Memory & Action
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Memory & Action

An Obsession with Preservation

The complex legacy of Madison Grant

In his seminal book, The Passing of the Great Race, American eugenicist Madison Grant warned the superior “Nordic races” from northern and western Europe were headed toward racial suicide. To control the growth of “inferior” races, he advocated for governments to be able to forcibly sterilize people against their will and other extreme measures. The book’s theories were influential in 1916 and still have an impact more than a century later. Eugenics influenced Nazi “racial science,” the United States’s immigration quota restrictions, and rhetoric used by today’s white supremacists.

Like many historical figures, Grant has a complicated legacy as a conservationist and eugenicist, which is explored in the new PBS documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust.

Born in 1865 to a wealthy family in New York City, Grant was a lawyer who traveled in elite circles, and was a friend to several presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt. His obituary, published in the New York Times in 1937, describes his larger-than-life persona as “a big game enthusiast, an organizer of the American Bison Society, originator of one of the finest park systems in this country, an author of many books and a eugenicist of note.”

He was also known for co-founding the Save the Redwoods League, which still exists today. Grant also helped to found the Bronx Zoo and is credited as a pioneer of the field of wildlife management.

However, his obsession with preservation did not stop with the environment and wildlife. Grant took his knowledge about nature and conservation and “applied it to human beings,” said Dr. Rebecca Erbelding, historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Just two years before he turned his attention to the redwoods, Grant published The Passing of the Great Race in 1916. In it, he espouses false theories of racial science and makes a case for trying to preserve and propagate the elite “Nordic race,” which he describes as: “characterized by certain unique specializations, namely, wavy brown or blond hair and blue, gray or light brown eyes, fair skin, high, narrow and straight nose, which are associated with great stature … .”

One of the groups he pits against this “Nordic” ideal are Jews, and he is particularly concerned about Jewish immigrants. In his book he describes them as a threat: “ The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners just as he is to-day being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews.”

To preserve the “Nordic race” he writes, “Man has the choice of two methods of race improvement. He can breed from the best or he can eliminate the worst by segregation or sterilization.”

Although Grant was not alone in promoting eugenics at the time, “he was a public intellectual, and his connections gave his theories credence they might not otherwise have had. He’s not the only one saying this, but he’s one of the loudest and he’s one of the most influential,” Erbelding said.

A continent away, another individual took notice: Adolf Hitler, who owned a German translation of Grant’s book. In Hitler’s Private Library, Dr. Timothy W. Ryback explains the deep impression The Passing of the Great Race left on Hitler: “Here Hitler found unbridled racist sentiment to equal anything he could muster, advanced by a man who was a graduate of Yale with a law degree from Columbia and had been assigned by the U.S. government to determine its quotas on foreign immigration.” Ryback adds that Hitler’s speeches throughout the 1920s and 1930s have allusions to Grant.

Lawmakers in the United States also took note of Grant and reflected his ideas in anti-immigration legislation. As vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, Grant lobbied for the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which sharply reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the country and set quotas based on national origin. It favored England and northern Europe and set much lower quotas for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who had made up the majority of more recent immigration. The new law reflected anti-Catholic, antisemitic sentiment in the country. This system hindered the ability of Jews escaping Nazi persecution to immigrate and remained in force until 1965.

Within the United States, another consequence of eugenics theories being popularized by Grant and others was the legalized forced sterilization of at least 60,000 people. A Supreme Court decision in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell upheld Virginia’s inhumane forced sterilization law. Virginia’s law, and similar laws passed by dozens of other states, targeted people deemed by the state and by doctors to be “genetically unfit.” Many poor people of color became victims of these laws, which were often in place for decades.

In part because of its connection to Nazism, eugenics lost its popularity in the 1930s. However, its racist legacy and pseudoscience remains, and appears today as “replacement theory,” the false idea that immigrants or minorities are conspiring with Jews to “replace” white America. This hateful theory tragically motivated a young man to target patrons of a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, earlier this year. “This ‘racial science’ is based in prejudice, and it doesn’t have to be provable [for people to believe it]. And even when it’s disproved, people still believe it, because it’s not based on anything real,” said Erbelding, who hosted a Museum program on this called the Foot Soldiers of White Supremacy.

Within the environmentalist movement, some leaders have made strides to distance themselves from the harm of Grant’s theories, while illuminating the contributions of Grant and his fellow leaders of the Save the Redwoods League.

“Though we value their conservation efforts, we fully reject their racist ideology. Today all visitors are welcome to experience these majestic redwoods.”

— Signage at the California State Parks Redwood Groves

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