Eugenics, American Progressivism, and the ‘German Idea of the State’

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In 1923, Fritz Lenz, a German physician and geneticist advocate of forced sterilization–a man who became one of the leading advocates of the Nazi’s “racial hygiene” program–criticized his countrymen for lagging behind the United States in the enactment of sterilization laws.  In June, 1933, several months after Hitler became Chancellor of the Third Reich, the Nazis began to catch up in earnest.[1]  In consultation with Lenz and other German eugenicists, Dr. Arthur Gutt, a leading official in the Ministry of the Interior, drafted a statute entitled “The Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring.”  This proposal, which became Nazi Germany’s first sterilization law, mandated sterilization for all persons believed to be afflicted with congenital feeblemindedness, schizophrenia, manic depression, hereditary epilepsy, Huntington’s chorea, hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, serious physical deformity or chronic alcoholism.  The purpose of this law, as Gutt explained, was “‘to prevent …poisoning the entire bloodstream of the race.’”[2] 

Both the letter, and especially the enforcement, of the Nazi sterilization law went well beyond existing American precedents.  Nevertheless, as historian Jonathan Spiro notes, the Nazi statute was “quite consciously based on the model sterilization law of Harry H. Laughlin and the American Eugenics Society,” a connection readily recognized by American eugenicists.[3]  The Eugenical News, a publication closely tied to Laughlin’s Eugenics Record Office, proudly proclaimed its paternity:

Doubtless the legislative and court history of the experimental sterilization laws in 27 states of the American union provided the experience which Germany used in writing her new national sterilization statute. To one versed in the history of eugenical sterilization in America, the text of the German statute reads almost like the ‘American model sterilization law.’[4]

The extensive scholarly exchange and admiration between leading American eugenicists, e.g. Madison Grant and Harry Laughlin, and the men who became the leading advocates, architects and administrators of the Nazis’ “racial hygiene” program, has been very well-documented, even if it is not particularly well known.[5]  What is even less well known is that the American eugenics movement not only flourished during the Progressive Era, but was especially influential “under reformist state administrations,” including in the state of Wisconsin, the very beacon of progressive reform.[6]  “[I]t is evident,” as historian Rudolph J. Vecoli concludes in a study of the origins of Wisconsin’s sterilization law,

that sterilization was a Progressive measure. . . .  it was taken up and agitated by reform groups and organizations, it was advocated by Progressive leaders and publications; and it was enacted by a Progressive legislature and administration.[7]

This fact frequently provokes scholarly incredulity: how could the very same reformers who fought for “the people,” who struggled to help the children and working men, ever have supported such laws?  What can explain this “paradox”?[8]

This perceived “paradox” is a product of our own confusion concerning the purpose of the Progressives’ reforms.  It is commonplace today, to the point of hoary orthodoxy, to attribute the Progressives’ reforms simply to changing social circumstances.  According to this view, the Progressives’ reforms were a mere reaction to changing economic and social patterns–a valiant attempt, as one recent commentator suggests, to perpetuate “fundamental American values” in the face of changes threatening to subvert their realization.[9]  However dramatically the Progressives’ reforms subsequently enlarged the size and scope of government, accordingly, their aim was fundamentally conservative in nature.

And yet the Progressives themselves repeatedly denied that this was the case.  As Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged in a private letter near the end of his life:

 I do not for one moment believe that the Americanism of today should be a mere submission to the American ideals of the period of the Declaration of Independence. . . . Such action would be not only to stand still, but to go back.  American  democracy, of course, must mean an opportunity for everyone to contribute his own ideas    to the working out of the future. But I will go further than you have done. I  have actively fought in favor of grafting on our social life, no less than our industrial life, many of the German ideals.[10]

The Progressives, at least, understood that their approach to reform was animated by a new conception of government or, more precisely, “the State.”  Importantly, this idea, the “German idea of the State,” departs from the American Founders’ understanding of government in a couple of key respects, both of which help explain the Progressives’ enthusiasm for eugenics.[11]

For the Progressives, to begin, the power of government is NOT limited in principle to securing the natural or “inalienable” rights of man, as the Declaration of Independence has it.  “It is not admitted that there are no limits to the action of the state,” as the German-trained progressive political scientist and future New Dealer Charles Merriam concludes in a 1903 survey of progressive thinking,

but on the other hand it is fully conceded that there are no ‘natural rights’ which bar the way.  The question is now one of expediency rather than of principle . . . each specific question must be decided on its own merits, and each action of the state justified, if at all, by the relative advantages of the proposed line of conduct.

“[I]n general,” as the German-trained progressive economist Richard T. Ely likewise affirms, “there is no limit to the right of the State, the sovereign power, save its ability to do good.”[12] The first step toward bold, experimental reform was to untie the hands of government.

Richard T. Ely

Richard T. Ely

But the Progressives did not advocate an indiscriminate exercise of power; rather, in their view, the ultimate aim of “the State,” the “good” or objective whose pursuit determined the need for government action, was a particular conception of human excellence or “perfection.”  The guiding object of ethics, and hence the State, Ely explains, is the “ethical ideal,” the idea, that is, that individuals are entitled to the “most perfect development of all human faculties [physical, mental, moral, aesthetic, etc.] . . . which can be attained[.]“  In short, the guiding principle of the Progressives’ domestic reforms, the aim that guided their assessment of existing social conditions, was a felt obligation to improve the relative level of physical, mental and moral development in America.

For the Progressives, the government’s obligation in this regard was perfectly compatible with treating different races (whom they believed were at varying stages of development), differently in law and policy.[13]  It also trumped not only the ability of individuals to exercise their now “so-called innate or ‘natural rights’” –e.g. the right to live, enjoy one’s physical liberty, acquire and use property, marry, speak, worship God according to the dictates of one’s conscience, etc.–but also an individual’s fundamental right to attain his own highest development where the prospect for development was believed to be relatively small, or his restraint was believed to be advantageous to the development of a greater number.[14]

Perhaps nowhere is the Progressives’ willingness to run roughshod over individual liberty, for the sake of improving America generally, as stark as in their support for eugenics.

Progressive sociologist, Edward A. Ross, is frequently mentioned as a prominent advocate of eugenics in America.[15]  Ross, who is credited by some with having coined the term “social engineering,” pursued graduate study at the University of Berlin and at Johns Hopkins University–that seedbed of progressive academics–where, in 1891, he earned a Ph.D. in political economy under Richard T. Ely’s direction.  Ely was one of the most influential progressive economists: in 1885, he founded the reform-minded American Economic Association (AEA); in 1905, after leaving Hopkins for the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he played a leading role in the founding of the American Association of Labor Legislation (AALL); he also played a key role in the formulation of Wisconsin Governor Robert M. LaFollette’s famed progressive reforms.

­In 1906, Ely persuaded the University of Wisconsin to hire Edward A. Ross.[16]  At Wisconsin, Ross joined several other prominent supporters of eugenics, including President Charles Van Hise and Ely himself.[17]  In his Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States, Van Hise expresses dismay that “even in civilized countries…defectives of various classes are allowed to propagate the race.”  The solution for this problem, he urges, is “Eugenics”:

It is certain that as a first very moderate step toward the development of the stamina of the human race, defectives should be precluded from continuing the race by some proper method. . . . Whatever the method chosen, it should be thoroughgoing. Human defectives should no longer be allowed to propagate the race.  We should reach at least as high a plane with reference to human beings as with the defective animals.

Van Hise regards “some proper method” for ending the reproduction of “defectives,” like institutionalization and sterilization, as a “first, very moderate step toward the development…of the human race.”  Even so, he was sensitive to the profound tension between such an expansion of public control (for non-punitive purposes) and America’s founding ideals.  Embrace of eugenics, like his conservation agenda more generally, he notes, will require a “transformation of the ideals of the individual, who has felt himself free to do with what he has as he pleases, to social responsibility[.]“  Such a transformation would entail

as great a change of  heart as has ever been demanded by seer or by prophet.  Already we have angry protestations from many who largely possess, when any restraint is proposed. . . . But still the demand will be pressed in upon each man that he shall surrender his individualism so far as is necessary for the good of the race.  He who thinks not of himself primarily, but of his race, and of its future, is the new patriot.[18]

Ely too was an enthusiastic advocate of eugenics. “Men are what they are,” he explains, “as a result of heredity, as well as environment.”[19]  If progress, rather than “weakness and degeneration,” was to ensue, accordingly, reforms must address both sets of causes.  This approach was all the more necessary, Ely believed, because the very reforms designed to reduce environmental impediments to growth–e.g. poverty, unsafe or unsanitary working and living conditions, lack of leisure, etc.–seemed to be increasing the hereditary obstacles to progress:

It is true that benevolence . . . may keep alive some weak individuals, who in a harsher age would have perished, and that these weak individuals may take part in the propagation of the species, eventually leaving behind an enfeebled progeny.  But with all its mildness, civilization lessens unfit reproduction, and, upon the whole does so to an ever increasing extent.  It puts the feeble-minded in asylums, and discourages the marriage of paupers.

The very labor reforms which softened the “law of competition” seemed to enable “defective” individuals–including the “feeble-minded” and “paupers,” as well as persons afflicted with syphilis, gonorrhoea, epilepsy or tuberculosis–to survive in higher numbers and thereby generate “an enfeebled progeny.”  To counteract this, and to perfect the relatively indiscriminate and otherwise stultifying effects of “natural selection” (or “competition”), Ely urges embrace of “man’s selection.”  In a passage which reads like a pithy, but chilling, distillation of Ely’s conception of reform, he likens “man’s selection” to the role humans play in propagating plants and animals:

Now, what man does by his culture of plants and animals is simply an improvement of unaided nature.  He assists nature, and removes and destroys as completely and as rapidly as possible those species and individuals which are not adapted to his purposes, and then he makes the best possible environment for those which serve his purposes most fully. . . . Man establishes the environment and selects the plants and animals for survival in a pre-arranged environment.[20]

Just as a rancher “removes and destroys . . . those . . . individuals which are not adapted to his purposes,” so too should government.  One can only wonder how far Ely was willing to go in this regard.  In a chapter entitled “Race Improvement,” however, he only applauds putting “paupers and feeble-minded” persons in “custodial institutions . . . where they are being denied, to an increasing extent, opportunities to become the parents of a vicious progeny,” as well as laws denying them the right to marry.

Edward Alsworth Ross

Edward Alsworth Ross

In 1907, the Wisconsin state legislature asked Edward A. Ross to provide expert testimony concerning sterilization. This was not Wisconsin’s first eugenic initiative.  Prior attempts involved institutionalizing “mental defectives” and “moral imbeciles”, and in 1907 the state denied “epileptic, feeble-minded and insane persons” the right to marry. Ross urged the legislature to adopt sterilization:

For my own part, I am entirely in favor of it. The objections to it are essentially sentimental, and will not bear inspection . . . In introducing the policy, the wedge should have a very thin end indeed. Sterilization should at first be applied only to extreme cases,  where the commitments and the record pile up an overwhelming case.  As the public become accustomed to it, and it is seen to be salutary and humane, it will be possible gradually to extend its scope until it fills its legitimate sphere of application.[21]

Enact sterilization, Ross urges, but proceed cautiously: begin with a very narrow definition of “degenerates,” and, as the public becomes more accustomed to it, expand “its scope until it fills its legitimate sphere of application.”  One wonders who all Ross thought this would include.  For Harry Laughlin, at least, it meant sterilizing the lowest ten percent of Americans.[22]

Between 1907, when Indiana enacted the nation’s first sterilization law, and the 1970s, when the practice finally ceased, approximately 60,000 Americans were sterilized.  The Nazis, by contrast, sterilized around 225,000 in the first three years of their sterilization program.[23]  Still, the number of Americans is shockingly high for a land “conceived,” at least, “in liberty.”

[1] Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books: 2000), 23, 25.

[2] Jonathan Peter Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Burlington, VT: University of Vermont Press, 2009), 62.

[3] Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 362.

[4] Eugenical News, v. 18, no. 5 (Sept.-Oct. 1933), available online:–Eugenical-Sterilization-in-Germany-Eugenical-News-vol-18-5-commentary-and-full-translation-of-the-German-sterilization-statute-of-1933.html

[5] See Spiro, Defending the Master Race, ch. 14 and epilogue, and especially Stefan Kühl,

The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[6] On this point, see Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 101; Rudolph J. Vecoli, “Sterilization: A Progressive Measure?” Wisconsin Magazine of History (Spring, 1960), 191.

[7] Vecoli, “Sterilization: A Progressive Measure?” 201.

[8] Vecoli, “Sterilization: A Progressive Measure?” rhetorically poses this question at 191.

[9] See, for example, Alexander Keyssar, “The Real Grand Bargain Coming Undone,” The Washington Post, August 19, 2011:

[10] Theodore Roosevelt to Hugo Munsterberg, February 2, 1916, Letters, 8.1018, as quoted in Will Morrissey, “Theodore Roosevelt on Self-Government and the Administrative State,” The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science: Transforming the American Regime, John Marini and Ken Masugi, eds. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 71.

[11] Richard T. Ely, “Conservation and Economic Theory,” in The Foundations of National Prosperity (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1917), 13.  See also Sylvia D. Fries, “Staatstheorie and the New American Science of Politics,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34 (Jul.-Sept., 1973), 391: “American political science was, since its inception under the aegis of Francis Lieber at the University of Carolina and later at Columbia College, and until World War I, dominated by the German idea of the state–the state whose origin is in history, whose nature is organic, whose essence is unity, whose function is the exercise of its sovereign will in law, and whose ultimate end is the moral perfection of mankind.”

[12] Charles Merriam, A History of American Political Theories, 322, (my emphasis); Richard T. Ely, Introduction to Political Economy (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1889), 92.

[13] For a fuller discussion of the Progressives’ racial views and policies, see Tiffany Jones Miller, “Freedom, History and Race in Progressive Thought,” 29:2 Social Philosophy & Policy (summer 2012), 220-254.

[14] Westel W. Willoughby, An Examination of the Nature of the State (New York: MacMillan Co., 1896), 181.

[15] See, for example, Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics, 101.

[16] Benjamin G. Rader, The Academic Mind and Reform (The University of Kentucky Press, 1966), 170-172.

[17] Charles Van Hise, The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1913; originally published 1910), 370-371.

[18] Van Hise, The Conservation of Natural Resources in the United States, 377-378.

[19] Richard T. Ely, “Industrial Liberty,” Publications of the American Economic Association, 3, no. 1 (Feb. 1902), 64.

[20] Ely, Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society,137-138; 142.

[21] Vecoli, 193-6.

[22] Kuhl, The Nazi Connection, 18.  For Fritz Lenz, as Lifton, The Nazi Doctors, 26, notes, expanding the reach of sterilization to “its legitimate sphere of application” meant sterilizing “20 percent of the total German population–something on the order of twenty million people.”

[23] Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics, 117.