"The Passing of the Great Race" at 100
The Passing of the Great Race; or, The Racial Bias of European History
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916
2016 marks a century since the publication of The Passing of the Great Race, a book described by the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould as “the most influential tract of American scientific racism.” Its author, Madison Grant, a genteel dabbler with impeccable establishment ties, was a pure and unabashed bigot, a patrician who defended social inequality as the outcome of biological fact. The good people of the heroic Nordic race, he cried, were always at risk of subversion by their darker-skinned inferiors, even in the land of Horatio Alger, where heredity, with enough sweat from one’s brow, was not supposed to trump environment or self-determination.
The Passing of the Great Race has had many uses over the years. The Führer himself raved about The Passing, calling it “my Bible,” and it was entered into evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials in defense of Hitler’s personal physician to show that specifically American theories of white racial superiority supported the crimes against humanity with which he was charged—forced sterilization, for instance, or unnecessary and experimental surgery performed without anesthesia.
Particularly striking about Grant is his lack of originality—his skill at reproducing as his own the conventional wisdom of white supremacy. In fact, the primary achievement of this arcane, humorless book may be simply that it was so influential despite borrowing so heavily from other writers whose work Grant digested. In his biography of Grant, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics and the Legacy of Madison Grant, Jonathan Spiro writes that “almost nothing in The Passing of the Great Race is original.” Rather, the book is a “compendium of the work of other scholars, and almost every paragraph can be directly traced” back to figures such as the European scientific racists Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain.
For example, Grant’s tripartite division of humankind into “Nordic,” “Mongoloid,” and “Negroid” is a clear rehash of how Gobineau split up the world’s population into three races: “the white, the yellow, and the black.” Gobineau casts the Aryan race as the hero of his Essay on the Inequality of the Races, just as Grant does the Nordic race in The Passing. As for Chamberlain, the influence on Grant is clear from the very language he uses to evoke the fear of barbarian invasion. Just as Chamberlain describes ancient Rome as a “cloaca gentium, the trysting place of all the mongrels of the world,” so too does Grant refer to early-20th-century New York City as a “cloaca gentium which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel.”
Of course, the present-day observer of the US presidential election is no stranger to nativist fears, even if they are rarely rendered into Latin. Aside from the book’s centenary, the central place of anti-immigrant animus in this year’s campaign furnishes us with another reason to revisit The Passing. To be sure, there are huge differences between the way Grant, a prim figure of high WASP respectability, expressed his fears about immigration and the ways Donald Trump has sought to exploit those same fears today. If anything, Grant was the quintessential establishment figure of his time, not an upstart populist demagogue who wields racial rhetoric to poke it in the eye.
Nevertheless, when Grant describes New York as a “cloaca gentium,” or sewer of the nations, he expresses an idea that’s not completely alien to what Trump says when he refers to the United States as “the dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” For all their manifold and profound differences, Trump exercises the same fears of foreign infiltration. Mexico, he claims, is sending “people that have lots of problems [into the US] … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” It’s not unlike the process that Grant describes in The Passing when he says:
It sometimes happens that an infiltration of population takes place either in the guise of unwilling slaves, or of willing immigrants, filling up waste places and taking the lowly tasks which the lords of the land despise, gradually occupying the country and literally breeding out their former masters.
The idea of an infiltration of a weakened host followed by cultural decline is at the heart of both Grant’s pessimism about the future and Trump’s ceaselessly defeatist appeals to the voters. Witness the title of his campaign book, Crippled America. (It may also be worth noting that Spiro, Grant’s biographer, has unearthed evidence that Grant furiously lobbied the Hoover administration in 1930 to ban all immigration from Mexico.)
The answer to this fear, for voters drawn to the Trump flame, is to “take our country back” and preserve something of its past racial order. As one Trump supporter near Phoenix put it to a reporter for the Washington Post, “If you’re coming into our country, you have got to conform to what we stand for. You speak English. You don’t try to change our country to what your country was.”
Actually, even this would be too generous a standard according to Grant, who was a scientific, as opposed to merely a popular, racist. His hatred of both non-Nordic immigrants and African Americans makes it clear that mere conformity would never suffice:
The view that the Negro slave was an unfortunate cousin of the white man, deeply tanned by the tropic sun, and denied the blessings of Christianity and civilization, played no small part with the sentimentalists of the Civil War period, and it has taken us 50 years to learn that speaking English, wearing good clothes, and going to church and school, does not transform a Negro into a white man.
The Passing is an attempt to “elucidate the meaning of history in terms of race”; that is, according to “physical and psychical characters” rather than “political grouping” or “spoken language.” To take in such a wide ken, Grant goes back hundreds of thousands of years and fills his pages with more strange tribes and bizarre-sounding places than a George R. R. Martin novel. His recapitulation of human history, from the mists of earliest time to his present day, offers a parade of “Negroids,” “Mongoloids,” “slit-eyed Mongols,” “Northmen,” Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, Avars, Wends, Suevi, and Cymric Brythons, just to name a few. In his recent New Yorker review of HBO’s adaptation of the Song of Ice and Fire series, Clive James writes about a “land before the establishment of the law” that evokes not just Game of Thrones but the “savage state of society” that Grant approves of because it allows the “backward members” to perish while the race is “carried on by the vigorous and not by the weaklings.”
More than anything else, The Passing is an elegy to the “white man par excellence”:
the purely European type … everywhere characterized by certain unique specializations, namely, blondness; wavy hair; blue eyes; fair skin; high, narrow, and straight nose, which are associated with great stature; and a long skull, as well as with abundant and body hair.
Grant favored a very specific type, apparently, and he elevates it to the level of heroic stature while relegating into nothingness the presence or agency of any actual human beings. In Grant’s history, nearly every great person or event—from Homer to Giotto, from the invention of speech to the Renaissance—is the result of the superior Nordic culture whose “arrival everywhere is marked by a new and higher civilization.”
For all the triumphs of the magical Nordics, Grant reckons that the previous millennia were not marked by human progress but by human decline. Instead of conquering inferior peoples and spreading superior traits, the “clash of civilizations,” as it were, leads to the corruption of superior races. Rome, for most of its time under the Republic, for instance, is cited by Grant as an example of a Nordic culture; but then the Romans conquered (and mixed with, one assumes) their neighboring Greeks, “whose volatile and analytic spirit, lack of cohesion, political incapacity, and ready resort to treason, all point clearly to southern and eastern affinities.”
Although Grant takes studious pains to appear neutral and above the contemporary affairs of 1916, even a cursory reader can tell that it is meant as a warning against “race suicide” in the United States of his day. “All historians are familiar with the phenomenon of a rise and decline in civilization such as has occurred time and again in the history of the world,” Grant writes. Like the Cro-Magnons who disappeared 12,000 years ago, however:
There is great danger of a similar replacement of a higher by a lower type here in America unless the native [that is, Nordic] American uses his superior intelligence to protect himself and his children from competition with intrusive peoples drained from the lowest races of eastern Europe and western Asia.
The people being drained into the great dumping ground in Grant’s days were mostly Jews and Italians. Although he took some pains to conceal it in the The Passing, Grant was an anti-Semite of great conviction. In a letter to President Taft, he warned that Polish Jews were “ruining” America’s big cities. Grant was angry at Taft for vetoing the Literacy Test Act of 1912, which, Grant claimed, showed that the Republican president had fallen prey to “Jewish influence.” (One wonders what his response was when Woodrow Wilson, certainly no sob sister when it came to Grant’s “hard truths” about race, repeatedly vetoed the same legislation).
This brings us to the area of greatest concern today, and perhaps also to the area where Grant and his followers did the most damage: immigration policy. This election is not the first time that politicians have pushed a hardline nativist agenda. When we hear Donald Trump talk about the United States as a “dumping ground,” we should remember that Calvin Coolidge used the same phrase in a 1921 article on immigration—under the headline, “Whose country is this?”—that ran in an issue of Good Housekeeping. Both Coolidge and Warren Harding endorsed the Nordic view of race theory in their first year together at the White House. Harding almost went so far as to appoint a special commission on the subject, to be chaired by Grant, at the urging of his friend, Senator James Vardaman, who passed a copy of Grant’s book right into the president’s hands.
The moment of Grant’s greatest triumph came with the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, a law that the great anthropologist Franz Boas said was all about the Nordic theory of superiority. In December 1923, President Coolidge delivered his first message to Congress, saying that “America must be kept American. For this purpose, it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration.” What followed was several months of debate that led to huge victories for efforts to keep more and more non-whites from immigrating to the United States. On April 12, 1924 the House of Representatives answered the president’s call by approving an immigration restriction bill by a vote of 323 to 71. Six days later, the Senate passed it by a vote of 62 to 6. The result would be to chop almost in half the number of immigrants entering the United States each year, from 355,000 to 165,000.
Even though it was the greatest triumph of Madison Grant’s lifetime of quiet work behind the scenes, the man himself had almost no role in the passage of the bill. It’s a sign that his influence stemmed at least as much from his tireless lobbying efforts as much as it did from his literary ones.
Grant was too frail (crippled, ironically, for such an dedicated eugenicist) to testify in favor of the bill he did so much to make law. “But in a testament to the power of malevolent ideas,” Spiro writes, “Grant’s physical presence was not really required on Capitol Hill in 1924.” He had already done his part through lobbying, propaganda and constant proselytizing among the highest levels of society. And who knows? With Trump now his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, perhaps a new era of popular racism is dawning, to serve as a fun-house mirror reflection of the “scientific” racism that characterized conventional wisdom among men of a certain class a century ago.
Correction: July 17, 2016
An earlier version of this article mistakenly conflated the title of George R. R. Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire with the title of its HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones.
Noel Hartman is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY.