Enlightened Despots

President Woodrow Wilson

Enlightened Despots

Leslie Jones enjoys a compelling analysis

Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era, Thomas C. Leonard, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2016, 250 pp., reviewed by Leslie Jones

In Illiberal Reformers, economic historian Thomas C. Leonard reminds us that between 1890 and 1914, fifteen million immigrants entered the United States. Almost 70% of this total figure was drawn from southern and eastern Europe. The title of Leonard’s book, albeit paradoxical, is certainly apt. For American Progressives, including eminent social scientists such as economist Richard T. Ely of John Hopkins University and politicians such as Professor Woodrow Wilson, not only rejected laissez-faire, they generally espoused eugenics and “scientific racism”.

Indeed, control of immigration was an integral part of the attempt to “remake American economic life through the agency of an administrative state” (page 10). One of the key steps in the consolidation of the latter was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. According to Edward A. Ross, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, workers of “inferior races” accepted lower wages than American workmen, who chose to have fewer children in the face of such unfair competition. Ross used the term “race suicide” to describe how the Coolie, if permitted unfettered entry, would underbid and outbreed the white labourer. In his History of the American People, Professor Woodrow Wilson concurred, referring to what he called the “strange debasing habits of life…” of the Chinese.

As the author observes, this living standard theory of wages assumed that race, a supposedly immutable factor, predisposed “inferior”, less productive workers to accept a lower standard of living. And it could readily be applied to other allegedly inferior groups of workers, including women. University of Wisconsin economist John R. Commons, for one, opined that “those races which have developed under a tropical sun are…indolent and fickle”. He also bewailed the economic competition of the Jews. Settlement-house-worker Jacob Riis agreed with Commons, claiming that the Jew’s “price is not what he can get but the lowest he can live for and underbid his neighbour”. This unfair advantage had enabled the Jews to monopolise New York’s garment industry, in Riis’s estimation.

Concerning the discourse of “race suicide” and “race displacement” elaborated by progressive scholars, a key text was William Z. Ripley’s The Races of Europe (1899). This book contained “The most influential racial taxonomy of the Progressive Era…” (page 71). Using three criteria, namely, cephalic index, colour and stature, Ripley posited three distinct European races, to wit, Teutons, Alpines and Mediterraneans. He believed that the interbreeding of immigrants from the two “inferior” races, Alpines and Mediterraneans, “threatened to produce an atavistic European type, a kind of negroid throwback” (Leonard, page 72).

Measuring and fact finding “formed the core of the progressives’ scientific sensibility” (page 69). “Taylorism”, or “scientific management”, was but one example. The development of intelligence tests by distinguished psychologists such as Louis Terman and Henry Herbert Goddard provided an additional means whereby supposedly “inferior” elements could be identified. Goddard, author of The Kallikak Family (1912), tested the IQ’s of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. He claimed that 84% of them were feeble-minded.

Princeton psychologist Carl Brigham, likewise, thought that the extensive IQ testing of Army draftees during World War 1 conclusively proved that the Nordics (Ripley’s Teutons) were more intelligent on average than the Mediterranean, Alpine and Negro types. “At bottom”, Leonard avers, “eugenics was based on the fear of inferiority, of being inundated from without, or of suffering degeneration from within” (page 114). This fear is perfectly captured by the title of Lothrop Stoddard’s influential tome The Rising Tide of Colour Against White World Supremacy (1920). 

The Dillingham Commission (1907-1910) was set up by Congress to investigate the putative effects of immigration on American workers’ wages and employment. Its 300 staff members studied 3 million immigrants, no less. In due course, it produced forty-one volumes of diverse material, including material pertaining to head shape and criminality. As the author observes, Jeremiah Jenks, Professor of Economics at Cornell, profoundly influenced the Commission’s work. His assumption from the outset was that Nordics (aka Anglo-Saxons or Teutons) were intellectually superior and much more assimilable.

The Commission’s 1910 report thus “added its political and scientific authority to the anti-immigrant cause” (page 149), a cause in which Progressive economists and other social scientists had played such a prominent part. It included a Dictionary of Races and Peoples, written by anthropologist Daniel Folkmar which endeavoured, with little success, to resolve the “different and conflicting taxonomies of European peoples” (page 150). These difficulties notwithstanding, racially undesirable aliens, as defined by the Commission, were in due course excluded by the Immigration Act of 1917. This imposed a literacy test devised by progressive economist Edward Bemis (and strongly supported by Jenks) to exclude most of the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

Dr Leonard has an exemplary grasp of the heterogeneous nature of social Darwinism. As he observes, there was “something in Darwin for everyone” (page 89), even for Sir Francis Galton’s biographer Karl Pearson, a self-styled socialist. However, his (Leonard’s) suggestion (page 115) that “all eugenicists…were illiberal” is incorrect. Galton was the undisputed founder of eugenics and he introduced the term in his 1883 book Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. Yet Galton invariably emphasised positive eugenic measures, such as the provision of monetary incentives to encourage eugenic marriages. He is not responsible for the coercive measures, notably compulsory sterilisation, that were enacted in the United States and Nazi Germany. This caveat aside, Illiberal Reformers is a tour de force.

Construction of the Statue of Liberty, in Paris

DR LESLIE JONES is the Editor of QR

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1 Response to Enlightened Despots

  1. David Ashton says:

    Much of this book retreads old ground. There has been a continual huge avalanche of publications – books, monographs and articles – during the past five decades or so attacking biological anthropology, western immigration control and eugenics, often repeating the same facts, and falsehoods, with an increasing reference to “The Holocaust”. Is there reason to suspect a method in this madness?

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