Colonists or Immigrants? Imperialist Themes in American Eugenics in the Early 20th Century

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 4:10 PM
Columbia 8 (Washington Hilton)
Jason J. McDonald, Truman State University
Among scholars interested in the history of race and ethnicity, the eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin is best known for his important role in the establishment of the infamous national origins quota system in the United States during the 1920s. Laughlin’s so-called expert testimony helped persuade Congress to pass laws that deliberately favored immigration from Northern and Western Europe and severely limited or entirely banned it from other parts of the Old World. American eugenicists comprised just one of the many elements that coalesced into the early twentieth-century immigration restriction movement and they undoubtedly shared the nativist outlook that motivated many of the other advocates of the quota system. However, a close reading of Laughlin’s writings on nationality, race, and immigration reveals that he possessed a more expansive view of global migration than might be expected from somebody so closely linked with a campaign to restrict the flow of newcomers into the United States. This more expansive view is demonstrated in the distinction that Laughlin drew between “colonists” and “immigrants.” Laughlin viewed American civilization as an outgrowth of European and especially British civilization. He wholeheartedly endorsed the colonizing activities he witnessed being undertaken by Britain in various parts of the world. For Laughlin, Americans were also “colonists,” because they, too, were engaged in constructing a variant of British civilization. In contrast, Laughlin contended that “immigrants” from Southern and Eastern Europe—whom he viewed to be of inferior racial stock—were not suitable for inclusion in the colonization project underway in North America. Such a viewpoint enabled Laughlin to straddle the contradiction between advocating, on the one hand, the restriction of migration into his own homeland, and, on the other, the relatively unfettered movement of Europeans into the traditional homelands of other, particularly nonwhite, peoples.