White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)
DEGENERATION OF THE AMERICAN BREED
Thoroughbreds and Scalawags
Bloodlines and Bastard Stock in the Age of Eugenics
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… . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
—Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Buck v. Bell (1927)
In 1909, at the National Negro Congress in New York City, W. E. B. Du Bois gave a provocative speech on the reception of Darwinism in the United States. In the published version of the speech, “The Evolution of the Race Problem,” Du Bois declared that social Darwinism had found such favor in America because the very idea of “survival of the fittest” ratified the reactionary racial politics that already prevailed. The Harvard-trained scholar underscored, with more than a touch of irony, how the “splendid scientific work” of Darwin endorsed an “inevitable inequality among men and the races of men that no philanthropy ought to eliminate.” Du Bois’s argument went this way: if one accepted the racist assumption that blacks are of “inferior stock,” then it was pointless to “legislate against nature”; proving the supremacy of the white race needed no help from politicians, because any form of philanthropy would be “powerless against deficient cerebral development.”1
For the social critic Du Bois, it was one short step from the racism contained in the Americanization of Darwinian selection to the realization that white rule had corrupted the normal course of evolution. Instead of allowing the best (whether black or white) to rise, racism had actually undermined the Darwinian argument. It had not only not improved the white race, but a false hegemony had led to “the survival of some of the worst stocks of mankind.” As much as the lower class of whites remained where they had always been, one found throughout the U.S. South “efficient Negroes,” able and productive, being trampled under the heels of elected officials who supported white vigilante justice and propped up the heinous lynch law--catering to the interests of the unreconstructed white trash of the postwar South.2
Du Bois reasoned that by denying equal education across racial lines, in preventing the laws of evolution from operating freely in the South, white political hegemony had reapplied the “evils of class injustice.” White supremacy, as a thesis, lacked any basis in science, while it wreaked more and more havoc upon a perverse, fear- and hate-based class system. Despite popular claims that the white race was destined for global dominance, it was, Du Bois assured, in decline. Among the “many signs of degeneracy” was the overall reduction in birthrates. Thus any threat of white deterioration came “from within.” Yet when Democrats gained control of the southern states in 1877, after a decade of black enfranchisement, they invariably blamed Republican egalitarians for producing social chaos and triggering white downward mobility. By refusing to hold up the mirror to themselves, Du Bois contended, southern whites were failing to see their own degeneracy.3
In the larger scheme of things, Du Bois was retelling the history of Reconstruction and its aftermath. Much later, in 1935, he would expand his perspective into a full-length study. Yet in the 1909 speech he was already exposing several crucial connections. Above all, he understood how southern politics had set the stage for the dual appeal of Darwinism and the eugenics movement. Darwin’s best-known works, On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), scored big in America, as did the work of his cousin Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics.
Evolution rested on nature’s law, whereas eugenics found nature wanting. Galton’s adherents stressed the necessity for human intervention to improve the race through better breeding. Darwin himself endorsed eugenics, and he drew on the familiar trope of animal husbandry to make the case: “Man scans with scrupulous care the pedigree of his horses, cattle and dogs before he mates them; but when it comes to his marriage, he rarely, or never, takes such care.” Compare Thomas Jefferson—the wording is practically identical: “The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not that of man?” Almost as a mantra, eugenicists compared good human stock to thoroughbreds, equating the wellborn with superior ability and inherited fitness.4
Pseudoscience, masquerading as hereditary science, provided Americans with a convenient way to naturalize class and racial differences. The appeal of this language, which reached its zenith in the early twentieth century, first took hold during Reconstruction. Both Republicans, who wanted to rebuild the South in the image of the North, and Democrats, who wished to restore elite white rule, saw the grand scope of national reunion as part of a larger evolutionary struggle. And so Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” became the watchword of politicians and journalists. They invoked a vocabulary that highlighted unnatural breeding, unfit governance, and the degenerate nature of the worst stocks. At the center of the argument was the struggle that pitted poor whites against freed slaves.
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It was perhaps inevitable that poor whites would figure prominently in the debates over Reconstruction. Many northern thinkers had never for a moment bought into the old Cavalier myth of southern superiority. As one insisted in 1864, most southerners traced their lineage to the “scum of Europe,” to lowly descendants of “brothels and bridewells,” and could therefore dub themselves a “plebeian aristocracy” at best. When the patrician-led Confederacy collapsed, so did the illusion of the superior powers attached to southern refinement.5
For most Republicans, rebuilding the South meant (a) introducing a free-labor economy and (b) ensuring a loyal population. They perceived southern Unionists and freedmen as the most loyal element. The issue for Republicans was simply put: would poor whites help to transform the South into a literate society and free-market economy, or would they resist change and drag the South down?6
President Andrew Johnson contributed to the debate when he issued his plan for restoration of the Union. He included in his requirements disfranchisement of the wealthiest slaveholders, so that, as the New York Herald reported in 1865, the oligarchs of the South would be “shorn of their strength,” while—and here the newspaper underscored the class dynamic—“the ‘poor white trash’ heretofore compelled to walk behind them and to do their bidding, are made masters of the situation.” Yes, masters. Johnson expressed the same opinion in an address to a delegation from South Carolina: “While this rebellion has emancipated a great many negroes,” he said, “it has emancipated still more white men.” He would elevate the “poor white man” who struggled to till barren, sandy soil for subsistence, and who were looked down upon by the Negro and elite planter alike.7
The president imagined a three-tiered class system in the reconstructed states. The disenfranchised planter elite would keep their land and a certain social power, but would be deprived of any direct political influence until they regained the trust of Unionists. The middle ranks would be filled by a newly dominant poor white class. In exercising the vote and holding office, they would hold back the old oligarchy, while preventing a situation from arising in which they themselves would have to compete economically (or politically) with the freedmen. On the bottom tier, then, Johnson placed free blacks and freed slaves—the latter emancipated in fact, yet treated as resident aliens, bearing rights but still denied the franchise. The plan Lincoln’s unloved successor had in mind was not a “restoration” of the old order, nor did it promise to establish a democracy. Instead, it offered America something entirely original. So let us call the Johnson plan what it would have been if actually undertaken: a white trash republic.
The Tennessean decidedly saw black suffrage as a low priority. He was still intent, however, on redefining the old planter elite. Despite disfranchisement, the aristocracy retained some wealth and, just as important, the power to persuade others. They would turn their former slaves, now employees, into political pawns. This was a prospect that President Johnson looked upon with some disapproval. Yet he would undermine his own design by granting individual pardons to representatives of the former ruling elite, which he may have done because he felt he needed them to win reelection.8
Something more dangerous loomed if blacks obtained political equality. Long-standing animosities would resurface between the two lower classes in Johnson’s construct (blacks and poor whites), triggering a “war of races.” Andrew Johnson’s race war was not Thomas Jefferson’s, however. The third president had foretold a contest of annihilation brought on by universal emancipation, once liberated slaves took their place alongside their former masters; the seventeenth president was talking about a war of racial outcasts. As he saw it, the formerly dispossessed classes, one black and one white, would wage a vicious struggle for survival. Its cause: the federal imposition of universal suffrage on the southern states.9
Though Johnson soon abandoned his white trash republic, his thinking allows us to better visualize the existing spectrum of ideas about Reconstruction. It is meaningful, too, that the recently established Freedmen’s Bureau paired impoverished whites and freed people not as cutthroat adversaries, but as the worthy poor. From its inception in 1865, shortly before Lincoln’s assassination, the bureau was specifically empowered to extend relief to “all refugees, and all freedmen,” black and white. In debating the bureau’s merits, many senators agreed that the destitution of white refugees, now “beggars, dependents, houseless and homeless wanderers,” was as significant as that of the freedmen. In Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee, the bureau extended twice—and in some cases four times—as much relief to whites as to blacks; in Georgia, nearly 180,000 white refugees secured food and provisions. As Republican congressman Green Clay Smith of Kentucky noted during the debate to extend the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866, “There are a large number of white people who never owned a foot of land, who never have been in possession of any property, not even a cow or a horse, yet who have been as true and devoted loyalists as anybody else.” The problems of the South went deeper than the war itself, Smith acknowledged. The twin evils of poverty and vagrancy were a permanent fixture among the white population.10
Yet few bureau officials embraced Smith’s vision of loyal, honorable poor whites. Those who visited the refugee camps, or watched what one New York Times correspondent called the “loafing whites” in southern towns, offered little in their favor. A skeptic in New Orleans offered this droll observation: although “poor white trash” had proven themselves incapable of doing anything before the war, they had suddenly discovered a trade in “the refugee business,” by which he meant living off government handouts. In Florida, bureau agent Charles Hamilton, who later served in Congress, confessed to his superiors that freedmen were only marginally below the “white plebeians of the South” in intelligence. Widely circulated bureau reports claimed that hundreds of thousands of destitute whites lived off “Uncle Sam’s rations.” The typical recipients were women “covered in rags and filth, and a dozen greasy and dirty little ‘innocent prattlers’ in train.” Perhaps the most damning assessment came from Marcus Sterling, a Union officer turned civilian administrator. After working as a bureau agent for four years in rural Virginia, he wrote a final report in 1868. While he believed that black freedmen had made great progress, were “more settled, industrious and ambitious” as a result of federal intervention, and eager to achieve literacy with “honest pride and manly integrity,” the same could not be said of that “pitiable class of poor whites,” the “only class which seem almost unaffected by the [bureau’s] great benevolence and its bold reform.” In the race for self-reliance, poor whites seemed to many bureau agents never to have left the starting gate.11
Agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau were not alone in offering a grim prognosis for poor whites. Journalists from major newspapers headed south, sending back regular dispatches and publishing monographs for curious northern readers. Prominent articles appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Putnam’s Magazine, and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The New York Times published a series of essays on the subject: in 1866, its anonymous correspondent authored a scathing exposé of white poverty, accompanied by the innocuous title “From the South: Southern Journeyings and Jottings.” Writing for the Chicago Tribune and Boston Advertiser, the Illinois-based reporter Sidney Andrews expressed his unvarnished views of wretched whites, which he reissued as a book, The South Since the War. After having been a correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette, Whitelaw Reid compiled his unsympathetic observations in a travelogue, After the War: A Tour of the Southern States. Finally, John Trowbridge produced The South: A Tour of Its Battlefields and Ruined Cities, which focused a harsh lens on rural whites.12
All of the above were published in the single year of 1866. Yet one of the most talked-about books in those wobbly years came out before the war had officially ended. Down in Tennessee (1864) was also a travel account, its author the New York cotton merchant and novelist James R. Gilmore. His argument was unique because he distinguished between “mean whites” and “common whites,” arguing that the latter class were enterprising, law-abiding, and productive citizens. They stood in sharp contrast to the shiftless, thieving, and brutish mean whites, whose homes reminded him of a “tolerably-kept swine-sty or dog-kennel.” Though he identified this group as a minority, they were still a dangerous class, he said, owing to their infectious character; they were a diseased segment of the prostrate South, a “fungus growth” on the body of society, “absorbing the strength and life of its other parts.”13
All of these writers had a common desire: to unravel the enigma of the southern racial and class system in order to prognosticate about its uncertain future. If they agreed on any point, it was that which was summed up by one of Sidney Andrews’s imitators: “It is now not so much a question of what is to become of poor blacks of the South, as it is one of what is to become of poor whites of the South?”14
The insistence of Republican-leaning journalists that poor whites languished below freedmen as potential citizens may seem startling, but it was not unexpected. Distrust was strong both of former Confederate elites and the “groveling” poor men who, like “sheep to slaughter,” were dragged off to war. Whitelaw Reid felt that black children were eager to learn, while Sidney Andrews believed that blacks exhibited a “shrewd instinct for preservation,” which white trash seemed to lack. In account after account, freedmen were described as capable, thrifty, and loyal to the Union. A writer for the Atlantic Monthly asked: why should government “disfranchise the humble, quiet, hardworking negro” and leave the North vulnerable to the vote of the “worthless barbarian”—the “ignorant, illiterate, and vicious” poor white?15
Thus the popular vocabulary had become more ominous. No longer were white trash simply freaks of nature on the fringe of society; they were now congenitally delinquent, a withered branch of the American family tree. As a “fungus growth,” they could weaken the entire stock of southern society. More than tallow-colored skin, it was the permanent mark of intellectual stagnation, the “inert” minds, the “fumbling” speech, and the “stupid, moony glare, like that of the idiot.” They were, it was said, of the “Homo genus without the sapien.” Hardworking blacks were suddenly the redeemed ones, while white trash remained undeveloped, evolutionarily stagnant creatures.16
During Reconstruction, Republicans designated white trash as a “dangerous class” that was producing a flood of bastards, prostitutes, vagrants, and criminals. They violated every sexual norm, from fathers cohabiting with daughters, to husbands selling wives, to mothers conniving illicit liaisons for daughters. The danger came from a growing population that had stopped disappearing into the wilderness. Reid was appalled by the filthy refugees living in railroad cars, an uncomfortable foreshadowing of twentieth-century trailer trash. John W. De Forest, a bureau agent and yet another novelist, concluded that white trash were tolerable as long as Darwin’s “severe law” of natural selection killed off most of them.17
In 1868, a writer for Putnam’s Magazine told the “history of a family,” tracing a corrupted genealogical tree back to it roots. This one basic story anticipated a host of studies that included The Jukes (1877), which proved the most enduring chronicle of a degenerate lineage, and which influenced Charles Davenport, the leading American eugenicist of the early twentieth century. The author of the 1868 Putnam’s piece claimed to have discovered a real couple, with an actual name—thus going beyond Daniel Hundley’s more general dismissal of southern rubbish as the heirs of indentured servants dumped in the American colonies.
One Bill Simmins was the erstwhile progenitor of this corrupt family tree. A British convict and Virginia squatter, he married a London courtesan turned “wild woman,” who gave birth to a tribe of low-down, dependent people. According to the author, the only cure for white trash had to be a radical one: intervention. Take a child out of his family’s hovel and place him in an asylum, where he might at least learn to work and avoid producing more inbred offspring. The genealogical link had to be cut. As we can see, the line from delinquency to eugenic sterilization was growing shorter.18
The idea that white trash was a measure of evolutionary progress (or lack thereof) was so pervasive in the nineteenth century that it conditioned the reception of the first federal study of soldiers. The U.S. Sanitary Commission undertook a major statistical study of some 16,000 men who had served in the Union and Confederate armies. Only a small percentage of them were nonwhite (approximately 3,000 black men and 519 Indians). When the study was published in 1869, a surgeon who had served in the Union army queried in the prestigious London Anthropological Review whether it was possible to draw conclusions about racial differences unless researchers actually compared blacks and poor whites. The “low down people” may have come from Anglo-Saxon stock, but they had “degenerated into an idle, ignorant, and physically and mentally degraded people.” It was time to see whether intelligence was a racially specific inherited trait or not.19
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While Republican journalists, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and Union officers published extensively, in the partisan climate of the postwar years Democrats just as painstakingly worked to rebuild an opposition party and chip away at Republican policies, and they reached for the racial arguments at hand to help. Instead of celebrating the hardworking black man and the promise of social mobility, they fretted about the loss of a “white man’s government.” Unconcerned with inbreeding, they focused obsessively on outbreeding, that is, the supposedly unhealthy combination of distinct races.
“Mongrel” became one of the Democrats’ favorite insults in these years. The word called forth numerous potent metaphors. Both defeated Confederates and Democratic journalists in the North predicted that Republican policies would usher in a “mongrel republic.” They drew paranoid comparisons to the Mexican Republic, the nineteenth-century example of racial amalgamation run amok.20
“Mongrel” was not the only threat Democrats perceived. The emerging cross-sectional opposition party named two more symbolic enemies: “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.” Here is how the new narrative went: When ill-bred men of suspect origins assumed power, virtue in government declined. The despised mudsill of the Civil War era was succeeded by the postwar Yankee invader. The carpetbagger, a rapacious adventurer feeding off the prostrate South, could be identified by the cheap black valise he carried. Worse than the carpetbagger, though, was the “scalawag,” a betrayer. He was a southern white Republican who had sold his soul (and sold out his race) for filthy lucre.21
Though he did not use the word “mongrel,” President Johnson was quite familiar with the danger of “mongrel citizenship”—the very phrase one newspaper used to describe what lay at the heart of Johnson’s veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Missouri Republican turned Democrat and avid Darwinian Francis Blair Jr. had written the president an impassioned letter against the act just days earlier. He insisted that Congress should never be allowed to inflict on the country a “mongrel nation, a nation of bastards.” Johnson agreed. At the beginning of his veto message, he highlighted all the new admixtures suddenly protected under the law: “the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes and persons of African blood.” In granting civil rights, the law removed racial distinctions and opened the door to equal suffrage. Johnson’s veto message said that freedmen lacked something naturally endowed: fitness. Finally, the president made clear that he disapproved of any law that sanctioned interracial marriage.22
In 1866, President Johnson effectively abandoned the Republican Party. He had begun political life as a Jacksonian Democrat. It was as a Jacksonian, then, that he vetoed the extension of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights Act, and used his executive authority to derail federal initiatives in the South. This series of actions led Republicans in Congress to do more than override his vetoes: they searched for a more permanent constitutional solution, and found it in the impeachment process. Johnson’s apostasy gave momentum to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which passed in 1867 and 1869, respectively. The first guaranteed equal protection under the law as a right of national citizenship, and the second prohibited discrimination in voting based on “race, color, and previous condition of servitude.” Not inconsequentially, the Fourteenth Amendment also denied former Confederates the right to vote, excepting those who federal officials believed had taken the loyalty oath in good faith. Former Confederate officials were barred from holding office.23
For anxious social commentators, “pride of caste” and “pride of race” were under attack, the old barriers of upholding “purity of blood” and “social exclusiveness” eroding as a result of a flurry of Republican legislation. The focus turned to white women. As early as 1867, secret societies began to form, like the Knights of the White Camelia, which first organized in Louisiana. Members swore to marry a white woman, and they agreed to do everything in their power to prevent the “production of a bastard and degenerate progeny.”24
In 1868, Francis Blair Jr., the Democratic nominee for vice president, toured the country and made the mongrel threat one of the key issues of the campaign. The next year, Chief Justice Joseph Brown of the Supreme Court of Georgia issued a monumental decision. The former rebel governor ruled that the courts had the right to dissolve all interracial marriages. “Amalgamation” was classed with incestuous unions and marriages between idiots, which the state already proscribed. By generating “sickly and effeminate” children, Brown insisted, such abhorrent marriages threatened to “drag down the superior race to the level of the inferior.” He was repeating the established definition used by animal breeders to categorize a mongrel. Even more telling is Brown’s eugenic logic: the state now had the right to regulate breeding in order to prevent contamination of the Anglo-Saxon stock.25
Still, for Democrats and Republicans alike, race could never be decoupled from class. This was why the scalawag came under venomous verbal attacks and experienced actual physical violence. The scalawag was seen as the glue that held together a fragile Republican coalition of freedmen, transplanted northerners, southern Unionists, and converted Confederates. For many southern Democrats, this white traitor was a more serious obstacle than the carpetbagger, because he was born and bred in the South, and he knew his way around the statehouse. Dismantling the Republican hold over the South demanded the figurative (and at times literal) death of the scalawag.26
During the election year of 1868, the scalawag was accused of inciting blacks and giving them the idea that they deserved social equality. The so-called freedmen, one angry journalist blasted, were now the “slaves of the scalawag white trash.” He violated social norms by mixing freely with blacks in public and private places. He invited the black man home to dinner, wounding the sensibility of his proper wife. And yet this worthless, ill-bred creature had suddenly acquired power. The very traits they despised in him—his low-class ways, his willingness to commingle with blacks—made him the perfect party operative. In a volatile election year, the scalawag’s racial and class pedigree both became issues.27
A brilliant piece of Democratic propaganda was “The Autobiography of a Scalawag.” The protagonist, John Stubbs, had been born to a poor family of fourteen in Shifflet’s Corner, Virginia, a community known for lowlifes and criminals. Joining the Confederate army, he slid from an artillery posting to teamster to cleaning Jefferson Davis’s stables. He had no ambition for honor or glory; his wartime trajectory was predictably downward.
Deserting, Stubbs lied to the Yankees that he was a Union man. Returning to Virginia in 1866, he became a scalawag and found he had a talent for “nigger speaking.” He defended Negro suffrage not on any high-principled stand, but on his low-down motto: “every man for himself.” Stubbs knew the carpetbaggers had no respect for him, but he didn’t care, as long as a generous supply of whiskey accompanied their snubs. He was rewarded with a county clerk position, without having to improve himself. In his unsentimental journey up the Republican ladder, he learned that his “rascality” was increasingly tolerated as he rose in the world.28
“The Autobiography of a Scalawag” was a beautiful burlesque of the self-made northern man’s story of hard work and moral uplift. Stubbs was a far cry from the hereditary leadership of the Old South, whose education, refinement, and honorable bearing were legend even in defeat. He was a gross materialist, someone who lacked forethought, who lied and cheated to get ahead. He was a powerful reminder that elite southern Democrats still despised the lower classes. As one North Carolina conservative declared in 1868, the Republican Party was nothing more than the “low born scum and quondam slaves” who lorded over men of property and taste. When southern Democrats called for a “White Man’s Government,” they did not mean all white men.29
The scalawag was the Democrats’ version of white trash. Just ask ex-Confederate colonel Wade Hampton, who in 1868 was still eight years from being elected governor of South Carolina. He was a hero of the “Redeemers,” whose movement ultimately toppled Republican rule in the southern states, and he must be credited with the most memorable insult of all, as his words traveled all the way to England. Knowing his husbandry, Hampton invoked the best-known usage of “scalawag” as vagabond stock, “used by drovers to describe the mean, lousy, and filthy kine that are not fit for butchers or dogs.” The scalawag was human waste with an unnatural ambition. He was biologically unfit, and at the same time a skilled operative who stirred the scum and thrived in the muck.30
Thomas Jefferson Speer, a real scalawag, gave a speech that year proudly defending his “kine.” In contrast to Hampton, he was a former Confederate who had turned Republican, served in the Georgia constitutional convention, and would later sit in the U.S. Congress. Speer was unashamed of his common school education, admitting that he was “no speaker.” He had opposed secession, however, and believed that the terms of defeat offered by the Union had been magnanimous. A native Georgian whose “ancestors’ bones reposed beneath this soil,” he asserted that he was a “friend of the colored race.” 31
Like his own rather fortunate naming, T. J. Speer understood that “scalawag” was just a name too. But southern politics thrived on such symbolism. It was rooted in the inherited revulsion to both the real and the imagined dregs of society, whether white or black. When the low-down dared to speak up, reach across the color line, the hereditary leadership class of the South simply could not stomach their overreach.
Mongrels and scalawags were conjoined twins, then, fusing the associated threats of racial and class instability. After the Civil War, and with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting slavery, unreconstructed white southerners imagined an almost gothic landscape in their midst, a theater of sexual deviance overseen by defective leaders. The Fourteenth Amendment appreciably added to those fears, granting equal protection under the law to black male voters, while divesting former Confederates of their right to hold office or even vote. It was a world turned upside down, as buffoons ruled the Republican kingdom. Of course, few white southern Republicans actually fit this manufactured tabloid image, yet the label stuck. Scalawags were assumed to be white trash on the inside, regardless of the wealth (or wealth of political experience) they might accrue.32
As the Reconstruction era ended, so-called men of inherited worth were returned to political power across the South. In the 1880s, the white North and South reconnected. The “redeemed” cracker became a hardworking farmer, while others praised the unsullied mountaineer, both capable of education and having risen enough that they would no longer be a burden on the southern economy. For a brief moment, reconciliation stories were popular, and previously warring sides in the national drama entertained bright prospects for domestic harmony.33
Cracker Joe (1883) was written by a New Englander. The title character’s story was set in Florida, and used love and forgiveness to overcome past wrongs and resentments. Joe, a “born Cracker,” runs a successful farm. He defies his heritage by exhibiting shrewd ambition. He is a “go-ahead” man, an avid reader with a phenomenal memory. He calls his wife, Luce, “the whitest woman, soul and body, I ever did see,” suggesting that he is not quite white, but “only a cracker, you know.” (Like the family in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Joe is a half-breed, his mother of “good blood.”) He is forced to make amends with the son of the wealthy planter whom he had tried to murder more than a decade earlier, and for his part, the planter’s son must reclaim his father’s dilapidated mansion and spoiled lands, saving his legacy in the only way possible, by marrying the daughter of a New York carpetbagger. If all of this isn’t improbable enough, Joe has a mulatto daughter, whom he welcomes into his home with his wife’s blessing.34
Convenient distinctions were drawn. In the 1890s, third-generation abolitionist William Goodell Frost, president of the integrated Berea College of Kentucky, redefined his mountain neighbors: “The ‘poor white’ is actually degraded; the mountain white is a person not yet graded up.” The latter had preserved a unique lineage for centuries, and in this important way had not lost the battle for the survival of the fittest. Frost saw the mountaineer as a modern-day Saxon, with the “flavor of Chaucer” in his speech, and a clear “Saxon temper.” He was, the college president wrote, “our contemporary ancestor!” What made this isolated white the best of America’s past was his “vigorous, unjaded nerve, prolific, patriotic—full of the blood of spirit of seventy-six.” Mountain folk formed the very trunk of the American family tree. Frost tried. For many who did not buy what he was selling, however, mountain whites were still strange-looking moonshine hillbillies, prone to clannish feuds.35
It was at about this time that the term “redneck” came into wider use. It well defined the rowdy and racist followers of the New South’s high-profile Democratic demagogues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: South Carolina’s Ben Tillman, Arkansas’s Jeff Davis, and the most interesting of the bunch, Mississippi’s James Vardaman. The “redneck” could be found in the swamps. He could be found in the mill towns. He was the man in overalls, the heckler at political rallies, and was periodically elected to the state legislature. He was Guy Rencher, a Vardaman ally, who supposedly claimed the name for himself, railing on the floor of the Mississippi House about his “long red neck.” One other possible explanation deserves mention: “redneck” came into vogue in the 1890s, at the same time Afrikaners were calling English soldiers “rednecks” in the Boer War in South Africa, highlighting the contrast between the Brit’s sun-scored skin and his pale white complexion. Such terminology was also a staple of the sharecropper’s rhythmic chant (circa 1917): “I’d druther be a Nigger, an’ plow ole Beck, Dan a white Hill Billy wid his long red neck.”36
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This was the world of W. E. B. Du Bois. This was also the world of Theodore Roosevelt. The two men agreed on very little—and obviously not on evolutionary theory or the science of eugenics, to which Roosevelt was a complete convert. Certainly Du Bois found no comfort in the president’s militarism or his glorification of the white settler’s savagery in the Old West. But they were in total agreement on one thing: the menace of redneck politics.
Roosevelt unexpectedly became president in 1901, upon the assassination of William McKinley. Only forty-two at the time, he was known for daring military exploits during the Spanish-American War, which had earned him a place on the Republican ticket. Though his mother was born in Georgia and he could claim a Confederate pedigree, the New York politico proved himself fairly inept at navigating the rocks and shoals of southern politics. He roused the ire of many white southerners when he dared to invite Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute to dinner shortly after his inauguration as president. Reviving the script from Reconstruction, Democrats charged the new chief executive with promoting social equality between the races. For angry southerners, breaking bread with a black man in such a public and highly symbolic way was barely one step from endorsing interracial marriage. With no subtlety whatsoever, Vardaman called Roosevelt the “coon-flavored miscegenationist,” describing a White House “so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stables.” Southern satirist Bill Arp predicted a mongrel wedding in the executive mansion. In that Booker T. Washington’s daughter Portia attended Wellesley College, she too would be invited to the White House, Arp mused. And then, he sneered, she would be found to be a suitable match for one of TR’s sons.37
In Roosevelt’s opinion, Vardaman and his ilk belonged to the lowest order of demagogues. Writing the Congregationalist minister and editor Lyman Abbott, the president said that the Mississippian’s “foul language” and “kennel filth” were worse than that of the lowest blackguard wallowing in the gutters of New York City. Such “unspeakable lowness” put this southerner beyond the pale of American values. In excoriating Vardaman, the president refused to repeat his hateful words, but the insult that most infuriated him was a crude birthing allusion, to the effect that “old lady Roosevelt” had been frightened by a dog while pregnant, which accounted for “qualities of the male pup that are so prominent in Teddy.” Vardaman, incapable of feeling shame, joked that he was disposed to apologize to the dog but not to the president.38
So who was this Mississippi carnival barker, known for his white suits and white cowboy hat and long dark locks, who claimed to be the voice of “rednecks” and “hillbillies”? James Vardaman had been a newspaperman, who understood the power of invective. Southerners from Andrew Johnson to Wade Hampton had recurred to the barnyard insult when they damned their enemies. For Vardaman, democracy, no matter how dirty, belonged to “the people,” and the people had the right to say whatever they felt. Friends and foes alike called him the “White Chief,” partly for his white garb and partly for his supremacist rhetoric. But he was a “medicine man” to his enemies, a witch doctor who knew how to inflame the low-down tribe of white savages.39
He saw himself as the defender of poor whites. In his run for the governorship in 1903, Vardaman pitted poor whites against all blacks. Educating blacks was pointless and dangerous, he argued, and the state should ensure that tax dollars from white citizens should only go to white schools. The consummate showman rode to Senate victory in 1912—quite literally—on the back of an ox. When his Democratic primary opponent derided his supporters as an ignorant herd, he exploited the incident. Traveling through Mississippi giving speeches, he liked to pull up in a “cracker cart” amid a long line of cattle. At one rally he rode into town astride a single ox. The beast was adorned with flags and streamers labeled “redneck,” “cattle,” and “lowdown.” He dramatically embraced the white trash identity.40
Insofar as the surviving planter elite and middle-class Mississippians despised Vardaman, he intentionally drummed up class resentments. In his reminiscence, William Percy, the son of Vardaman’s Democratic opponent, LeRoy Percy, best expressed the class anger. Recalling how he surveyed the surly crowd, wondering if Vardaman’s army would launch rotten eggs at his father, Percy wrote:
They were the sort of people that lynch Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fight and fornicate in the bushes afterwards. They were undiluted Anglo-Saxons. They were the sovereign voter. It was so horrible it seemed unreal.
Though he had no patience for the politics of hate run as a sideshow, Percy conceded that Vardaman was a savvy politician who gave the “sovereign voter” what he wanted—red meat.41
Roosevelt, a patrician, had little choice but to joust with his redneck foes. In 1905, during his southern tour, he rebuked Arkansas governor Jeff Davis for defending the lynch mob. One newspaper joked that the president’s entourage was wise to travel through Mississippi at night, so that Vardaman wouldn’t have to shoot him. Roosevelt also ruffled the feathers of the proud white women of the South when he had dared to class Jefferson Davis (the Confederate president) with Benedict Arnold. When he did that, one incensed Georgia woman declared that the president had dishonored his mother’s blood.42
Blood was thicker than water for Roosevelt, but not in the way the testy Georgia woman would have viewed the matter. His understanding of race and class remained rooted in evolutionary thinking, and he believed that blacks were naturally subordinate to the Anglo-Saxon. But he also felt progress was possible, which was why he backed Booker T. Washington’s program for industrial education at Tuskegee Institute. If blacks proved themselves capable of economic self-sufficiency, then they could qualify for greater political rights. But the Harvard-educated president never abandoned the premise that racial traits were carried in the blood, conditioned by the experiences of one’s ancestors. As an ardent exponent of “American exceptionalism,” Roosevelt argued that the nineteenth-century frontier experience had transformed white Americans into superior stock.43
Roosevelt’s motto can be summed up in three words: “work-fight-breed.” There is clear evidence that he was influenced by the mountaineers’ myth, by which good Saxon stock was separated from the debased southern poor white. History was written in blood, sweat, and “germ protoplasm”—the turn-of-the-century term for what we now refer to as genes. Roosevelt believed that every middle-class American male had to stay in touch with his inner squatter; he must never lose the masculine traits that attached to the “strenuous life.” Too much domestic peace, luxury, and willful sterility, as TR put it, made Americans weak, lethargic, and prone to self-indulgence.44
The ills attending modernity could be corrected in three ways. A man could return to the wilderness, as Roosevelt did when he hunted big game in Africa and made a harrowing trip down the Amazon River at the age of fifty-five. War—the raw fight for survival—was a second means of bringing forth ancestral Saxon traits. Breeding, however, remained the most primitive of instincts. In Roosevelt’s mind, childbirth was nature’s boot camp for women, a life-or-death struggle that strengthened the entire race.45
As for war, it did not just build character; it literally reinvigorated the best qualities of the American stock. After spending several years in the Dakotas as a rancher, Roosevelt published his voluminous Winning of the West (1886-96), part American history and part treatise on evolution. The author returned to New York, took up politics, and discovered a new aggressive outlet in imperialist crusading. He rallied behind the Spanish-American War in 1898 and formed his own regiment, the Rough Riders, which he filled with cowboys and mountaineers from the West, plus men like himself, athletes, who had come from Ivy League universities. He even included a number of Indians (in a separate company), a few Irish and Hispanics, one Jewish recruit, and one Italian, all in an attempt to recreate what he thought was the right mix of ethnic stocks for the new American frontier in Cuba. It is important to note that he did not include any black men, nor genuine southern crackers, in his muscular version of Darwin’s Galápagos Islands experiment.46
Roosevelt’s famed ride up San Juan Hill (actually Kettle Hill) was vividly captured by the equally famed artist Frederic Remington. Before he headed to Cuba, Remington had taken a magazine assignment in Florida. There he found the “Cracker cowboy,” who was the antithesis of the pure-blooded American westerner he had earlier known. The men he encountered in Florida wore a “bedraggled appearance”; their unwashed hair, tobacco-stained beards, and sloppy dress reminded him of Spanish moss dripping off oaks in the swamps. Remington saw their lack of “fierceness” (relative to the frontiersman) and compared it to the difference between a “fox-terrier” and a “yellow cur.” Pursuing the animal kingdom analogy further, he said they had no better sense of the law than “gray apes.” These curlike, apish would-be conquerors stole cattle, and then showed surprise when indicted for their crime. Their ignorance was so astounding that they could not even find Texas on the map. Roosevelt would have agreed: the distinct culture of the West did not translate to the South.47
That said, Roosevelt did not try to resolve all the contradictions in his approach to the South. He may have defended racial purity and opposed miscegenation, but he also confessed to Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, that he believed that southern white men, despite their outrage over race mixing, were the first to leer at mulatto women and take black mistresses. Unimpressed by southern whites, and valuing hardworking black men, he did nothing to protect the latter’s right to vote. Washington, Lincoln, and Grant were his heroes, men who lived active, virtuous lives, rejecting comfort and complacency. They weren’t political tricksters, like “Br’er Vardaman,” as one clever journalist called the rabid Mississippian. They weren’t the aristocrats of the antebellum South either, who drank, dueled, and made “perverse” speeches. As he told Wister, white southerners had taken a wrong turn on the evolutionary ladder, using empty bombast to conceal “unhealthy traits.” In the final analysis, the president opined, the Confederate generation and their heirs had contributed “very, very little toward anything of which Americans are now proud.” For him, the Vardamans might be a nuisance, but their days were numbered.48
He could be confident in this future because Roosevelt was an unabashed eugenicist. He used the bully pulpit of his office to insist that women had a critical civic duty to breed a generation of healthy and disciplined children. He first endorsed eugenics in 1903, and two years later he laid out his beliefs in speech before the Congress of Mothers. Worried about “race suicide,” as he put it, he recommended that women of Anglo-American stock have four to six children, “enough so the race shall increase and not decrease.” Women’s duty to suffer “birth pangs,” and even face death, made the fertile female the equivalent of the professional soldier. Women who shirked their procreative duty were worse than deserters. So he pushed for passage of a constitutional amendment in 1906 that would place marriage and divorce under the control of federal law.49
Taking marriage and divorce laws out of the arbitrary control of the states served a larger eugenic purpose. Every die-hard eugenicist believed that citizens did not have an individual right to marry or to reproduce. As a leading eugenic organization reported in 1914, “Society must look upon germ-plasm as belonging to society and not merely to the individual who carries it.” Because children produced by unfit parents could cost taxpayers if they became criminals, society had the right to protect itself. Far more dangerous was the cost to the nation’s human stock if degenerates were allowed to breed. In 1913, Roosevelt wrote supportively to the leading eugenicist Charles Davenport that it was the patriotic duty of every good citizen of superior stock to leave his or her “blood behind.” Degenerates, he warned, must not be permitted to “reproduce their kind.”50
It was during the eugenic craze that reformers called for government incentives to ensure better breeding. This was when the idea of tax exemptions for children emerged. Theodore Roosevelt criticized the new income tax law for allowing exemptions for only two children, discouraging parents from having a third or fourth. He wanted monetary rewards for breeding, akin to the baby bonuses established in Australia in 1912. He also promoted mothers’ pensions for widows—an idea that caught on. As one defender of pensions claimed in 1918, the widowed mother was “as much a servant of the State as a judge or general.” Her child-rearing duties were no less a public service than if she had toiled on the battlefield. Like Selective Service, which weeded out inferior soldiers, the pensions were allotted exclusively to “a fit mother.”51
Roosevelt was far from alone. Academics, scientists, doctors, journalists, and legislators all joined the “eugenic mania,” as one California doctor termed the movement. Advocates believed that the way to encourage procreation of the fit was to educate the middle class on proper marriage selection. Eugenic thinking found expression in a flood of books and popular public lectures, as well as “better baby” and “fitter family” competitions at state fairs. Eugenics courses were added to college curricula. Such efforts resulted in the passage of laws imposing marriage restrictions, institutional sexual segregation of defectives, and, most dramatically, state-enforced sterilization of those designated “unfit.”52
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Charles Davenport established a research facility at Long Island’s Cold Spring Harbor in 1904. His facility grew into the Eugenics Record Office. A Harvard-trained biologist and professor, Davenport, along with his team, collected inheritance data. Not surprisingly, he was also an influential member of the Eugenics Section of the American Breeders Association, a group of agricultural breeders and biologists. This group included many prominent figures, including the famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Davenport’s second in command, Harry H. Laughlin, became the eugenics expert for the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, and played a crucial role in shaping the 1924 Immigration Act, one of the most sweeping and restrictive pieces of legislation in American history.53
When eugenicists thought of degenerates, they automatically focused on the South. To make his point, Davenport said outright that if a federal policy regulating immigration was not put in place, New York would turn into Mississippi. In Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911), he identified two breeding grounds for diseased and degenerate Americans: the hovel and the poorhouse. The hovel was familiar, whether one identified it with the cracker’s cabin, the low-downer’s shebang, or the poor white pigsty. Echoing James Gilmore’s Down in Tennessee (1864), Davenport’s work expressed a grave concern over indiscriminate mating that occurred in isolated shacks. Brothers slept with sisters, fathers with daughters, and the fear of an inbred stock seemed very real. His attack on the poorhouse also pointed south. Mississippi did not provide separate facilities for men and women in their asylums until 1928. Poorhouses allowed criminals and prostitutes to produce all manner of weak-minded delinquents and bastards, he believed. Finally, Davenport’s antirural bias was especially potent. The survival-of-the-fittest model he subscribed to emphasized migration from the countryside to the city; as the fitter people moved, the weaker strains remained behind.54
Almost all eugenicists analogized human and animal breeding. Davenport described the best female breeders as women with large hips, using the same thinking that animal breeders had employed for centuries to describe cows. The biggest donor to the Eugenics Record Office was Mrs. Mary Harriman, widow of the railroad magnate Averell Harriman; she came from a family of avid horse breeders. Alexander Graham Bell imagined rearing “human thoroughbreds,” saying four generations of superior parents would produce one thoroughbred. A wealthy New York horse breeder, William Stokes, published a eugenics book in 1917, and went so far as to contend that Americans could be bred to class, guaranteeing that intellectual capacity matched one’s station. He popularly argued the “right of the unborn” to be born healthy. Why should one generation be punished for the bad breeding choices of the parents?55
Three solutions arose in the effort to “cull” American bloodlines. As in animal breeding, advocates pushed for legislation that allowed doctors and other professionals to segregate and quarantine the unfit from the general population, or they called for the castration of criminals and the sterilization of diseased and degenerate classes. If that seems a gross violation of human rights in any age, a Michigan legislator went a step further in 1903 when he proposed that the state should simply kill off the unfit. Another eugenics advocate came up with a particularly ludicrous plan to deal with a convicted murderer: execute his grandfather. Such proposals were not merely fringe ideas. By 1931, twenty-seven states had sterilization laws on the books, along with an unwieldy thirty-four categories delineating the kinds of people who might be subject to the surgical procedure. Eugenicists used a broad brush to create an underclass of the unfit, calling for the unemployable to be “stamped out,” as Harvard professor Frank William Taussig wrote in Principles of Economics (1921). If society refused to subject hereditary misfits (“irretrievable criminals and tramps”) to “chloroform once and for all,” then, the professor fumed, they could at least be prevented from “propagating their kind.”56
Eugenicists were divided over the role women should play in the national campaign. Some insisted that they remain guardians of the hearth. This ideal coincided with the traditional southern ethos that asserted planter and middle-class women possessed a “natural aversion” to associating with black men. The New York horse breeder Stokes called on women to scrutinize potential suitors, demanding family pedigrees and subjecting the man to a physical examination. (It is easy to see how he borrowed from the horse breeder’s demand for pedigree papers, not to mention the proverbial “gift horse” mouth inspection.) It became popular for young women to pledge to a eugenic marriage, accepting no man who did not meet her high scientific standards. In 1908, a concerned female teacher in Louisiana started “better baby” contests, in which mothers allowed their offspring to be examined and graded. This program expanded into “fitter family” competitions at state fairs. The contests were held in the stock grounds, and families were judged in the manner of cattle. The winners received medals, not unlike prize bulls.57
Educated women were the gatekeepers, the guardians of eugenic marriages, though fecund poor women continued to outbreed their female betters. So-called experts contended that those who overindulged in sexual activity and lacked intellectual restraint were more likely to have feeble children. (Here they were imagining poor whites fornicating in the bushes.) Once experts like Davenport identified harlotry and poverty as inherited traits, sexually aggressive women of the lower classes were viewed as the carriers of degenerate germ protoplasm. In 1910, Henry Goddard, who ran a testing laboratory at the school for feeble-minded boys and girls in Vineland, New Jersey, invented a new eugenic classification: the moron. More intelligent than idiots and imbeciles, morons were especially troublesome because they could pass as normal. Female morons could enter polite homes as servants and seduce young men or be seduced by them. It was thought to be a real problem.58
This 1929 chart from a Kansas fair states unequivocally that heredity determines every person’s destiny. Its message is clear: unfitness must be “bred out” of the national stock.
Scrapbook, American Eugenic Society Papers, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The fear of promiscuous poor women led eugenics reformers to push for the construction of additional asylums to house feebleminded white women. In this effort, they deployed the term “segregation,” the same as was used by southerners to enforce white-black separation. The “passing” female was not a new trope either: it borrowed from the other southern fear of the passing mulatto, who might marry into a prominent family. Passing also conjured the old English fears of the class interloper and unregulated social mobility—the house servant seducing the lord of the manor.59
Even with such racial overtones, the major target of eugenicists was the poor white woman. Goddard’s description of the female moron as one lacking forethought, vitality, or any sense of shame perfectly replicated Reconstruction writers’ portrayal of white trash. Davenport felt the best policy was to quarantine dangerous women during their fertile years. How this policy prescription led to sterilization is rather more calculated: interested politicians and eager reformers concluded that it was cheaper to operate on women than to house them in asylums for decades. Southern eugenicists in particular argued that sterilization helped the economy by sending poor women back into the population safely neutered but still able to work at menial jobs.60
World War I fueled the eugenics campaign. First of all, the army refused to issue soldiers prophylactics. The top brass insisted that sexual control required a degree of internal discipline, which no army program would effectively inculcate. The army, along with local antivice groups, rounded up some thirty thousand prostitutes and placed as many as possible in detention centers and jails where they were kept out of the reach of soldiers. Thus the federal government backed a policy of sexual segregation of tainted women. At the same time, advocates for the draft argued that a volunteer force would be both unfair and uneugenic. Senator John Sharp of Mississippi insisted that without a draft only the “best blood” would go to the front, leaving behind those of an “inferior mold” to “beget the next race.”61
The war advanced the importance of intelligence testing. Goddard had created the “moron” classification by using the Binet-Simon test, which was succeeded by the IQ (intelligence quotient) scale promoted by Stanford professor Lewis Terman and then used by the U.S. Army. The army’s findings only served to confirm a long-held, unpropitious view of the South, since both poor white and black recruits from southern states had the lowest IQ scores. Overall, the study found that the mean intelligence of the soldier registered at the moron level—the equivalent of a “normal” thirteen-year-old boy. Given the results, observers wondered if poor white men were dragging down the rest of the nation.62
The lack of public education funding in the South made the army’s intelligence test results inevitable. The gap in education levels matched what had existed between the North and South before the Civil War. Many of the men who took the test had never used a pencil before. Southern white men exhibited stunted bodies—army medical examiners found them to be smaller, weaker, and less physically fit. National campaigns to fight hookworm and pellagra (both associated with clay-eating and identified as white trash diseases) only reinforced this portrait. Beginning in 1909, the New York-based Rockefeller Institute poured massive amounts of money into a philanthropic program aimed at eliminating hookworm, while the U.S. Public Health Service tackled pellagra. The Rockefeller Foundation published shocking pictures of actual hookworm subjects, some pairing boys the same age, one normal and the other literally dwarfed and disfigured by the disease. It didn’t help the South’s image that hookworm was spread by the lack of sanitation. Outhouses were rare among the southern poor, let alone toilets.63
The 10,000 Hookworm Family (1913) from Alabama were presented as poor white celebrities who escaped the “lazy disease.” They stood in contrast to the “fitter family” competitions as a perfect example of the unfit American family.
201 H Alabama, Hookworm, Box 42, Folder 1044, #1107, 1913, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York
This 1913 photograph from North Carolina shows the disfiguring effects of hookworm. In a shocking contrast, an undersized young man, age twenty-three, is placed alongside a normal boy, two years younger, who towers over him.
236 H North Carolina, Box 53, Folder 1269, #236 Vashti Alexander County, North Carolina, May 29, 1913, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York
All in all, the rural South stood out as a place of social and now eugenic backwardness. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers, wandering the dusty roads with a balky mule, seemed a throwback to eighteenth-century vagrants. The “lazy diseases” of hookworm and pellagra created a class of lazy lubbers. Illiteracy was widespread. Fear of indiscriminate breeding loomed large. The stock of poor white men produced in the South were dismissed as unfit for military service, the women unfit to be mothers. In the two decades before the war, reformers had exposed that many poor white women and children worked long, grueling hours in southern textile factories. Was this another sign of “race suicide,” some asked? Could they possibly produce future generations of healthy, courageous, intelligent, and fertile Americans? For many in the early twentieth century, then, the “new race problem” was not the “negro problem.” It was instead a different crisis, one caused by the “worthless class of anti-social whites.”64
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It was Albert Priddy who called poor white Virginians “the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” He was the superintendent of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. He helped shape the optimal legal test case for sterilization, a case that went to the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927). Priddy began building his case in 1916, targeting prostitutes. He recruited top eugenics experts, including two colleagues of Davenport’s with ties to the Eugenics Record Office and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.65
Priddy also had the support of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, which took the lead in eugenic science and public policy. Dean Harvey Ernest Jordan saw Virginia as the “perfect laboratory” for comparing the best (Virginia’s famed “First Families”) and the worst stocks of poor whites. In 1912, he proposed intelligence testing of white, black, and mulatto children. He found a way to pervert the meaning of a classic phrase of the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, into eugenic nonsense: “Man does not have an inalienable right to personal or reproductive freedom, if such freedom is a menace to society.” Inalienable rights were now the inherited privileges of the superior classes, what Jordan called America’s “human thoroughbreds.”66
Eugenicists made Virginia the national test case for weeding out bad blood. Priddy recruited Arthur Estabrook of the Carnegie Institution to his campaign, getting him to offer in the Virginia courts his expert opinion on intelligence testing. But this colleague of Davenport’s spread the eugenics message in yet another way. In 1926, Estabrook published Mongrel Virginians, a study of an isolated mountain community in Virginia known as the Win tribe. The Wins offered a curious case of inbreeding and interracial breeding; they were of “mixed races, neither black or white”—largely Indian. The portrait was damning: the community Estabrook described suffered from congenital ignorance, all springing from the licentiousness of mixed-race women. Their habit of breeding was in his words, “almost that of an animal in their freedom.”67
The evidence in Mongrel Virginians was sufficient to guide passage of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited marriages between blacks and whites, and treated Indian blood no differently from black blood. The Virginia law defined a white person as one having “no trace” of any but Caucasian blood. Following the agenda of the eugenicists, the first draft of the law required a racial registry, tracking pedigrees in order to ensure that no light-skinned black with Indian blood might marry a white person. This regulation was removed from the final version of the bill, but the law still divided the population into white and black, fit and unfit, pure and tainted bloodlines. In the end, Virginia legislators believed they had immunized the population against mongrelism at the altar. It stopped the contagion that passed from blacks and Indians to poor whites and up the hierarchy to the unsuspecting white middle class and elites.68
Three years later, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes would offer a revolutionary decision in Buck v. Bell, which gave the state the power to regulate the breeding of its citizens. Like Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision, he believed that pedigree could be used to distinguish worthy citizens from the waste people. He ruled that sterilization was the appropriate recourse in order to curb “generations of imbeciles” from reproducing. Holmes argued that sterilization was a civic duty, saving the nation from being “swamped with incompetence.” He echoed what the English had argued in the 1600s: the unfit would either starve or be executed for some crime, so sending them to be sterilized was the humane option, as being sent to the colonies had been centuries before.69
Carrie Buck (of Buck v. Bell) had been chosen for sterilization on the order of Priddy, because she was one of “these people”—that “worthless class” of southern whites. She was, in a word, a perfect specimen of white trash. While Carrie Buck was the plaintiff, her mother and daughter were on trial too. Carrie tested at the “moron level” and her mother slightly lower, according to the highly biased experts. Her illegitimate child, examined at seven months, was termed feebleminded—this was based on the observations of a Red Cross worker and on a test administered by Estabrook. The experts’ pedigree chart proved degeneracy as well as sexual deviance: Carrie’s mother was a prostitute, and Carrie had been raped by the nephew of her adoptive parents. Her rapist went unpunished, and yet she was sterilized.70
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Eugenics suffused the culture of the twenties. Social classes were ranked according to levels of inheritable potential. At the top was the new professional “master class.” Many believed that intelligence was inherited and that tests of schoolchildren proved that the brightest pupils were those whose parents were highly educated professionals. This elite had to be not just mentally but also physically fit. At the Second International Congress of Eugenics in New York, in 1921, two statues were put on display at opposite ends of Darwin Hall in the Museum of Natural History. One was a composite of the biometric measures of the fifty most athletic men at Harvard, the other an amalgam of one hundred thousand doughboys of World War I—in other words, the “average American male.” The Harvard specimen was the decidedly more impressive of the two. A new word was coined for the cognitive elite: “aristogenic”—what we would call a genetic leadership class. One was once again born to a station, as in the traditional meaning of aristocracy, but it was not because of family name or wealth. Now it was the endowment of inborn qualities that marked off the superior class.71
Carrie Buck and her mother, Emma (1924). Carrie, her mother, and Carrie’s illegitimate daughter were all put on trial in Buck v. Bell (1927). Their crime was one of pedigree—a defective breed perpetuated over three generations.
Arthur Estabrook Collection, M. E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University of Albany Libraries, Albany, New York
While eugenicists made it fashionable to celebrate a hereditary ruling class, they were as bent on organizing social classes on the basis of breeding capacity. One of the most popular eugenics lecturers, C. W. Saleeby, spoke up for something called “eugenic feminism,” insisting that the brightest women should not only take up the suffrage cause but also accept their patriotic duty to breed. He imagined female society organized as a bee colony: the queens of superior stock bred throughout their fertile years, while educated sterile women (or postmenopausal) were best suited for reform activity. Professor William McDougall at Harvard came up with an equally radical solution. He called for a breeding colony of “Eugenia,” a separate protectorate within the United States, in which the best and brightest would propagate a superior stock. Eugenia would be at once a university and a stud farm. Raised as “aristocrats” in the tradition of “noblesse oblige,” the products of the special colony would go out into the world as skilled public servants.72
The obsession with white trash did not lose any traction in the 1920s. Reformers and legislators pushed their campaigns, while journalists wrote sensational newspaper stories and published shocking photographs. The Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell inspired Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to pass sterilization laws similar to the one adopted in Virginia. Protecting and promoting “good blood” would mean little if removing “bad blood” did not receive the same attention.73
The decade also saw the appearance of a new generation of novelists who experimented with eugenic ideas. Of these, the very popular Sherwood Anderson stood out. He composed semiautobiographical tales about small-town life, publishing the unmistakably titled Poor White in 1920. His character Hugh McIvey is the son of white trash, born in a “hole” of a town on a muddy bank along the Mississippi, in Missouri. His nature is that of a listless dreamer, his sleepy mind unable to fix on anything important. He is saved from his “animal-like stupor” when the railroad comes through town, bringing a fresh-faced New England-born Michigander, in whose veins “flowed the blood of the pioneers,” and who becomes his schoolteacher. Almost Rousseau-like, she stimulates in him a new intellectual vitality.74
Wanting to escape his past and rise socially, Hugh leaves the South behind. He wanders from town to town for three years, eventually settling in Bridewell, Ohio. There, after he takes a job in a telegraph office, technology shapes his destiny, and his dreamy nature blossoms into what the reader recognizes as good old-fashioned American ingenuity. He invents a series of machines, the most successful of which is the McIvey Corn-Cutter. Transformed into a hero in his adoptive industrializing town, Hugh meets the rebellious Clara Butterfield, a college-educated, feminist-leaning woman. She chooses him for a husband, in an act of eugenic marital selection, preferring what she describes as a “kind horse” to a “wolf or wolfhound.”75
It is the force of reproduction that ultimately saves the couple from the tensions that arise amid the surge of modern life. After facing various dangers, Hugh becomes dark and brooding when he starts to see the machine age as nihilistic and futile. His wife pulls him back from the brink of insanity by reminding him of the son she carries in her belly. Feeling a primitive, animal impulse to reproduce allows him to carry on.76
Anderson’s novel rejected the jingoistic optimism of the nineteenth century, but it also pointed to the eugenic idea that poor whites suffered from “childish impotence” or “arrested development,” requiring the reactivation of their better Saxon qualities. Facing challenges, Hugh never reaches the level of hopelessness that infuses Erskine Caldwell’s first novel, The Bastard (1929). Caldwell was the son of a minister in Georgia, and his father was sympathetic to eugenics. The Bastard seeks to prove that no human can hide from his “inborn” traits, from the imprint of his ancestors.77
Caldwell’s protagonist is Gene Morgan (“Eugene” comes from the same root of wellborn as “eugenic”). Our ironically named hero is a bastard. He learns that his harlot mother was murdered in Louisiana, her belly slit open like a “swamp”—an allusion to the polluted wasteland inside her, from which he was spawned. Gene is a vicious white, a wanderer, and his only pleasure comes from violence. Raised by an old Negro woman and sexually attracted to a mulatto girl, he thoughtlessly transgresses the color line.78
Gene is lost until he meets Myra Morgan, a “clean … feminine woman.” They marry and move to Philadelphia, where he works hard to support his new wife and the baby that soon comes along. The parents watch, to their horror, as their child transforms into a freak. His body is covered with black hair, like that of a wild animal, proving that the taint of the swamp is still present in his blood, despite Myra’s purity. The doctor tells her that she can expect all of her children to be degenerate, leaving a clear message: the bastard Gene is congenitally cursed. There are hints of inbreeding, since Gene and Myra have the same last name. He contemplates murdering his son, but doesn’t go through with it. He leaves his beloved wife, hoping she will marry a normal man.79
The rising generation of a new, modern century saw little of enduring substance in family dynasties of the Gilded Age. All they had to speak of was their money. In place of America’s imperfect aristocracy, progressive reformers were eager to rear a cognitive elite, one that could deal with modern technology and bureaucracy. Class continued to matter greatly, but it wasn’t going to be the flamboyant aristocracy of the effete Old World that would monitor modernity; hope lay instead with a cadre of men in white lab coats and bureaucrats in tailored suits. Professional expertise would be convincing enough evidence of inborn merit.80
It should seem odd to us that the high tide of eugenics coexisted with the storied glamour of the Roaring Twenties: Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, lighthearted flappers, and unpoliced speakeasies. Yet even the flappers were warned that their daring dancing style too closely resembled the ways of those who had “gypsy” (i.e., black) blood; they would be better served to settle down with a eugenically suitable mate. If ever there was time when class consciousness sank deep roots, this was it. The 1920s saw social exclusiveness masquerade as science and disdain for rural backwardness and the mongrel taint intensify. In a culture under siege, white trash meant impure, and not quite white. Like the moron who somehow passed into the middle class, the ill-bred bastard gave a watchful people a new set of social hazards to look out for, while they listened to the stock ticker and marched off a cliff with the market crash in 1929.81