The “Submerged Tenth”—The American Eugenics Program, 1900-1940
On May 2, 1927, the United States Supreme Court allowed the state of Virginia to forcibly sterilize a teenage girl. Carrie Buck, a 17-year-old native of Charlottesville, Virginia, had committed no crime, nor did she suffer from any disease requiring such treatment. Despite school records showing her to be a “very good” student, she had been declared “feebleminded” by a local justice of the peace. Virginia had decided it could not tolerate any more “social refuse,” and as the daughter of a woman recently convicted of prostitution and similar “feeblemindedness,” Carrie’s tainted genes would have to be cut off. Writing for the court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. ruled it would be better to sever Carrie’s fallopian tubes now than to wait for her “imbecile” children to starve themselves or be executed for crimes later. Enforced sterilization became the law of the land.1
Holmes’ decision delighted an elite group of Americans committed to a new field of study called “eugenics.” From the Greek expression for “well-born,” eugenics was devoted to the creation of a new superrace of human beings. To people at the turn of the twentieth century, this idea was more than science fiction; it was a compelling solution to a widely recognized problem. Between 1890 and 1920, some 18 million immigrants had arrived on America’s shores—“German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, Russian Jews, Slavic Orthodox—one tired, poor, huddled mass after another.”2 Looking with horror on the rising numbers of immigrants, America’s social and economic elite saw a threat to their own dominance. The answer, of course, was to minimize the number of children born to these inferior families and to maximize the children born to the superior, the well-born, the “eugenic.”
America’s eugenics program was spearheaded by Charles Davenport, a Harvard-educated descendant of New England Congregationalist ministers. An unyielding racist, Davenport was convinced that every non-white race was marked by certain genetic defects, which would infallibly be passed on to their children. To counter this, he enlisted in the cause of “natural selection,” attempting to hasten the “survival of the fittest.”
To further his eugenic dream, Davenport assembled a coalition of highly respected people and institutions. With sizeable grants from the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the widow of railroad magnate E. H. Harriman, Davenport oversaw a complex of eugenic agencies at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, New York. One of those agencies, the Eugenics Record Office, was founded to register the genetic backgrounds of all Americans, separate the defective lineages from the desirable ones, and identify the least intelligent, least industrious, least valuable 10% of the American population. This “submerged tenth” (or lower tenth) would then be subjected to various eugenic procedures to terminate their bloodlines.3
Davenport and his eugenicist colleagues identified ten classes of “socially unfit” people: the “feebleminded,” paupers, alcoholics, criminals (no matter how petty), epileptics, the insane, the constitutionally weak, those disposed to certain diseases, the deformed, and those with defective sense organs (the deaf, blind, and mute). Ultimately, the eugenicists’ designs went beyond the particular individuals to the person’s extended family. Said one eugenicist leader: “[W]e have to go up higher into the upper strata, and find out which families are reproducing these degenerates. The remedy lies in drying up the source . . . These people, and the family stocks that produce them . . . must be cut off and prevented from reproducing at all.”4
Davenport and his colleagues enjoyed considerable success. By the time of the Buck decision in 1927, twenty-three states had enacted mandatory sterilization laws. Governor (and future U.S. President) Woodrow Wilson had signed New Jersey’s in 1911. Nevertheless, before the Buck case, only around 6,000 state-sanctioned sterilizations or castrations were recorded. After Buck, the number grew to about 60,000.5
American eugenicists never agitated for the actual execution of social “undesirables,” but the ideology for this horror was in place. Within a few years, Nazi death camps were exterminating millions of human beings, citing American “research” as their scientific and moral precedent. It has been said, “No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help the weak.” The history of the eugenics movement teaches that no nation stoops so low as when it views the weak with contempt and resentment.
Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), 108-121.
Ibid., 52, 19.
Ibid., 63-85, 122-123, 398.
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article adapted from Kairos Jouranl
First Baptist Church of Perryville is located at 4800 W. Pulaski Hwy., Perryville, MD, one and a half miles east of Rt. 222.