Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

Image of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck
Release Date: 
February 29, 2016
Penguin Press
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American “exceptionalism” has once again become a political headline. Few candidates would dare to challenge the underlying truth that America is simply better than all other nations. The ideology of arrogance and egotism arises in various shapes and sizes—white racial pride and its counterpart, the disdain of the Other.

Today, it is carried prominently on the campaign banners of two narcissistic political leaders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who belittle those who are not part of their grandiose visions of America. Trump calls undocumented aliens rapists while he ridicules the disabled. Cruz would go one step further and patrol Muslim neighborhoods in our nation’s cities with armed forces.

Although the media sees these men as unusual, they are really throwbacks to previous eras in American history when we wrestled with our national identity. Humility and stark realism have never been prominent national virtues.

Adam Cohen’s book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck addresses one of those times: when a national movement arose to rid the nation of “defectives.”

Cohen’s book has its flaws, but it is certainly a timely reminder that within the heart of America lies the same DNA that has turned other great nations evil and could threaten us even now.

At the turn of the 20th century, the American eugenics movement was widespread and well accepted. Race and poverty lay at the bedrock of this collective disdain for the “feeble-minded.” Eugenics would rid America of its bottom tenth. When they were all sterilized, the current generation of feebleminded, diseased, crippled, depraved, criminal, and defective would be the last. State legislatures would enact laws authorizing such brutality, but proponents of the scheme knew that a definitive judicial edict would be necessary before mass sterilizations could occur.

Cohen, a Harvard Law graduate, uses the infamous Supreme Court 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell as the core of his narrative, although his discussion of the actual court decision only takes a single chapter. America prides itself as a nation of laws and not men, but men and women make, interpret, and apply those laws. Our leaders have always been imperfect and, at times, quite prejudiced and narrow-minded. Even our most perfect institution, the Supreme Court, has repeatedly failed to achieve its primary goal: justice.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., would write for the Court in an 8-1 opinion, upholding a Virginia statute that authorized the sterilization of the underclass. An elitist Boston Brahmin, Holmes was predisposed to support eugenics, and his reputation as the premier jurist on the Court—a reputation that Cohen convincingly demonstrates was totally unwarranted—convinced most of his brethren to join his execrable judgment. Once again, America would visit its cruelty on the poor, marginalized, and weakest in society. Privilege would reign.

The zeal of proponents of eugenic sterilization was matched only by the political value state legislators saw in their effort.  State courts, to their credit, were initially reluctant to ignore basic constitutional principles of due process and equal protection. The victims like Carrie Buck, of course, were unable to defend their own interests. A test case involving Ms. Buck would have to be brought to establish the validity of the Virginia eugenics law, and, in the process, encourage all states to join in the effort.

The Buck litigation would serve its purpose to set a nationwide precedent. All advocates involved in the case, including those representing Carrie Buck, sought the same goal: a definitive judicial pronouncement.

The trial was a travesty with Buck’s counsel aiding the eugenic side. The appeal of the case to the highest court in Virginia was pro forma and the ultimate conclusion, a five-paragraph Supreme Court decision, was notable only for Holmes’ aphorism that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

What is most chilling in Cohen’s account of the American eugenics movement is his explanation of how it served as an inspiration for Nazi adherents who found in the American crusade a model to emulate. Berlin’s praise for eugenics encouraged its later atrocities. It was a small step from sterilization, which was also performed on a mass scale by the Third Reich, to the Final Solution.

Although Cohen’s book provides an important caution to the American public, it also suffers from some faults. The author tends to wander into tangents when he comes upon historical factoids, diverting the reader from the heart of the story. A good editor could have helped trim the narrative and keep it on target.

For example, the extensive background offered about the extended Buck family, the trial lawyers, and other champions of eugenics, while fascinating, is beyond the scope of the story of the Supreme Court decision. Carrie Buck was just one of millions similarly situated at the fringes of society. Likely misdiagnosed as a “moron,” Buck was imprisoned so she could not “breed” and was ultimately sterilized.

Were the proponents of eugenics simply cruel and misguided? Racist or ill informed? It is hard to say, but those who today would chose a president who would lead America with an iron fist should first learn the lessons of history.

Ultimately, this national eugenics movement to “cleanse” America would fail in its invidious efforts. The ideological zealots of eugenics who were appalled by the growing diversity of America would ultimately disintegrate when Americans saw where the philosophy could lead: to the Nazi death camps. Buck v. Bell gave them a brief day in the sun, but the clouds of Nazi terror against those it considered unfit foretold the ultimate demise of such brutality.

The seed, however, has never completely left its deep roots in American soil. We must be vigilant not to let adherents of extremism gain the power to eradicate what truly makes America exceptional: its devotion to protected rights, tolerance, and the principles of democracy.