Last century's immigration debate makes today's seem enlightened
"Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,
And through them presses a wild motley throng ...
O Liberty, white Goddess! is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?"
-- Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1892)
WASHINGTON -- If you think we have reached peak stupidity -- that America's per-capita quantity has never been higher -- there is solace, of sorts, in Daniel Okrent's guided tour through the immigration debate that was heading toward a nasty legislative conclusion a century ago. "The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America" provides evidence that today's public arguments are comparatively enlightened.
Late in the 19th century, immigration surged, as did alarm about it, especially in society's upper crust, particularly its Boston portion, which thought that the wrong sort of people were coming. Darwinian theory and emerging genetic science were bowdlerized by bad scientists, faux scientists and numerous philistine ax-grinders with political agendas bent on arguing for engineering a better stock of American humans through immigration restrictions and eugenics -- selective breeding.
Their theory was that nurture (education, socialization, family structure) matters little because nature is determinative. They asserted that even morality and individuals' characters are biologically determined by race. And they spun an imaginative taxonomy of races, including European "Alpine," "Teutonic" (aka "Nordic") and "Mediterranean" races.
Racist thinking about immigration saturated mainstream newspapers (the Boston Herald: "Shall we permit these inferior races to dilute the thrifty, capable Yankee blood ... of the earlier immigrants?") and elite journals (in The Yale Review, recent immigrants were described as "vast masses of filth" from "every foul and stagnant pool of population in Europe"). In The Century monthly, which published Mark Twain, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, W.E.B. Du Bois and H.G. Wells, an author informed readers that "Mediterranean people are morally below the races of northern Europe," that immigrants from Southern Italy "lack the conveniences for thinking," that Neapolitans were a "degenerate" class "infected with spiritual hookworm" and displaying "low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins ... and backless heads," and that few of the garment workers in New York's Union Square "had the type of face one would find at a county fair in the west or south." The nation's most important periodical, The Saturday Evening Post, devoted tens of thousands of words to the braided crusades for eugenics and race-based immigration policies. Popular poet Edgar Lee Masters ("Spoon River Anthology" ) wrote "The Great Race Passes":
On State Street throngs crowd and push,