During the progressive era, academia hastily adopted the inhumane pseudoscience of eugenics, and its results on the world were devastating. The influence of the Boston Brahmins in New England can explain the fervent adoption of this malignant belief. This elite and well-educated class of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants reeked of pomp and snobbery.
The origin of the term “Boston Brahmin” came from Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. in his 1861 novel Elsie Venner. He chose the unique word “Brahmin” because in India they are the most distinguished caste. This is how the northeastern nobles wanted to be perceived in their neck of the woods.
There was no shortage of academics who propagated the eugenics movement. Richard T. Ely was a Columbia University graduate and persistently proselytized eugenic dogma. In 1901, he favored a bill proposed by an Indiana state senator, Thomas J. Lindley, to regulate marriage with the intent that the couple would not have “unfit” children. The state would examine their physical, mental, racial, and moral attributes to decide whether they could wed.
The US Army would conduct a test called the Army Alpha to evaluate soldiers’ intelligence. Richard Ely was pleased to learn the state could evaluate the hereditary status of human livestock. Ely blatantly disapproved of the “unfit” in his book Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society. He states, “The sad fact, however, is not that of competition, but the existence of these feeble persons.” When India was amidst a famine, Ely called for their starvation to continue for the sake of “race improvement.” He also claimed black people were “grown up children and should be treated as such.”
Ely’s academic prowess, heavily seasoned with racism and eugenics, would unfortunately be passed on to his students. While at Johns Hopkins University, Ely mentored Woodrow Wilson. Eventually becoming Princeton University’s president, Wilson excluded black students from enrolling. Having absorbed the skewed beliefs of Ely, New Jersey governor Wilson signed a sterilization bill targeting the “hopelessly defective and criminal classes.”
Wilson was not the only university president to accept these beliefs. Stanford’s David Starr Jordan, Harvard’s Charles William Eliot, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Charles Van Hise shared similar sentiments. Spewing his hate in San Francisco, Eliot told the crowd, “Each nation should keep its stock pure.” Van Hise declared that “human defectives should no longer be allowed to propagate the race.” Jordan believed entering into World War I was detrimental because the physically fit men would die and America would “breed only second-rate men.”
Serving on the board of trustees for the Human Betterment Foundation, Jordan was involved in this organization to observe potential benefits of forced sterilizations in California. Ezra Gosney, founder of this vile organization, coauthored a book with Paul Popenoe on the benefits of sterilization, which became popular enough to influence other states and countries to espouse eugenic legislation.
Sweden would sterilize over sixty thousand people from the 1930s to the 1970s. Their book would even be recognized and cited by Nazi party officials to enact their own program in 1933. Charles Goethe, a fellow eugenicist, wrote to Gosney congratulating him on his work being adopted by the Nazis:
You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler. . . . I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life.
The Human Betterment Foundation would keep in contact with the Nazis, even mailing them a pamphlet to show the benefits Californians had experienced with forced sterilization. Their mutual admiration for each other was not a secret. While the Nazis adopted the American eugenic laws, US progressives were not bashful in promoting what Adolf Hitler’s henchmen were doing. In 1934, the Los Angeles County Museum displayed Nazi exhibits to boost support for eugenics. This promotion worked, and the southern California branch of the American Eugenics Society openly praised it: “It portrays the general eugenics program of the Nazi government, giving special attention to the need for sterilization. . . . Take the opportunity to see this while it is in Los Angeles. Tell your friends about it.”
At one point, the Nazis were sterilizing their people at a far greater rate than the Americans, causing Virginia’s director of the Western State Hospital, Joseph DeJarnette, to complain, “The Germans are beating us at our own game.” Popenoe pondered on how to exterminate the “unfit” in his book Applied Eugenics. In it, he talks about a race being improved through “the destruction of the individual by some adverse feature of the environment, such as excessive cold . . . or by bodily deficiency.”
For his final Stanford commencement speech, President Jordan talked about barring southern and eastern European immigrants from entering America due to their inferiority to Anglo-Saxons. Generally speaking, Jordan did not single out these particular Europeans but said all immigrants were “a menace to peace and welfare.” Jordan would also become the inaugural chair of the American Breeders Association where he would invite fellow academic Charles Davenport to join.
Within eugenics circles, Davenport was a prominent figure to get ahold of. Davenport realized the lucrative research funding opportunity and happily accepted. By collecting data on Stanford students through a questionnaire, Davenport sought to observe their heredity, racial origin, and other characteristics. Later in his career, Davenport would go on to start the International Federation of Eugenics Organizations to bring together eugenic scientists from across the globe. Writing to Benito Mussolini in 1929, Davenport stressed the importance of an Italian eugenics program.
Lobbying to Congress, Davenport was an anti-immigration activist wanting to hinder the “undesirable.” The Immigration Act of 1924 would be the result of Davenport’s constant requests to Congressman Albert Johnson, a eugenicist ally. This legislation would halt Asian immigration while also setting quotas on southern and eastern Europeans. Author Adam Cohen made a documentary detailing that this act barred Anne Frank’s father from escaping to America. Concerned about the threat of immigrants, Charles Davenport wrote to Madison Grant, another prominent eugenicist, asking, “Can we build a wall high enough around this country . . . so as to keep out these cheaper races.”
Grant would certainly agree with this proposal because of his famous book The Passing of the Great Race where he argues that the Nordic race is superior. He was worried “inferior” races were outgrowing the Nordic population, which is why he also supported the 1924 Immigration Act. The book was so popular that he received a letter from Hitler saying the book was his “bible.” During the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis referenced three pages of Grant’s book to defend Karl Brandt, their euthanasia program leader. By rationalizing this despicable practice, the Nazis wanted absolution from the sins the Americans had initially committed.
With their connections in government, the Boston Brahmins wanted the state to eradicate the “unfit” for them. Their abominable propaganda was exported to multiple states and countries while giving Hitler fuel to continue his merciless campaign. The elite and the state will always collude to destroy their peskiest enemy: you. May we never forget the atrocities this group circulated to the world, and may we always reject its evil, no matter what forms it may camouflage itself with.
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