How Our Government Kept Imbeciles from Breeding

If you’ve ever read or heard about a stupid parent and thought to yourself, “the government ought to keep people like that from having children,” then you might find it interesting to know that they did. In fact a number of state and Federal policies were enacted to prevent imbeciles from breeding (And in that same harsh sentiment of these exact terms I might add). Sadly, these efforts where anything but good as they were bore from bigotry and unfounded fears that took aim at the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, non-Anglo races, and immigrants.

The bulk of these efforts occurred during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, an period in United States History referred to as the Progressive Era, so named for the flurry of progressive social and political reforms such as child labor laws and women’s suffrage.  Such reforms and the ideology behind them affected all aspects of life to include the American (read “white”) family which was seen as the bedrock institution of our society. As the fundamental building block on which the success of our country rested on, the family became ground zero for a range of experts to study in an effort to protect its longevity.

Among a growing number of Progressive Era leaders, especially economists, a concern started to grow that unchecked birth control by large under-performing (read, poor, sick, non-white, immigrant) families was sapping the resources deserved by productive families that actually contributed to society. The recommended solution: Eugenics, a “bio-social” effort supporting practices meant to improve the genetic makeup of the general population, or in other words, a socially acceptable way of throwing a little chlorine into the gene pool.

Here’s how it started and the horrific eventuality.

  • The Father of Eugenics 1 of 12
    The Father of Eugenics

    In 1869, Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, attempts the first social scientific study linking genius to greatness. His work is the foundation for psychometrics (the science of measuring mental faculties). Galton later coins the term eugenics as well as the phrase "nature versus nurture" in his 1883 book, Inquiries into human faculty and its development. Among his recommendations for promoting the intelligence of the population are that early marriage between families of high rank be encouraged by monetary incentives. He also develops the fingerprint classification system used today by forensic investigators.

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  • Its Race Suicide I Tell You! 2 of 12
    Its Race Suicide I Tell You!

    In an 1891 speech, M.I.T. President, Francis Amasa Walker, claims that Anglo-Saxons are quietly committing "racial suicide" by allowing generations of Latin/Slav/Celtic immigrants to out-breed the Anglo race. Walker's warning grows into a national frenzy of debate in searching for a solution to stop inferior races from choking out the stronger Anglo stock. Genetic experimentation is revealed as a master political project of the twentieth century with the United States, Germany, and England its enthusiastic sponsors. Data gathered in school surveys and social experimentation with children have been important sources of grist for this initiative.

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  • image-2 3 of 12

    President Teddy Roosevelt, a symbol of Progressive reform, issues orders to Anglo-Saxon mothers, imploring "well-bred ladies to mobilize their loins in an effort to arrest the suicidal decline." Roosevelt adds, "Breed as if the race depended on it." Harper's Weekly criticizes Roosevelt for his remarks as the President insulted this country's "best breeders" by failing to address the real issue reducing the native birthrate, unchecked immigration.

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  • KEEP OUT! 4 of 12

    Founded in 1894, The Immigration Restriction League becomes the first American entity the officially associates itself with eugenic ideology.  Efforts by the League focus on attempting to bar what it considers "dysgenic members of certain races" from entering America to "dilute superior American racial stock through procreation." As part of this, they lobby for literacy tests to be administered to immigrants to prevent them from entering the country or getting jobs. Among the league's prominent member are the presidents of Harvard, Stanford and several other prestigious universities.

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  • Marry an Imbecile, Go to Jail 5 of 12
    Marry an Imbecile, Go to Jail

    Alexander Graham Bell becomes and early proponent of modern eugenics (before it was labeled as such) after investigating the rate of deafness on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts in 1881. Bell concludes that deafness was hereditary and because congenitally deaf parents were more likely to produce deaf children, he suggests that couples who were both were deaf should not marry. The logic of this eventually gains momentum as the eugenics movement takes hold. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, many states enacted marriage laws with eugenic criteria, prohibiting anyone who was "epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded" from marrying.

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  • Breeding Animals, Breeding Humans: Its All the Same 6 of 12
    Breeding Animals, Breeding Humans: Its All the Same

    U.S. scientist, Charles Davenport, rises to become one of history's leading eugenicists after publishing his thesis, "The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding," in which he ties agricultural reproduction to human heredity. In 1910 Davenport sets up the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), collecting hundreds of thousands of medical histories from Americans which he used to conclude that society's unfit came from economically and socially poor backgrounds—typically immigrants and blacks.  Davenport continues his eugenics research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where his views are supported as late as 1963. In 2007, Cold Springs Harbor's Director, James D. Watson is removed as the laboratory's director for making racist remarks.

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  • The Kallikak Family 7 of 12
    The Kallikak Family

    Prominent eugenicists began to lobby for various solutions to the problem of the "unfit".  Heavy restrictions on immigration, sterilization, and even extermination are popular suggestions. Psychologist Henry H. Goddard recommends segregation in his 1912 book, The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heridity of Feeble-Mindedness. This bizarre study of the of respected New England citizen tracks the two lines of offspring he fathered, one in and one out of wedlock. Goddard finds the illegitimate family members who he photographs and takes notes on their behavior from which he  concludes that they possessed a variety of mental inferior traits (it is speculated several of the children he followed had Down Syndrome).   Goddard argued that this were hereditary and society should limit reproduction by people possessing these traits.

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  • A Talent Class 8 of 12
    A Talent Class

    William Graham Sumner, founder of the American Sociological Society (now called the American Sociological Association) considers the roles of "genius" and "talent" in society. In 1907, he claims that a class of genius would rise to the top of the social system, followed by a class of talent. The majority of society's remainder would then fit into the class of mediocrity. Sumner goes on to explain how the defective (mentally retarded, handicapped, etc.) are a negative drain on social progress and should be left to sink or swim, while those in the "delinquent" class, (criminals, deviants, etc.) should simply be eliminated altogether.

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  • Race Ranking 9 of 12
    Race Ranking

    Eugenicists play an persuasive role in Congress's passing of the Immigration Act of 1924, pointing to the threat of "inferior stock" from eastern and southern Europe. Immigration from abroad drops over 15%. The law's passage is seen as validation of the eugenic belief in the racial superiority of "old stock" white Americans as members of the "Nordic race." Historians point to this as the starting point for a string of US laws that create a nationality-based hierarchy ranging from the most desirable Anglo-Saxon and Nordic peoples to the Chinese and Japanese immigrants, who were almost completely banned from entering the country.

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  • Klu Klux Planned Parenthood 10 of 12
    Klu Klux Planned Parenthood

    Birth control advocate and Planned Parenthood founder, Margaret Sanger is a vocal supporter of eugenic tenants and initiatives. Sanger's mention of preventing rumors about "exterminating the Negro population" elicits controversy. Critics and proponents of Sanger's work disagree as to the underlying nature of her words; however, despite the alternate interpretation Martin Luther King Jr. praised Sanger's work in his acceptance speech for the Margaret Sanger award. It is well documented that Sanger both attended and spoke at the New Jersey meeting of the Ku Klux Klan auxiliary in 1926.

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  • This Won’t Hurt A Bit 11 of 12
    This Won't Hurt A Bit

    Proponents of eugenics use the growing number of studies centered on hereditary nature of illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression to support their claims. In 1907 Indiana becomes the first of thirty states to draft legislation mandating compulsory sterilization of "imbeciles," and in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of a Virginia law allowing compulsory sterilization of state mental patients. Eugenic  sterilization peaks between 1907 and 1963, when over 64,000 individuals are forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation in the United States. California leads the way with 20,000 of these sterilizations.

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  • The Ultimate Blame Game 12 of 12
    The Ultimate Blame Game

    At the conclusion of World War 2, the world is horrified at the images of the Nazi death camps discovered by Allied troops. Prior to this, the idea that eugenic efforts could lead to genocide was viewed as preposterous. During the war crimes trials in Nuremburg, Germany, Nazi officials cite the United States and its eugenic laws as their model for "humanely" improving a nation's society.

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Ron Mattocks is a father of five (3 sons, 2 stepdaughters) and author of the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can’t Afford Vodka. He blogs at Clark Kent’s Lunchbox, and lives in Houston with his wife, Ashley, who eternally mocks his fervor for Coldplay.

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Article Posted 5 years Ago

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