Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics

Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics

by Douglas C. Baynton

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Immigration history has largely focused on the restriction of immigrants by race and ethnicity, overlooking disability as a crucial factor in the crafting of the image of the  “undesirable immigrant.” Defectives in the Land, Douglas C. Baynton’s groundbreaking new look at immigration and disability, aims to change this.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Baynton explains, immigration restriction in the United States was primarily intended to keep people with disabilities—known as “defectives”—out of the country. The list of those included is long: the deaf, blind, epileptic, and mobility impaired; people with curved spines, hernias, flat or club feet, missing limbs, and short limbs; those unusually short or tall; people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities; intersexuals; men of “poor physique” and men diagnosed with “feminism.” Not only were disabled individuals excluded, but particular races and nationalities were also identified as undesirable based on their supposed susceptibility to mental, moral, and physical defects.

In this transformative book, Baynton argues that early immigration laws were a cohesive whole—a decades-long effort to find an effective method of excluding people considered to be defective. This effort was one aspect of a national culture that was increasingly fixated on competition and efficiency, anxious about physical appearance and difference, and haunted by a fear of hereditary defect and the degeneration of the American race.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226364339
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/12/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Douglas C. Baynton is professor of history at the University of Iowa, where he also teaches courses in the American Sign Language program. He is the author of Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language, also published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Iowa.

Read an Excerpt

Defectives in the Land

Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics

By Douglas C. Baynton

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-36433-9



Selection is a fraught word for people with disabilities. Such terms as "prenatal selection," "selective reproduction," and "genetic selection" raise the specter of disability de selection based on normative assumptions about what constitutes "a good life" or "a life worth living." Reproductive selection today is generally framed as an individual choice (although some ethicists maintain that it is an illusion that these kinds of decisions could exist apart from social norms and pressures). Eugenicists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, frankly advocated reproductive selection as a collective decision, to be made at the state or national level, carried out by social pressure and persuasion when possible and by coercion when not. They advanced normative assumptions as scientific fact, confidently categorized human beings into types according to their economic and social value, and regarded the elimination of what they termed "defectives" as common sense.

The intentional improvement of animal stock, what today is usually referred to as "breeding," in the nineteenth century was termed "selection." It was because of the familiarity of the term that Charles Darwin settled on "natural selection" to describe the means by which evolutionary change occurred. Although he worried that the term was "in some respects a bad one, as it seems to imply conscious choice," he believed that its utility as an explanatory device outweighed that disadvantage because "it brings into connection the production of domestic races by man's power of selection, and the natural preservation of varieties and species in a state of nature."

If Darwin began with selection as practiced by animal breeders to introduce the concept of natural selection, eugenicists went in the opposite direction, using natural selection to clarify the necessity of artificially selecting human stock. Natural selection, they explained, ruthlessly eliminated weaknesses and defects in nature, but under the conditions of modern civilization was defanged and declawed. Darwin himself had noted that we "we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws," and as a result "the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind." He attributed these actions, however, to "the noblest part of our nature," and avowed that "to neglect the weak and helpless" would gain merely "a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil." Therefore "we must bear without complaining" the weakest among us "surviving and propagating their kind." To bear without complaining was not part of the eugenicist creed, however. Although actively preventing the survival of the weak was a line most (if not all) eugenicists were disinclined to cross, allowing them to propagate their kind was a different matter, and eugenicists believed that they had tools of selection at hand that were both ethical and practical.

Eugenics was primarily a nationalistic project. Although eugenicists spoke about both the right of the individual to be "well-born" and the imperative that humanity progress, most of their attention focused on the middle ground of the nation. In the United States, as in many other countries, eugenicists carried on a passionate, decades-long debate over the most efficacious and least costly methods of selection for preserving and enhancing "a superior national race." When Henry Fairfield Osborn, Columbia University professor of zoology, wrote to the New York Evening Journal in 1911 to advocate more stringent inspection of immigrants, his opening line — "As a biologist as well as a patriot ..." — perfectly captured the intersection of eugenics and nationalism.

Eugenic selection of worthy citizens occurred along two main tracks. The one most vividly associated in the public imagination with the eugenics movement was the curtailment of reproduction by undesirable citizens through institutionalization, sterilization, marriage laws, and public education campaigns — fitter family and better baby contests, school and college courses, and a steady stream of articles, books, and sermons. Although federal courts became involved from time to time, this aspect of the eugenics movement was carried out mostly at the state and local level. There was, however, another "field in which the federal government must cooperate," wrote Harry Laughlin, director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, "if the human breeding stock in our population is to be purged of its defective parenthood." That field, the other main track of eugenic selection, was the restriction of immigration by means of screening immigrants for defects.

Immigration restriction via selection was the most unambiguous expression of eugenic nationalism. Advocates of institutionalization and sterilization could include among their professed motives altruistic ones: to shelter vulnerable people, relieve parents of terrible burdens, prevent lives of presumed misery, and foster human progress. The popular writer Albert Wiggam was certain that Jesus, were he to return in the present day, would update the golden rule in light of modern eugenic science: "Do unto both the born and the unborn as you would have both the born and the unborn do unto you." Eugenicists were humanitarians, according to a pamphlet from the American Eugenics Society, who did not have "less sympathy for the unfortunate" but rather wished "to alleviate their suffering, by seeing to it that everything possible is done to have fewer hereditary defectives." The sociologist Charles Henderson believed that the state had an obligation to the "unfit" to actively "prevent their propagation of defects and thus the perpetuation of their misery in their offspring." Harry Laughlin maintained that the "sum total of human freedom and human happiness will be greatly promoted [by] the elimination of degenerate and handicapped strains." The physician Harry Haiselden claimed to advocate and practice the euthanasia of disabled infants because he "loves them," death being for them "the kindest mercy." In contrast to these supposed ethical and moral obligations to segregate and sterilize, protecting the nation from defective immigrants, on the other hand, was never plausibly defensible as beneficial either to the individuals affected or to humanity at large. It promised only to keep defectives where they were: elsewhere.

Institutionalization and sterilization, moreover, affected a subset of disabled people, mainly those who fell into the categories of mentally or morally defective, and of those a minority. Deaf individuals were occasionally institutionalized, but because they were mistakenly thought to be mentally defective, not on account of their deafness. People whose physical disabilities were rooted in brain disorders such as cerebral palsy and epilepsy were also sometimes institutionalized and sterilized as mental defectives. Proposals for state eugenic marriage laws occasionally included deaf, blind, and otherwise physically disabled people, but these did not become law in any state. Those that did become law, beginning with Connecticut in 1896, targeted persons considered to be mental and moral defectives.

Immigration restrictions, by contrast, eventually encompassed virtually all varieties of disability. While mental and moral defects were considered the most serious and were mandatorily excluded under the law, a person with a disability of any kind was subject to heightened scrutiny and could be turned away on that basis. The idea that immigration policies should be based on eugenic principles was broadly popular. The Portland Oregonian, for example, headlined a story on the immigration service in 1913, "Government Stands as 'Doctor of Eugenics' at Portals of Nation," and touted the "marvelous system of practical eugenics" being put into action by immigrant officials who "have made practical eugenics a daily study." Americans "concerned about the maintenance and improvement of the mental and physical well-being of our race," the American Eugenics Society declared in 1914, were "turning more and more to the regulation of immigration as one of the most obvious means of accomplishing this purpose."

The central task of immigrant medical inspection was to uncover defects, which potentially included any unwanted deviation from what was considered normal — mentally, morally, or physically. A defect might be a straightforward and visible impairment or an ill-defined degeneracy that manifested itself indirectly in multifarious ways — crime, illicit sexuality, or poverty, for instance. Defects of the body, mind, and moral sense were understood as deeply interconnected, which was what made them so worrisome. Eugene Talbot, a prominent Chicago surgeon and professor of medicine, for example, wrote in 1898 that most "crime is hereditary, a tendency which is, in most cases, associated with bodily defect, such as spinal deformities, stammering or other imperfect speech, club-foot, cleft-palate, hare-lip, deformed jaws and teeth, deaf-mutism, congenital blindness, paralysis, epilepsy, and scrofula." George Lydston, a professor of medicine and criminal anthropology, went further and argued in 1904 that "defective physique" was not merely associated with criminality but a crucial factor "in the causation of crime," and reminded his readers of the "old adage, mens sana in corpore sano." Francis Galton, originator of the term "eugenics," in 1905 advocated issuing eugenic certificates for "goodness of constitution, of physique, and of mental capacity," emphasizing that these were by no means "independent variables." The nation's most famous physical educator, Dudley Sargent, in 1909 made the claim that "criminals, dullards, and the mentally defective" were all known to possess "very poor physiques." And the director of an institution for the feebleminded warned in 1909 that "every imbecile, especially the high-grade (or brighter) imbecile, is a potential criminal, needing only the proper environment and opportunity for the development and expression of his criminal tendencies." Immigration officials shared these assumptions. An Ellis Island physician in 1906 warned that "there is to be expected in the case of poor physique, as an accompaniment of signs of physical degeneracy, some abnormality in the individual's mental and moral makeup."

Given the inchoate understanding of heredity, which even as late as the 1930s often included neo-Lamarckian ideas about the inheritance of acquired characteristics, defects were assumed to be not only heritable but also mutable, manifesting themselves in varied forms and having disastrous effects on succeeding generations. The term for this phenomenon was "degeneracy," the tendency of defects to persist across generations, to mutate and metastasize, such that a mild defect might within several generations become a thoroughly corrupted nature. What was termed "moral imbecility," an "absence of the moral sense often as complete as is the absence of sight in the blind," was routinely associated with other defects: "Its influence in heredity is far-reaching, liable to reappear in its own or in another form of defect." Imbecility in all its forms had a "permeating, penetrating, disintegrating power" and was "at once the most insidious and the most aggressive of degenerative forces; attacking alike the physical, mental and moral nature, enfeebling the judgment and will, while exaggerating the sexual impulses." An 1891 Boston Medical and Surgical Journal editorial could state without fear of being contradicted that "physical degeneracy is now known to go hand-in-hand with mental and moral degeneracy." This was the critical threat to the nation that immigration restriction was meant to combat. The question was not merely whether the present generation of immigrants would make less desirable citizens, but whether they would degrade the quality of future generations of Americans.

Selection and Restriction

Historians have given relatively little attention to the significance of "defect" and "selection" in the history of immigration policy. The early years of immigration law are often divided into two phases: a selective phase starting with the Immigration Act of 1882 (with the Chinese Exclusion Act of that same year often cited as an exception to the general trend), and a restrictive phase beginning either in 1917 with the passage of a literacy test or in 1921 with the first national quotas. The first phase is described as intended to screen out undesirable individuals, mainly those with physical, mental, and moral defects; the second, to target racial or ethnic groups and reduce the level of immigration overall. Selective laws are often minimized or depicted as reasonable efforts to protect the nation from harm, while the term "selection" is treated as transparent and straightforward, its charged significance in the rhetoric of eugenics overlooked. Restrictive laws, by contrast, are treated as more momentous, condemned as motivated by racism, nativism, and eugenics and subjected to far more critical inquiry.

Philip Taylor, for example, explained that despite agitation against unrestricted immigration, "very little was done" until national quotas were instituted in the 1920s; until that time, the laws "could reasonably be defended by arguments about anti-social behavior of a rather obvious kind, or physical and mental defects disqualifying the immigrant from any effective share in American life." Roger Daniels wrote that "by 1917 the immigration policy of the United States had been restricted in seven major ways," affecting Asians, criminals, violators of moral standards, persons with diseases, paupers, radicals, and illiterates. Disability was absent from a similar list by Walter Ong Hing, who wrote that over the course of American history, "exclusionist rationales have been codified reflecting negative views toward particular races or nationalities, political views (e.g., Communists or anarchists), religions (e.g., Catholics, Jews, Muslims), or social groups (e.g., illiterates, homosexuals)."

So much greater significance has been attributed to the national quota laws of the 1920s that the preceding four decades of restrictive laws at times virtually disappear from view. Categorical statements are not difficult to find: "In May 1921 the era of open immigration to the United States came to an abrupt end"; it was "1924 when free and open immigration ended"; "immigration policy was famously open until the 1920s, when eugenics arrived with a vengeance"; and "1924 marked both the end of one era, that of open immigration from Europe, and the beginning of a new one, the era of immigration restriction." A chapter in a document collection on immigration is titled "Limited Naturalization, Unlimited Immigration — 1880 to 1920." One study suggested that "because race was so important to the original opponents to immigration, policymakers used racially motivated national quotas to restrict immigration," which makes sense only if the preceding laws are said to have been, as in this work, "symbolic."

This period of ostensibly free, open, and unlimited immigration began in 1882 (following passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, as historians of Asian immigration have often pointed out, was undoubtedly restrictive) by mandating the exclusion of any "lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge" (which applied to persons with physical disabilities). Determining the capacity for self-support was up to immigration officials, although their scope for judgment was narrowed in 1891 when "likely to become a public charge" became the criterion, and further still in 1907 when officials were directed to exclude anyone having a "mental or physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living." So-called lunatics and idiots were joined in 1903 by epileptics, as well as those who had been "insane within five years previous" or had experienced "two or more attacks of insanity at any time," and in 1907 by "imbeciles" and "feeble-minded persons." In 1917 Congress thought it prudent to consider one previous "attack" of insanity sufficient cause, and to add people of "constitutional psychopathic inferiority," meaning the "various unstable individuals on the border line between sanity and insanity, such as moral imbeciles, pathological liars, many of the vagrants and cranks, and persons with abnormal sex instincts." Harry Laughlin approvingly called it a "scrap-basket" category that "implied poor stock in the family [and] degeneracy." Inspection regulations that year directed the exclusion of those with "any mental abnormality whatever" as well as "aliens of a mentally inferior type."


Excerpted from Defectives in the Land by Douglas C. Baynton. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Defective
2 Handicapped
3 Dependent
4 Ugly


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