The 1926 case Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes is a favorite liberal American story. On one side, a substitute accused of teaching evolution, the famed progressive attorney Clarence Darrow, and science itself. On the other, the state of Tennessee, creationism, and the populist demagogue William Jennings Bryan, who by the end of the trial was only days from death. Scopes lost the battle, but reason and progress won the war and the film adaptation. The Scopes Monkey Trial, as it was called, is a progressive touchstone, and in the minds of many it continues to describe the difference between the two mainstream American political ideologies.
When one revisits the primary material, however, the mainstream liberal narrative is far too simple. Jennings Bryan railed against evolution, true, but not just evolution as we understand the theory today. His never-delivered closing statement indicted the “dogma of darkness and death” as a danger to the country’s moral fabric. It sounds far out, but at the time evolution came with a social agenda that its proponents taught as fact. Jennings Bryan didn’t use its name; today, we call it eugenics.
Scopes was charged for teaching from a textbook called A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, published in 1914. The book taught Darwin’s doctrine as fact, but it didn’t leave his conclusions there. The author, George William Hunter, not only asserted the biological difference of races, he insisted on the vital importance of what he called “the science of being well born”—eugenics. Like most progressives of the time, Hunter believed in “the improvement of man” via scientific methods. That meant promoting personal hygiene, proper diet, and reproductive control. A Civic Biology also has suggestions for what to do with “bad-gened” people, in a section called “The Remedy.” “If such people were lower animals,” the books says, “we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity would not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe.”
The textbook was wrong, both about degenerate genes and humanity’s near-term tolerance for genocide. Read between the twin specters of human engineering, The Holocaust and the American slave-breeding industry—the abolition of which was younger than Jennings Bryan—the warning in his closing argument seems not only warranted, but prophetic:
Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm-tossed human vessels. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed, but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo.
“Some of its unproven hypotheses rob the slip of its compass and thus endanger its cargo” is a near-perfect criticism of evolutionary theory and the era’s progressive thought as a whole. And if today’s liberals were to revisit their ideological foundations with some attention, they might not like what they see.
I was prompted to revisit the Scopes trial—which, like many Americans, I hadn’t thought about since an 11th grade history final—by a new book from Princeton scholar Thomas C. Leonard. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era is hard to classify politically. Conservatives can find a lot to like in Leonard’s research, and at times it feels like a serious, credentialed version of Jonah Goldberg’s screed Liberal Fascism. Among his revelations: The minimum wage was created to destroy jobs; progressives (including the founders of this magazine) really did hate small businesses and they were all way too enthusiastic about Germany’s social structure. But Leonard’s personal politics are hard to read, and at the very least he’s invested in progressivism, writing that it’s “too important to be left to hagiography and obloquy.”
The illiberal reformers of Leonard’s title are the first generation of American economists, born between 1850 and 1870. Late nineteenth-century tycoons, their hearts full of social gospel and their pockets full of other people’s labor, founded colleges like Cornell, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, The University of Chicago, and Vanderbilt. These new schools weren’t bound to the classical curricula of their New England predecessors, and they prioritized practical research and creating experts. They promoted the study of “political economy”—“economics” by 1900—and the discipline took academia by storm.
The first generation of American economists were not laissez-faire capitalists, as an observer might reasonably imagine based on the current state of the field. In fact, they were anything but. “As Christians they judged laissez faire to be morally unsound,” Leonard writes, “and as economists they declared it functionally obsolete.” The British (think Adam Smith) model was unsuited for the era of railroads, labor unions, and scientific management. They much preferred the German idea of society as a single organism. Granted the premise that individuals were shaped by the nation and not the other way around, progressive economists had to decide who would run the country. These people had to be unbiased, scientific, brilliant, and out for the public good. The progressive economists decided on themselves.
In the early twentieth century, progressives displayed an open contempt for individual rights. In a 1915 unsigned editorial at this magazine, the editors ridiculed the Bill of Rights as a joke. “They insist upon invoking abstract principles, instead of trying to determine for concrete cases whether social control should supersede individual initiative…how can we discuss that seriously?” The doctrine of natural rights will “prevent us from imposing a social ideal.” The progressives were able to unite idealism and pragmatism via science and the administrative state. What good was democracy if people voted against their collective interest? What expertise did the average American have in managing a state or a race? Black Americans in particular could not be trusted with the ballot. “The progressive goal was to improve the electorate,” Leonard writes, “not necessarily to expand it.” Jim Crow laws suppressed turnout in the South, but it fell in the North as well. New York state’s participation went from 88 percent in 1900 to 55 percent in 1920.
It’s impossible to understand early twentieth-century progressives without eugenics. Even worker-friendly reforms like the minimum wage were part of a racial hygiene agenda. The progressives believed male Anglo-Saxons were the most productive workers, but immigrants and women were willing to accept lower wages and displaced white men. Capitalism was getting in the way of human improvement, promoting inferior genes for near-term profits. “Competition has no respect for the superior races,” Leonard quotes the economist John R. Commons on Jews. “The race with lowest necessities displaces others.” Commons found common cause with the xenophobic wing of the organized labor movement.
The minimum wage, in addition to providing some workers with a better standard of living, would guard white men from competition. Leonard is worth reading at length:
A legal minimum wage, applied to immigrants and those already working in America, ensured that only the productive workers were employed. The economically unproductive, those whose labor was worth less than the legal minimum, would be denied entry, or, if already employed, would be idled. For economic reformers who regarded inferior workers as a threat, the minimum wage provided an invaluable service. It identified inferior workers by idling them. So identified, they could be dealt with. The unemployable would be removed to institutions, or to celibate labor colonies. The inferior immigrant would be removed back to the old country or to retirement. The woman would be removed to the home, where she could meet her obligations to family and race.
If Leonard didn’t have the quotes from prominent progressives to back up his claims, this would read like right-wing paranoia: The state’s most innocuous protections reframed as malevolent and ungodly social engineering. But his citations are genuine. Charles Cooley, a founding member of American Sociological Association, warned that providing health care and nutrition for black Americans could be “dysgenic” if not accompanied by population control. The eugenicists weren’t just dreaming: Between 1900 and the early 1980s, over 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized under the law.
To bring right-wing fears full circle, the progressive Supreme Court of 1927 (including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis) ruled 8-1 in Buck v. Bell that forced sterilization was constitutional. Holmes wrote that, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.” The lone dissent was Justice Pierce Butler, a conservative critic of state intervention, devout Catholic, and one of nine children born to poor Irish immigrants. Butler never wrote his opinion, and the Court has never expressly overruled Buck.
It’s difficult to suss out exactly what the lessons of Illiberal Reformers are for our present moment. Today’s Democratic Party is no opponent of free trade, small businesses, or individual ambition. Contemporary progressives probably wouldn’t recognize themselves in their predecessors except as through a Fox News funhouse mirror. Conservative Christians might be heartened by Jennings Bryan and Butler’s resistance to infernal pseudoscience, but they and their ilk found other—often “Godly”—inspiration for racism. The Scopes bedtime story dispelled, there’s no good guy left in the history book.