In 1931, the California State Park Commission presented this engrossed certificate in gratitude to Save the Redwoods League founders Henry Fairfield Osborn, Madison Grant and John C. Merriam. From all appearances, it’s an attractive reminder of the achievements of the early conservation movement. What is less apparent is a darker link between the three founders and prevailing racial theories that would have particularly abhorrent implications in Nazi Germany.
According to the 1890 census, America had effectively closed the frontier after almost three centuries of nearly constant battle with the natural world. That revelation stoked concerns for the survival of the remnants of the nation’s once great wilderness, spurring a conservation fever that would blossom in the new century. In turn, the movement that followed was enormously successful in protecting many of America’s remaining natural treasures.
As great as those accomplishments were, the popular narrative typically omits an unfortunate by-product of the movement — that among those with the drive to preserve nature were individuals who theorized about the preservation of a presumed genetically superior, so-called “Nordic” race. Among these were Messrs. Osborn, Grant and Merriam.
Osborn and Grant, in particular, are leading figures of their pseudo-scientific cohort. Osborn was a prominent paleontologist, Columbia University professor and long-time president of the American Museum of Natural History while Madison Grant was a lawyer, naturalist, president of the New York Zoological Society and AMNH trustee who expended considerable energy preserving America’s wildlife and flora. Together they helped found the American Eugenics Society, an outgrowth of the Second International Conference on Eugenics in 1921. Perhaps the most glaring declaration of Grant’s views came in his book The Passing of the Great Race, first published in 1916. It boasted an introduction by Osborn and a book jacket endorsement from none other than Theodore Roosevelt.
To proponents of eugenics, America’s evolving cultural and racial landscape spelled disaster for racial preservation. They saw common ground between the destruction of America’s flora and fauna and the genetic decline of the Nordics. In their world, an obvious catalyst was the introduction of foreign populations, via immigration, a dynamic that also paralleled the destructive competition that might result from the introduction of non-native species into a natural environment.
A further link emerged in the negative effects of industry and urban development. For the latter they asserted that Nordics were better suited to taming the wilderness while their genetic inferiors seemed to thrive in “the cramped factory and crowded city.” In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant wrote:
The increase in urban communities at the expense of the countryside is also an important element in the fading of the Nordic type, because the energetic countryman of this blood is more apt to improve his fortunes by moving to the city than the less ambitious Mediterranean.
Still, eugenics cast its shadow beyond race. One of its most troubling facets was how it regarded the “unfit” of the population. In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant laid out their ambitions with shudder-inducing simplicity:
Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.
This statement is quite a reflection of the intersection of Grant’s views on conservation and eugenics. He was one of the pioneering thinkers in the concept of wildlife management, which recognized that given the now-limited free range and food sources available to a wild population, a herd’s size must sometimes be culled to ensure its overall health. Perversely, Grant and others transferred those principles into the treatment of human beings, particularly those who bore physical and mental disabilities.
With these ideas hovering around it is not at all shocking to learn that the theories embraced by Grant, Osborn and their adherents eventually made their way to Nazi Germany. Still, it’s hard to fathom a group of Americans so thoroughly connected to the highest levels of American society directly influencing a group at the heart of one of the worst atrocities the world has ever witnessed. And yet so consistent were the rhetorics that Hitler himself referred to Grant’s book as his “bible” and Karl Brandt, his physician, entered excerpts from the German translation of The Passing of the Great Race into evidence at Nuremberg.
In an odd twist, Madison Grant suffered from a crippling form of arthritis that left him disabled much in the same way as many of those he decried as detrimental to the population.