The main split among progressives on the issue of eugenics was between advocates of positive and negative eugenics. One side wanted to improve the environment so as to improve the genetic stock of the society. The other side wanted to weed out the defective whites and inferior races from the garden of humanity. Often you’ll hear these two schools cast as liberal and conservative. This is spin. While of course there were conservatives who held eugenic ideas — they were the cutting edge modern ideas, after all — over all, positive and negative eugenics were different camps within the larger progressive movement. Classical liberals didn’t support eugenics on laissez-faire or other limited government grounds. And traditionalists, particularly Catholics, opposed eugenics because they opposed tinkering with the sanctity of life. G.K. Chesterton, for example, was the world’s leading opponent of eugenics. The sole dissenter in Buck v. Bell was the conservative Catholic Justice Pierce Butler (Louis Brandeis and Harlan Fiske Stone — liberal heroes — went along with Oliver Wendell Holmes), the lone Catholic on the Court.
Anyway to give you a sense of how the positive and negative eugenics camps were both within the progressive camp, here’s an excerpt from a March 18, 1916 editorial in The New Republic (almost surely written by Croly himself since, as I understand it, he wrote nearly all of the editorials when he was editor). It didn’t make it into my book, but it’s always stuck out in my memory:
IN the latest Unpopular Review we have encountered an extremely able and cogent article on eugenics, ” Your Blood and Mine,” which would never have appeared there if the editor were taking his gospel of reaction as seriously as do some of his contributors. Laissez-faire as a policy of population leads straight to perdition, according to this writer. The defective element in our population amounts to four per cent of the whole; it overcrowds our jails and asylums, and inflicts upon us an actual cash burden in excess of the cost of our army. Imbecility breeds imbecility as certainly as white hens breed white chickens; and under laissez-faire imbecility is given full chance to breed, and does so in fact at a rate far superior to that of able stocks. The burden is progressive. All this and much more contained in the writer’s argument is true; why is it that it does not stir the intelligent public to action ? We may suggest that a socialized policy of population cannot be built upon a laissez-faire economic policy. So long as the state neglects its good blood, it will let its bad blood alone. There is no certain way of distinguishing between defectiveness in the strain and defectiveness produced by malnutrition, neglected lesions originally curable, or overwork in childhood. When the state assumes the duty of giving a fair opportunity for development to every child, it will find unanimous support for a policy of extinction of stocks incapable of profiting from their privileges. [Emphasis mine]
Translation: Once we get the socialist welfare state up and humming, we’ll be able to tell who are the genetic defectives and no “progressive” minded person will object to eliminating them.