Having worked to save buffaloes, antelopes, eagles and bears, it seemed only natural to him to turn to the preservation of his own kind, viz., Americans threatened by the flood of foreign immigration of the early twentieth century.
Born into an old and wealthy New York family, Grant was taught by private tutors and then packed off to Europe at age sixteen for a four year classical education cum grand tour. He graduated from Yale, studied law at Columbia University, and was admitted to the bar in 1890. But he had no financial need to practice law, and spent most of early manhood socializing and hunting.
In 1893, he was admitted to the Boone and Crockett Club, an exclusive society of big game hunters founded by Theodore Roosevelt. The club quickly turned much of its attention to the increasing scarcity of big game. This was due, among other things, to widespread commercial hunting and such unsportsmanlike practices as “crusting” (killing game rendered helpless by deep snow) and “jacking” (shining lanterns into the darkness to hypnotize animals).
Madison Grant declared that “the game and the forest belong to the nation and not to the individual”, and with the support of the Boone and Crockett Club, he first pushed an “Adirondack Deer Law” through the New York State legislature in 1897.
Next, Grant and his friends founded the Bronx Zoo. Over four times the size of the largest European zoo, it was also the first anywhere to attempt to display its animals in something approaching their natural environment. Not to be missed is Prof. Spiro’s account of the Bronx Zoo’s brief exhibition of a Congolese pygmy (“The Wild Man of Africa”) in a cage with an Orangutan,and all the fun which ensued.
Over time, Grant’s concerns widened from the mere preservation of game for hunters to natural preservation for its own sake. He wrote:
“It is our duty as Americans to hand down to our posterity some portion of the heritage of wildlife and of wild nature that was ours. In other words, to leave to them a country worth living in, with trees on the hillsides; with beasts in the forests; with fish in the streams; and with birds in the air.”
With his friend and ally Teddy Roosevelt in the White House, Grant went from triumph to triumph: creating reserves for the American Bison, establishing Glacier National Park, and saving California’s Giant Redwoods from extinction. Only Prof. Spiro’s concern for the average reader’s attention span prevents him from describing Grant’s involvement in saving the Pronghorn Antelope, the Bald Eagle, the Alaskan Bear and the Fur Seal. As one director of the National Park Service declared, “no greater conservationist than Madison Grant ever lived.” […]
In 1908, Grant came under the influence of physical anthropologist William Z. Ripley, author of The Races of Europe. He learned that the rise of mass immigration correlated with a drastic decline in the fertility of the older American population. As a result, immigration amounted not to a re-enforcement of the American population but to a replacement of native by foreign stock.
Ripley also taught that Europe was inhabited not by one but by three races, albeit much mixed. The old American stock had belonged to the superior “Nordic” branch of Europeans, which was being replaced by the supposedly inferior “Alpine” and “Mediterranean” types.
Finally, Ripley also taught him the botanical phenomenon of reversion, whereby the crossing of two dissimilar domesticated plants produced an offspring with the traits of some ancient wild variety. This led Ripley to believe that the offspring of old stock Americans and the new immigrants might “revert” to the condition of Neanderthals or some other primitive hominid. Grant would take this fanciful bit of speculation seriously enough to press for drastic antimiscegenation laws.
In 1909, Grant became Vice President of the Immigration Restriction League, already in existence since 1895. There efforts were at first directed toward establishing a literacy test as a requirement for immigration. The primary if unstated aim of this campaign was to discourage immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, where literacy rates were lower. Grover Cleveland had vetoed such a bill as early as 1896. Grant lobbied President William Howard Taft personally, but to no effect. Taft’s attorney general told him: “My dear Grant, if the manual laborer is shut out, we will soon have nobody to dig our ditches!”
Taft’s successor Woodrow Wilson also opposed such a bill, but congressional support grew until his veto was finally overridden in 1917. But by that time literacy rates were so high all over Europe that the new law had little effect.
The tide was turned mainly by Grant’s publication in 1916 of The Passing of the Great Race, developing and popularizing Ripley’s racial ideas. […]
In this age of ethnic hypersensitivity, it is interesting to read some of the language employed in the immigration debate of the 1920s. The new immigrants constituted a “turgid stream of offscourings; the scum, the offal, and the excrescence of the earth; human scrubs and runts and culls; indescribably filthy, twisted, ignorant and verminous”, etc. (These descriptions appeared in mainstream publications and in testimony before Congress.)
This last charge—”verminous”—was literally true in some cases; delousing centers had to be set up in European ports to fumigate emigrants for America. But after all, even Emma Lazarus had described the new arrivals as “wretched refuse”.
During the three years of “temporary” immigration restriction, Grant and his many coworkers continued to propagate his ideas. Among other endeavors, they organized an international eugenics conference in New York. Once it concluded, all the displays, maps and charts were sent off to Washington DC and displayed for several months in congressional meeting rooms. No one could doubt that public as well as political support for permanent immigration restriction was on the rise.
(V Dare, January 22, 2009).