Sample History Essays on The Eugenics Movement in the US

Eugenics encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the general quality of the human population. The beliefs and values linked to eugenics fulfilled a fundamental role in American history before the participation of the nation in World War II. American eugenicists believed that people inherited mental illness, criminal behavior, and poverty from these genes. As such, the most effective method of addressing the societal problems occasioned by industrialization and immigration was to alter the genes. Indeed, eugenics is understood in the premise of America’s social, political, and economic contexts. The eugenics practice that seemed absurd gained popularity as shown by the rise in the eugenics movement. The eugenics movement thrived because the practice appeared to be the best solution to societal problems caused by urbanization and immigration. The eugenics movement further rose because propaganda necessitated the dissemination of biased information regarding eugenics practice and due to the support it received from proponents of the Progressive Era.

Urbanization and Immigration

Concerns regarding urbanization and immigration fuelled eugenics. The American eugenics movements arose in the wake of economic and social problems after the Civil War. There was a considerable growth of American industries and increased mechanization of agricultural activities. These factors initiated the first major migration away from the farms into the cities, creating the need for more housing units to accommodate the soaring number of people.[1] Further, the exploitation of labor due to industrial growth led to the establishment of militant labor unions. The labor unrest was further fueled by fluctuation in the price of commodities that bankrupted many businesses. The problem was further compounded by the soaring tide of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. The Eugenics movement comprising eugenicists and their wealthy supporters were alarmed by the increasing militant labor unions and the immigrants, especially Italians and Jews, who were viewed as troublemakers. The eugenicists claimed there was a need to institute birth and marriage control measures to curtail the social problems in America.[2]  As follows, eugenics was viewed as the ideal solution to the mentioned problems because it attached the cause to the individuals’ genes and not the societal setup.

Propaganda Dissemination

Propaganda disseminated through deceptive language and metaphors contributed to the rise of eugenic movements. Propaganda refers to the use of distorted information in a manner that deceives people to believe biased or misleading views and opinions. During the first decades of the 20th century, eugenicists used propaganda to perpetuate the idea that sexual sterilizations or restricted immigration would improve humanity.[3] The idea was that eugenics could improve social welfare policies that attempted to address societal problems experienced in America and caused by individuals referred to as lunatics. Thus, eugenics was viewed as the perfect solution to the mentioned problems because it attached the cause to the individuals’ genes instead of the societal setup. The disseminated information portrayed certain members of the populations like Jews and Italians, whose existence had not been notified to the commissioners.[4]  Indeed, propaganda contributed to the rise of the movement because it effectively unified the movement’s tactics. The unified tactics afterward created fear towards specific sub-ethnic groups as they were portrayed in satirical and stereotypical fashion.[5] Notable metaphors like disease, war, and natural catastrophe were used to advance the eugenics movement’s agenda. The language and metaphors helped manipulate people into endorsing the sterilization of individuals.

Progressive Movement

The Progressive Era’s support of a more expansive government contributed to the rise of the eugenics movement. The expansion of state power during the Progressive Era meant it was possible to have eugenic thoughts and ideas. For example, the eugenics legislation awaited the establishment of the welfare states. Progressives were, therefore, drawn into eugenic arguments in the same degree as the commitment to reform the relevant legislation. Progressives argued that it was time to involve science, humanity, and legislation to remedy the many social problems Americans faced.[6] The progressives were committed to the explanation that progress was possible through scientific and social inquiries to explain social and economic problems. The progressives believed in the legitimacy of social control in societies. Additionally, the progressives believed that social control was an ingredient to effective public administration. Ultimately, progressives claimed that scientific expertise was an impetus to effective public administration. During the first decades of the twentieth century, notable eugenicists were pioneers in statistics. Therefore, the progressives supported the quest of eugenicists because statistics were regarded as the basic foundation for legislative reforms. Thus, the eugenics movement found support and voice from the pioneers of the Progressive Era, which accelerated the movement’s rise.


In the era characterized by industrial growth, immigration, the use of propaganda, and the progressives’ desire to expand power, eugenics offered a premeditated and gradual transition to a new future. Eugenicists argued that the social problems faced resulted from the genes that needed to be altered through science. The eugenics movement’s emphasis was on the scientific revolution to control varied aspects of social life. Eugenicists emerged as scientists and statisticians who promised to provide solutions to the social problem through social reforms. The agenda for social control was necessitated by the industrial expansion, propaganda machinery, and the tangible support they received from progressives who sought new ways of enhancing public administration. While the welfare states dealt with symptoms, eugenics dealt with the root causes of the problems, albeit as per eugenicists’ arguments.


[1] Franz Boas, “The Instability of Human Types”. Papers on Interracial Problems Communicated to the First Universal Races Congress Held at the University of London, July 26–29, 1911, ed. Gustav Spiller (1912): 99–103.

[2] Robinson, William. “Excerpt from Eugenics, marriage and birth control, practical eugenics”. Digital Public Library of America. 1917.

[3] Anonymous. “Pastors for Eugenics”. Teaching American History. New York Times, 1913. Accessed September 11, 2020.

[4] Locke, Joseph, and Ben Wright. The American Yawp: A Massively Collaborative Open U.S. History Textbook. Vol. 2.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 2019.

[5] Rentoul, Robert. “Excerpt from Proposed Sterilization of Certain Mental and Physical Degenerates: An Appeal to Asylum Managers and Others”. Digital Public Library of America. 1903.

[6] Hall, Stanley. “Eugenics as a New Creed”. Teaching American History, 1911. Accessed September 11, 2020.