In the American eugenics movement of the first third of the 20th Century, racial ideology played a much greater role than in the class-based eugenics of Galton and his British disciples. Nativism was the belief that “the United States should be preserved for the Anglo-Saxon race, of Protestant faith and traditional American values” (Engs, 2005, 155). Even before eugenics became an organized focus for social activism and ‘scientific’ study in America, the Nativist movement had attracted much support in conservative Anglo-Saxon Protestant quarters, particularly in the densely populated urban areas of the Eastern Seaboard, and especially in metropolitan New York. Nordicism (a belief in the inherent superiority of the ‘Nordic’ or Anglo-Saxon race) was a closely related expression of this racial/religious bias that became popular in Continental Europe in the latter part of the 19th Century, particularly in anthropology circles (Hannaford, 1996). It was eagerly imported to America (eg. Ripley, 1899) and further developed there (eg. Grant, 1916), before reaching its ultimate expression in Nazi Germany under the alias of “Aryanism” (Adams, 1990; Black, 2003).
What was the Nativist Movement?
The Nativist movement in the United States was a reactionary response to decades of unrestricted immigration and especially to the demographic shift of the ‘new immigrants’ after the 1830s, away from Anglo-Saxon, Protestant north-western Europe, first to largely Celtic, Catholic Ireland, and then later to eastern and southern Europe. The newcomer Irish Catholics (as opposed to the vaunted Nordic ‘Scotch-Irish’ of the Protestant North) were charged with being ‘aliens’ more loyal to their Pope (leading to the disparaging term ‘Papists’ for Catholics), than to America and its Republican traditions. Long-standing religious conflicts, alien ethnic customs, and a resistance to quick assimilation in the American ‘melting pot’ marked the Irish as a popular target of American Nativists. A popular illustration of early American Nativism was featured in Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, personified by the character of Bill the Butcher (superbly played by Daniel Day Lewis). The conflict portrayed in the film between the street enforcers of the Nativist ‘American Party’ and the gang of Irish immigrants led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, was just the first stage of this multi-generational conflict. This antipathy was extended to the later waves of immigrating Italians, Greeks, Poles, Russians and eastern Jews who formed the bulk of the “new immigrants” after the American Civil War and beyond (Kraut, 1982). Another popular expression of Nativist elitism was the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) founded in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War (as well as a rival Confederate group), with both groups restricting membership to white, Protestant women whose American ancestry could be traced back to pre-Revolutionary times.
Eugenics and Nativist (or Nordicist) Movement
The original leaders of the American eugenics movement were almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) of “old-stock American” descent, who could trace their ancestry back to the Puritans or other early colonists of the pioneer-era. This exclusivity was widespread in the leadership of American eugenics organizations, but especially the elite Galton Society of America (1918-1939), whose members had to present family pedigrees proving their pure Nordic ancestry (Engs, 2005; Spiro, 2009). The premier leaders of the Nordicist faction included the ‘Dean’ of American anthropology, Henry Fairfield Osborn; establishment lawyer and aristocrat Madison Grant; and popular writer of racial alarmism, Lothrop Stoddard. This faction held sway in organized American eugenics until the Great Depression pre-empted the progressive-era. Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race (1916), was perhaps the best expression of their Nordicist ideology, and served as a key ideological bridge to the Aryanism of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy (Black, 2003; Spiro, 2009). Race-based Nordicist eugenics gained some support in Canada, particularly among the American immigrants coming to southern Alberta and British Columbia, and supporters became allied with the old-stock British establishment (see Harris, 1929, for an expression of this milder form of Anglo-Saxon supremacy). But Nordicism in Canada never achieved the popularity as in the highly urbanized Eastern Seaboard, especially considering the dire need for pioneers and homesteaders on Canada’s vast, sparsely settled prairie regions. It was not a major social force, outside the confines of the few cities like Vancouver that had significant non-White populations (see Godwin, 1928).
The Nordicist Program in America Not surprisingly, given its origins, restricting or eliminating the immigration of non-Nordics (the ‘Alpines’ and Slavs of eastern-Europe and the ‘Mediterranean race’ of southern-Europe) was the primary focus of the Nativist/Nordicist faction. Shortly before WW I, organized efforts to restrict the flood of “new immigrants” to America took-on the tone of a racial crusade. Starting in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson (Democrat, 1913-1921) vetoed proposed immigration-restriction Bills that were designed to preserve America as a ‘civilization preserve’ for the Nordic Race. With the election of a new Republican majority government (Harding/Coolidge) in late 1920, nativist efforts gained momentum. The lobbying and organizational efforts of the Immigration Restriction League, allied with eugenics groups and many prominent WASP leaders, were successful by 1921 when a temporary ‘emergency’ quota system was established, limiting annual immigration from each country of origin to three-percent of its American population in the 1910 census (Engs, 2005, 126). This was further strengthened with the permanent Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which also moved the base-year for the quota back to 1890, greatly favoring the earlier immigration pattern dominated by the Anglo-Saxon regions of north-western Europe, and further curtailing migration from southern or eastern Europe. This law was not fully repealed until 1965. The Nordicists, spearheaded by Madison Grant, continued throughout the 1920s to push for further restriction of immigration, including compulsory medical/psychological inspections in the country of origin, and even for using the ‘Beta’ group intelligence tests for illiterates, designed for the U.S. Army in WW I by a prominent group of Nordicist psychologists (Brigham, 1923; Spiro, 2009). Immigration to America plunged in the 1930s, due to the Great Depression.
Conclusion The adoption of certain elements of American Nordicist racial ideology by Hitler and the Nazi regime has been well chronicled by numerous scholars, including Black (2003), and Spiro (2009). At first, the eugenic and racial-hygiene laws of the new Nazi government, based on American models, were admired and praised by the hardliners of the American movement, especially for their sweeping scope, rapid enactment and quick action that surpassed the long-standing efforts of American initiatives. However, the deaths of stalwarts like H.F. Osborn (1935) and Madison Grant (1937), and the hard realization that America would soon be drawn into another European war against Germany made any overt Nordicist sentiments a definite liability to the American eugenics movement. After WW II and the revelations of the Nuremburg Trials, the new leaders of the American Eugenics Society, like Frederick Osborn (nephew of H.F. Osborn), purged the agenda and propaganda of its explicit Nativist or Nordicist roots and rhetoric. Traces of Nordicism remained in the programs of various neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and other white-supremacist groups – but their main targets were now people of colour, rather than the non-Nordic Caucasian focus of the Nativists of the ‘progressive’ period (Smith, 1993).
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