Philanthropy’s War on Community
The professional elites trained in these world-class institutions would have the expertise necessary to guide, shape, and mold the American people.
Psychology and sociology would find the uniform rules of human behavior beneath all of its confusing and superficial diversity so lamentably reflected in America’s small communities.
Political science would teach us how to reorganize public life according to those rules, moving us away from divisive state and local allegiances, toward an inspiring and ennobling great national community, quietly and rationally administered by cosmopolitan elites according to the unassailably objective principles of scientific management.
Among the most valuable of the sciences supported by the first foundations was the emerging study of human biology known as eugenics.
Thanks to the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of biological inheritance at the beginning of the 20th century, we now knew what the root cause of human pathology truly was, namely bad genes.
Nearly every form of human misbehavior or misfortune – from promiscuity to shiftlessness to dipsomania to the all-encompassing “feeble-mindedness” – could be traced back to defective “protoplasm.”
And so America’s major philanthropies eagerly poured their resources into the promising science of eugenics. Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Mrs. E. H. Harriman (as she always described herself) – widow of the railroad magnate – provided the funds for Harvard biologist Charles Davenport to establish the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York in 1911.
The ERO would be the international center for eugenics research and public policy advocacy until it was finally closed in 1939 – when even its philanthropic sponsors could not fail to heed the ominous signals emanating from Germany about the implications of a vigorous eugenic program.
If philanthropy in general was hostile to local community, eugenics was doubly so. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Charles Davenport’s magnum opus, entitled Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, published in 1911 and dedicated to Mrs. E. H. Harriman.