Defending the Master Race
Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant
Not in stock
Available: November 2008
University of Vermont Press
University Press of New England
512 pp. 32 illus. 6 1/8 x 9 1/4”
History / Nature
$39.95 Cloth, 978-1-58465-715-6
A historical rediscovery of one of the heroic founders of the conservation movement who was also one of the most infamous racists in American history
Scholars have labeled Madison Grant everything from the “nation’s most influential racist” to the “greatest conservationist that ever lived.” His life illuminates early twentieth-century America as it was heading toward the American Century, and his legacy is still very much with us today, from the speeches of immigrant-bashing politicians to the international efforts to arrest climate change. This insightful biography shows how Grant worked side-by-side with figures such as Theodore Roosevelt to found the Bronx Zoo, preserve the California redwoods, and save the American bison from extinction. But Grant was also the leader of the eugenics movement in the United States. He popularized the infamous notions that the blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordics were the “master race” and that the state should eliminate members of inferior races who were of no value to the community. Grant’s behind-the-scenes machinations convinced Congress to enact the immigration restriction legislation of the 1920s, and his influence led many states to ban interracial marriage and sterilize thousands of “unworthy” citizens. Although most of the relevant archival materials on Madison Grant have mysteriously disappeared over the decades, Jonathan Spiro has devoted many years to reconstructing the hitherto concealed events of Grant’s life. His astonishing feat of detective work reveals how the founder of the Bronx Zoo wound up writing the book that Adolf Hitler declared was his “bible.”
JONATHAN SPIRO is a professor of history at Castleton State College in Vermont.
Nelson Rosit reviewed Spiro's PhD thesis Patrician Racist: The Evolution of Madison Grant--which likely overlaps almost entirely with the forthcoming book--for The Occidental Quarterly last year.
Spiro teaches history at Castleton State College in Vermont. Patrician Racist is his doctoral dissertation, submitted as part of a PhD program in history at the University of California, Berkeley. It is available in a variety of formats from UMI Dissertation Service of Ann Arbor, Michigan. While readily accessible, such manuscripts have several drawbacks. They lack the production quality that a major book publisher would provide. In this case there is some bleed through in text, the photographs are of poor quality, and of course, there is no index. Another disadvantage is that this two-volume, 950 page dissertation never had the benefit of professional editing, which would have trimmed off some fat without losing any of the meat.1
The questions of form are less problematic than reservations about the author’s frame of reference. Spiro is a liberal and a Jew writing about a man he perceives to be an elitist and an anti-Semite. His ideology and ethnicity have prejudiced his account. Spiro is not out to do a hatchet job on Grant. As a scholar he is too sophisticated for that, and to Spiro’s credit he is upfront about his biases. His perspective, however, leaves him with a blind spot and he claims he cannot understand Grant’s motives. Because he is at variance with his subject, Spiro resorts annoyingly often to a sarcastic and facetious brand of humor that can wear on the reader.
Given these flaws, why bother considering Patrician Racist? Although not the ideal biographer for Madison Grant, there is no denying that Spiro is a first-class researcher. A true archival athlete, Spiro consulted no fewer than 112 archive collections, and his bibliography fills thirty-two closely spaced pages. He needed to cast a wide net because Grant is not an easy biographical subject. He wrote no memoirs and his family destroyed his personal papers after his death. Much of his correspondence to colleagues has also been destroyed or gone missing. In addition, though Grant was an activist, he was not a self-promoter, and usually worked out of the limelight. So Spiro “scoured the newspapers of Grant’s time and the memoirs of his peers to glean any and all mentions of Grant, and combed through the correspondence of hundreds of his colleagues attempting to decipher the occasional reference to him.”2 There are, of course, Grant’s published works, the records of his many organizations, and his achievements in environmental and racial preservation. It is largely through his work that we can get to know and appreciate Madison Grant.
[. . .]
Grant was a scholar, but his greatest achievements came as an activist. The Passing of the Great Race was criticized in some academic reviews for its lack of footnotes and sweeping generalizations. The format and style were intentional. Grant’s goal was to attract the widest possible readership so as to influence American public opinion. The most important policy change Grant and his colleagues (Spiro calls them Grantians) wanted was tighter restrictions on immigration. The First World War had restricted immigration from 1914 to 1919. Now millions from war-ravaged Europe were poised to immigrate to the United States.23 While the restrictions of the 1920s aimed at Southern and Eastern Europeans Spiro believes their main intent was to halt the influx of Jews into America. Jews were so closely identified with Bolshevism at the time that opposition to their immigration was based as much on ideological as racial grounds.
Not surprisingly, when immigration legislation was introduced to Congress in 1920 Jews were the most vocal opponents. Boas led the opposition in academia, while Representatives Isaac Siegel, Samuel Dickstein, Adolph Sabath, and freshman Emanuel Celler were the chief adversaries in Congress.24 Striking a contemporary note, Gedalia Bublick, editor of the Jewish Daily News, complained to the House Immigration Committee that the legislation was a product of “race hatred.”25 Spiro comments that some Jewish leaders resorted to the “if you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em” strategy during the racially conscious 1920s. Jews would oppose immigration from Asia in the hope that “the old-stock Americans would permit them to join the Nordics in a coalition known as ‘the white race.’”26
Restrictive legislation was passed in 1921 and 1922, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the annual total of immigrants to 165,000, mostly from Northern and Western Europe. The act did not apply to the Western Hemisphere. Grant and his colleagues rejoiced, but did not rest on their laurels. There was still the issue of Latin American immigration, the millions of nonwhites already in the country, and the need for a eugenics program.27 Spiro dates America’s high-water mark for scientific racism to 1924. It is quite remarkable how quickly this movement collapsed during the next decade and a half. The author devoted an entire chapter “The Empire Crumbles,” to analyzing the decline of racial consciousness. As with the immigration fight, Spiro highlights the role of Jews, in this case academics, who successfully discredited the belief in hereditary racial differences. Boas, of course, was among this number. So was Jacques Loeb, another Jew from Germany, as well as Edward Sapir, Melville Herskovits, Alexander Weinstein—the list goes on and on.
[. . .]
Hardcore Grantians will want to read Spiro’s biography. This dissertation is an impressive research effort, and they will learn a lot about their champion. Others may want to wait to see if the text is released by a book publisher. [See above.] It is sadly indicative of our times that no European-American historian felt the need or had the courage to write the biography of America’s premier racialist. If Patrician Racist becomes the definitive biography of Madison Grant, then it will be part of the valedictory for white America. My hope is that in twenty or thirty years a more sympathetic scholar will write the definitive biography of Grant. By that time European-Americans should be able to fully appreciate the greatness of Grant. He was truly prescient, seeing clearly the dangers confronting both his race and the physical environment that sustains that race. More important, he accepted personal responsibility for saving both. The fact that his efforts met with mixed results was not the fault of his intelligence or energy, but was due to the shortsightedness of his fellow Americans and the strength of the forces arrayed against him.
Rosit's misgivings are probably warranted. But compared to the typical liberal or Jewish writer on "scientific racism", Spiro is the picture of objectivity. Unless something goes terribly wrong during editing, Defending the Master Race should be worth the read.