Elegy for Lady Liberty’s Melting Pot

This entry is a part of a series.
To clearly understand the material below in context,

you may wish to begin at the beginning with
the introduction to the series.

Elegy: “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead”

“…the issue, stripped of its frills and furbelows and without any varnish or veneer, is simply this: Shall we preserve this country, handed down to us by a noble and illustrious ancestry, for Americans, and transmit it to our posterity as our forefathers intended; or shall we permit it to be overrun and submerged by a heterogeneous, hodgepodge, polyglot aggregation of aliens, most of whom are the scum, the offal [guts/leftovers of animals from the slaughtering process], and the excrescence [repulsive growth such as skin cancer] of the earth?”

(Congressman J. Will Taylor, R—Tennessee, member of the House Immigration Committee, testifying before congress in 1921 on behalf of a bill to severely limit immigration from “non-Nordic” countries.)

By 1921, the Eugenics movement of the US, bolstered greatly by the influence of Madison Grant and his 1916 book Passing of the Great Race, was riding high.

In scores of books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of speeches delivered to women’s clubs, businessmen’s luncheons, fraternal organizations, and reform groups, Grant’s disciples spread the good word of scientific racism throughout the land in the early 1920s. They preached that inequality was a biological fact, and that the Nordics were the superior race. They upheld the primacy of nature over nurture, and claimed that social ills such as poverty and crime were the result of inferior heredity.

They taught that modern civilization artificially keeps alive the physically and mentally weak, that the defective types were consequently outreproducing the fitter types, and that applying the lessons of Mendelian genetics to human beings was both sensible and necessary. And they urged that, until a full-blown program of eugenics could be instituted, steps must be taken—especially immigration restriction—to lessen the danger of miscegenation and the consequent possibility of reversion. [from: Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. University Press of New England, 2009. Kindle Edition. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this blog entry are from Spiro’s book.]


When I first read about the eugenics movement a few years ago, I was left with the impression that it was just a “minor” glitch in US history, a small group of kooks out on the fringes of American society promoting a theory that was pooh-poohed by most Americans at the time. Sort of like Scientology today.

I have since read enough documentation to realize that I was sadly, sadly mistaken. Evidently a sort of mass amnesia had set in for many years, with historians forgetting just who and what was involved in eugenics. Until recent decades, when a number of researchers dedicated to the topic have reconstructed the amazing story of just HOW influential and powerful the movement was. Particularly in the area of immigration restriction.

1908 immigrantsImmigrant children, Ellis Island, 1908

Madison Grant had joined the “Immigration Restriction League” in 1909, around the time he began his study of the writings of William Ripley (described in an earlier entry in this series), that eventually led to his publication of Passing, his own “scientific racism” book. And as with everything he set his hand to do, such as saving the bison and the redwoods, he attracted the movers and shakers in American Society to join him in his zealous projects.

Grant was active throughout the 1920s, serving as president of both the Immigration Restriction League and the Eugenics Research Association. He was also treasurer of one of the most important events in the history of eugenics, the Second Eugenics Congress of 1921. This event continued the pattern of the First Eugenics Congress, which had been held in London in 1912, with Winston Churchill as one of the sponsors and at which Prime Minister Arthur Balfour delivered the inaugural address. The second congress was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. More than 300 delegates came from Europe, Latin America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

…Among the notables in attendance were future President Herbert Hoover, Alexander Graham Bell (the Congress’s honorary president), conservationist and future Governor of Pennsylvania, Gifford Pinchot, and Leonard Darwin, son of Charles Darwin.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the museum, was president. Harry Laughlin was in charge of exhibits, and Lothrop Stoddard [one of Grant’s leading protégés and author of The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy] handled publicity. One hundred eight papers were presented on topics ranging from plant and animal genetics to anthropology and political science. [Spiro]

1924 fetusesA display from the 1921 Congress, comparing White and Negro fetuses

No, the leaders of the eugenics movement such as Grant were not viewed at the time as just wild-eyed kooks. They were highly-esteemed among the legal, political, and intellectual aristocracy of the country. When they talked, the movers and shakers listened.

…the immigrants were described as “human weeds.” “Weeds! … Millions of them!” shouted [Yale Professor] Ellsworth Huntington and Leon F. Whitney [Executive Secretary of the American Eugenics Society] in The Builders of America (which was revised by Madison Grant before going to press). “Genuine human weeds, whole shiploads of them, from almost every nation in Europe.”

Leon got a lot of attention in the press later, as you can see from this 1934 newspaper clipping.

whitney1934Henry Fairfield Osborn bewailed the fact that “there is no port in this country through which you can bring in a diseased animal or a noxious animal or weed,” and yet “noxious human beings” were daily entering New York from abroad. And the surgeon general of the U.S. Navy, E. R. Stitt, explained that just as our quarantine laws forbade the importation of injurious plants and animals, so we needed to curtail the importation of dangerous immigrants.

…Kenneth Roberts [later a Pulitzer-prize-winning author of historical novels] wrote in the Saturday Evening Post that immigration was like a “poison working in the veins of America,” and George Creel told the readers of Collier’s that, as a result of unrestricted immigration, “the wells of our national life have been poisoned and will continue to be poisoned unless sentiment is cast aside in favor of common sense.”

Charles E. Woodruff, a physician whose books were read and admired by Madison Grant, warned that the Jews were “harmful parasites” and “bacilli.” Their continued immigration was like an “infectious disease” invading the homeland, and to persecute them was to engage in a needed “process of disinfection.”

Prescott F. Hall similarly told Grant that the Jews were akin to “germs of infectious disease” and that they should be dealt with in the same manner as “noxious weeds” or “insect pests.” Grant agreed that Jewish immigrants threatened to “poison the blood” of the old-stock Americans, and Kenneth Roberts wrote that the Jews were “the true human parasites.” [Spiro]

And all this could be traced back, in many ways, to the “conservation” and “wildlife management” efforts of Madison Grant and the Boone and Crockett Club!

In the 1910s, Grant saw that the protected animals on his wildlife refuges were dangerously increasing in numbers, and he exhorted preservationists to accept the techniques of wildlife management to control them. At the same time, he saw that the inferior races in America were dangerously increasing in numbers, and he exhorted the public to accept the techniques of eugenics to control them. Grant simply took the concepts he was developing in wildlife management and applied them to the human population.

Once he made the philosophical and moral decision that it was acceptable to eliminate “surplus” members of the wildlife population, it was not difficult for him to decide that such measures could and should be practiced on the expendable members of the human race. Thus, whereas wildlife managers divided their animals into the breeding stock that must be preserved and the superfluous stock that was expendable, so Grant separated the human population into the “producing classes” that must be conserved and the “worthless types” that could be dispensed with.

Whereas wildlife managers felt that the survival of the species as a whole was more important than the lives of a few individuals, so Grant preached that the fate of the race outweighed that of a few particular humans who were “of no value to the community.” Whereas wildlife managers emphasized the need to reject misguided sentimentalism so that the old, the sick, and the deformed members of the herd could be culled, so Grant urged the public to move beyond its “sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life” so that negative measures could be applied to the “weak” and “unfit” members of society. [Spiro]

And some of the top scientists, educators, politicians…and conservationists…of the time agreed wholeheartedly.

Charles R. Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin (and a leading conservationist) expressed this in 1914: “We know enough about agriculture so that the agricultural production of the country could be doubled if the knowledge were applied; we know enough about disease so that if the knowledge were utilized, infectious and contagious diseases would be substantially destroyed in the United States within a score of years; we know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation.” [Spiro]

Van Hise and many others like him had bought into what has since been termed “scientific racism.” Just plain ol’ racism itself had been rampant in America since its colonial days. Looking down on and despising—perhaps even rabidly hating—people whose genetic group has characteristics “different” from your own…just because they are different…is what is termed “popular racism.” There’s no particular “reason” for this attitude, it just “is.” It might even be a bit embarrassing for someone to admit to such irrational hatred. The Eugenics movement removed the embarrassment by creating Scientific Racism.

In sum, what Grant did was to combine seven disciplines—wildlife management, anthropology, paleoanthropology, the study of race suicide, Aryanism, eugenics, and genetics—into an amalgam that we call scientific racism. At its simplest level, scientific racism involved three axioms:      1.  The human species is divided into biologically distinct and hierarchical races, with the Nordic race at the apex.

2.  The intellectual, moral, temperamental, and cultural traits of each race are correlated to, and inherited with, its physical traits; and the genes for those traits are unaffected by the environment.

3.  If a member of an inferior race mates with a member of a superior race, the result is a reversion to a primitive type; hence positive and negative eugenic measures must be taken to prevent the degeneration of the superior race.

…The popular racist fears and despises other races because they are phenotypically [genetically] different; but he or she has no scientific theory to explain this revulsion, other than baseless ethnocentrism [belief that “the world revolves around you and your group”].

The scientific racist, on the other hand, can employ the findings of physical anthropology, Darwinian evolution, and Mendelian genetics to explain why other races are biologically inferior. Whatever Madison Grant may have thought privately about “smelly dagos [Italians],” “greasy spics, [Hispanics]” or “dumb micks [Irish],” his contempt was always couched in the language of biological determinism.[Spiro]

The eugenics movement promoted many solutions to the problem of the vanishing Nordics. They aggressively worked for forced sterilization laws, helped draft anti-racial-intermarriage (miscegenation) laws, created public awareness that Nordics should increase their birthrate.

But the most vigorous efforts went into immigration reform. Early efforts at this were thwarted when eugenically-inspired immigration restriction bills passed by congress were vetoed by Presidents Taft and Harding. But the eugenicists redoubled their efforts.

In 1921 a time-limited restriction bill was signed into law by Warren Harding.

During the three years of “temporary” immigration restriction, Grant and his many coworkers continued to propagate his ideas.

Among other endeavors, they organized an international eugenics conference in New York. Once it concluded, all the displays, maps and charts were sent off to Washington, D.C. and displayed for several months in congressional meeting rooms. No one could doubt that public as well as political support for permanent immigration restriction was on the rise.

There is no question that much of the attitude of the US Congress that led to this new hard-line law was “infected” with eugenic ideas.

Madison Grant understood that the key to getting a tougher immigration law was convincing the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization to favorably report such a measure to the full House. He therefore launched a concerted effort to woo the chairman of that committee, Albert Johnson (R-Washington), to the side of the restrictionists.

When The Passing of the Great Race was published, someone sent Johnson a copy and he was suitably impressed. He contacted Madison Grant, and they struck up a casual correspondence. Grant sent Johnson abstracts of his writings and excerpts from the works of G. Vacher de Lapouge (“the most distinguished anthropologist in France”). In addition to tutoring Johnson on the basics of racial anthropology, Grant also introduced the congressman to the tenets of wildlife conservation, and Johnson became a faithful supporter of that cause as well.

In March 1919, the Republicans assumed control of the House, and Albert Johnson—thanks to some shrewd lobbying by the Immigration Restriction League—found himself appointed chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. It was now that Grant brought to bear against the overmatched congressman the full weight of his charm and his connections. He began actively corresponding with Johnson and made a point of dropping in on him whenever he was in Washington, D.C. Johnson, in turn, began taking the train up to Manhattan whenever possible, where Grant entertained Johnson in his home and showed him around his exclusive clubs.

After viewing lower Manhattan through Grant’s eyes, Johnson agreed that the Nordics had great “reason for apprehension” over “the aliens creeping up on New York City like locusts a block or two at a time.” Grant saw to it that the congressman was made a member of the Eugenics Research Association, the ECUSA [Eugenics Committee of the USA], and the Galton Society (an anthropological organization recently founded by Grant), and Johnson was flattered to find out that his West Coast brand of popular racism was actually cutting-edge science.

Congressman Johnson derived enormous pleasure from associating with the eugenicists, and the Grantians seemed to take a genuine liking to the congressman. While never accused of being a deep thinker, Johnson was an undeniably amiable fellow (in the backslapping, ruddy-faced manner of small-town politicos), and Grant made it clear to all that the representative from Washington’s Third District could do their cause a lot of good.

And indeed Rep. Johnson was able to do the cause a lot of good.

At the instigation of Grant, Representative Johnson now made the acquaintance of Harry H. Laughlin, supervisor of the Eugenics Record Office. Johnson was impressed by Laughlin’s scholarly manner and asked him to appear before the House Committee on Immigration to present the eugenic argument for immigration restriction.

In April 1920, Laughlin testified for two days before the committee and informed the highly attentive congressmen that since “the character of a nation is determined primarily by its racial qualities,” it was incumbent on them to take eugenics into account when formulating immigration policy. Speaking as a scientist, Laughlin taught the committee that heredity was more important than environment, that charity was a “biologically unfortunate” custom, and that continued immigration would inevitably lead to miscegenation since “wherever two races come in contact, it is found that the women of the lower race are not, as a rule, adverse to intercourse with men of the higher.”

Albert Johnson was exceedingly pleased by Laughlin’s presentation and immediately appointed him the “Expert Eugenics Agent” of the House Immigration Committee (a position he would hold for the next eleven years) with instructions to conduct scientific studies of the immigration problem and report regularly to Congress. [Spiro]

And of course the reports had a lot to say that lined up with the rhetoric of many congressmen.

In this age of ethnic hypersensitivity, it is interesting to read some of the language employed in the immigration debate of the 1920s. The new immigrants constituted a “turgid stream of offscourings; the scum, the offal, the excrescence of the earth; human scrubs and runts and culls; indescribably filthy, twisted, ignorant and verminous,” etc. [Spiro]

And so it was that in 1924 Calvin Coolidge signed a permanent restriction bill.


The Immigration Act of 1924, or Johnson–Reed Act, including the National Origins Act, and Asian Exclusion Act, was a United States federal law that limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890, down from the 3% cap set by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921. [Wiki]

Notice that the “target date” for the percentage was clear back in the 19th century…before the great waves of non-Nordics had inundated Ellis Island.

Forty-one years after Emma Lazarus invited Europe to send its huddled masses to America, America withdrew the invitation.

On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Times hailed the “Nordic Victory.”

On the East Coast, the Boston Globe exulted: “All signs point to the junk-heap for the melting-pot.”

Yes, the idea of the melting pot was dead. Unfortunately, most folks of the time didn’t even give it a decent burial, let alone offer any elegies. They mostly gloated. Indeed, it was tossed on the junk heap of history.

And in the Midwest, the Chicago Tribune called the act “the most momentous domestic event since the Civil War, … not less significant and epoch-making for America and the world than the Declaration of 1776.” [Spiro]

The inflow of New Immigrants, which had approached one million per year before World War I and had been reduced to 158,000 by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, was now slashed to only 20,477 a year (12 percent of the European total). The annual Polish quota declined to a negligible 5,982; the Italian to 3,845; the Russian to 2,248; and the Greek to 100. These were numbers with which even the most diehard racist could live.

Furthermore, the Immigration Restriction Act banned completely all immigration from Asia.

Madison Grant could bask in the glow of victory finally, in this, his most important preservation effort. Saving the magnificent bison and the great redwoods was nothing compared to saving the Great Race.

… in the estimation of Madison Grant, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was “one of the greatest steps forward in the history of this country.” He called it “an amazing triumph” and breathed a sigh of relief that “we have closed the doors just in time to prevent our Nordic population being overrun by the lower races.”

His disciples were ecstatic. Robert DeC. Ward declared that the passage of the act was “a turning point in American civilization.”

Lothrop Stoddard labeled the event “epoch-making” and exulted that “America is saved!”

Henry Cabot Lodge pronounced it “a very great measure, one of the most important if not the most important, that Congress has ever passed.”

And the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was glad that “the chief of Mr. Grant’s demands, that the un-American alien be barred out, has [been] accomplished.”

Great praise was heaped on those involved in the effort. Henry Fairfield Osborn warmly congratulated Albert Johnson “on the practically unanimous approval of the Immigration Bill. I regard this as one of the most important steps taken in the whole history of our country.”

World’s Work claimed that “Albert Johnson’s immigration bill has saved the nation.”

Secretary of Labor James J. Davis told President Coolidge that “history will record it as one of the greatest acts of your administration,”

Presidents and congressmen usually seem to appreciate public adulation like this. Madison Grant’s reputation was that of a man who didn’t mind at all pulling strings behind the scenes, keeping out of the limelight, and just having the certainty of his own self-confidence as his reward. So it likely didn’t bother him at all that the public credit for this “turning point in American civilization” went to other men. Besides, there were still those who DID know where the true credit should go.

But, for all the acclamation for Johnson and Coolidge, Harry H. Laughlin knew who had been operating behind the scenes and deserved most of the credit: “Madison Grant,” he wrote in his private papers, “was the instrumental force in the framing of the Johnson Restriction Bill of 1924.”

Grant didn’t have to gloat in public. He could express his enthusiasm for the wonderful victory in private communications to his comrades-in-arms.

Thanks to Grant and scientific racism, the nation was now a refuge for the Nordics, where they could breed in peace, unmolested by alien strains. Grant expressed to Robert DeC. Ward of the IRL [Immigration Restriction League] his joy that theyhad finally put a stop to the foreign incursion, and he referred to the thirty years they had devoted to the cause as “the long period of Egyptian night”—an interesting metaphor, since the main purpose of the Immigration Restriction Act was to keep the Jewish people wandering in their own twentieth-century Egypt, where they would soon find themselves helpless to escape the wrath of a new, Austrian-born pharaoh.

Yes, indeed…it was this very 1924 Act that, 15 years later, came into play to keep those Jewish people wandering still more. This blog series started with an entry titled “No Room In the Inn.” It chronicled the heartwrenching story of a group of over 900 Jews who had managed to escape Nazi Germany in 1939 just before the Holocaust went into high gear. They made it to American waters on the passenger liner St. Louis…but were turned away without being allowed to land, because the Johnson-Reed Act immigration restrictions insisted that the quota for immigrants from their homelands had already been filled. And there were no “special dispensations” for “humanitarian emergencies,” even to allow them into the country for a temporary stay. Their tragic story was depicted in the 1976 movie Voyage of the Damned.

voyageposterActual photos from 1939 show some of them peering from the ship, as they floated in Havana Harbor (Cuba refused to admit them either) waiting for word on their fate.


That ultimate fate was to be shipped back to Europe. No western hemisphere country would accept any such refugees, but Britain, Holland, Belgium, and France each took some of them.

Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed during an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 (14%) managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died: 84 who had been in Belgium; 84 who had found refuge in Holland, and 86 who had been admitted to France. [Holocaust Museum article]

Perhaps you have seen history stories linked from Facebook about amazing people who “rescued” Jewish children from German hands during WW2 and whisked them away to safety. What I didn’t realize until very recently is that NONE of those stories include anyone rescuing such children and bringing them to the US! That would have been impossible. The Johson-Reed law barred the door.

Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed to die in committee a bill sponsored by Senator Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) and Representative Edith Rogers (R-Mass.). This bill would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota. [US Holocaust Memorial Museum]

No, the eugenics movement in America was not a fringe idea that kooks dabbled in out at the fringes of society. It was deep in the very Heart of America.

Just how deep, we will continue to explore in future entries in this series. Starting with…

Thou Shalt Not Be Fruitful and Multiply



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