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Neither an academic history nor an angry polemic against the idea of eugenics and better breeding, Better for All the World is a family saga, an epic story of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, who strove to make America a place where moral purity and social harmony could reign free from the defects of the past.

This is a long-held American impulse.  Better for All the World places the story of America's quest for racial purity within the context of this American self understanding, a desire springing from the idea that Americans are a "peculiar people" chosen by God to forge a "shining city upon a hill."  The book constructs a narrative that reveals how America's Puritan legacy, which helps account for this country's work ethic and drive for constant self-improvement, became a significant force in making the United States a pioneer in state-run social programs for "human betterment," including marriage restriction, anti-miscegenation, and forced sterilization.

Flashing light exhibit prepared by the American Eugenics Society, c. 1928

This is a story of desire.  This is a story that tells of the passions and unfulfilled longings of individuals, and the conspiracies, betrayals, and ironies that stand behind a scientific program to purify the human race through genetic engineering. It is a story of the lives of two disparate groups of people and the yearnings that bound them together. On the one hand, some of the most enlightened members of the nation brought their zeal and determination to shape a better world.  On the other hand, the objects of this zeal were tens of thousands of other Americans, most of them stricken in poverty and living lives of quiet desperation.

Better for All The World begins in medias res with the stories of Emma and Carrie Buck, two women stricken in poverty and caught up in this new scientific quest for racial purity.  The family saga begins at this point because reformers in Virginia made Carrie Buck their "test case," the linchpin in their plan to make forced sterilization a Constitutionally-valid procedure and the centerpiece of an ambitious program to rid society of poor men and women who were said to breed genetically-inferior offspring.

Carrie and Emma Buck at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, 1924

Through the stories of Emma and Carrie Buck, Part One traces in detail how reformers across the nation transformed haphazard, locally-run systems of charity and welfare - mostly church handouts and horrendous town asylums - into a centralized, government-run system of scientific treatment and prevention.

But the reformers instituting a more efficient and scientific approach to welfare were also striving to make America a place where moral purity and social harmony could reign free from the defects of the past.  These reformers, including the progressive politician Aubrey Strode, the attorney who defended forced sterilization before the Supreme Court, were obsessed with female sexuality. These men especially feared the fecund, feeble-minded female, women like Carrie and Emma Buck, and one of their chief aims was to keep these women from breeding.

Better Baby Contest in New York
(Arthur Fellig Weegee, International Centre of Photography/Getty Images)

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Better for All the World
By Harry Bruinius


 

New York Public Library's "25 Books to Remember from 2006."

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The Author

       Harry Bruinius   was born in Chicago and attended Yale University, where he studied theology, and Columbia University, where he studied journalism. He is a frequent contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, a professor of journalism at Hunter College, and the founder of The Village Quill. He lives in Manhattan.

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Burlesque dancer Sherry Britton reading a book on eugenics (Arthur Fellig Weegee, International Centre of Photography/Getty Images)

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"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

- Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the majority decision Buck v. Bell, 1927