differed from his colleagues mainly by his willingness to propose some vicious and inhumane methods to achieve his ‘racial’ objectives.

Continued in Part IV