is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era

Author(s):Leonard, Thomas C.
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. xiv + 250 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16959-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

With Illiberal Reformers, Thomas C. (Tim) Leonard of Princeton University opens the door of a closet containing family artifacts of American economists from the half century that straddled 1900. An hour or two or three spent in the family closet via Leonard’s fine book is sobering to any economist who has promoted our discipline as the “queen of social sciences.” These artifacts of our immediate family (economics), near-extended family (social sciences), and more distant family (science) are not pretty. Imagine learning that your great grandfather or grandmother whose name you bear was a member of the mafia or the Klan or perhaps a slave trader. You might be tempted to extinguish the closet light and close the door as you depart. But we should not turn away from this history, because it is revealing of ourselves as well as our forebears. As American Economic Association founder Richard T. Ely (1936, p. 141) wrote in a reflection on the Association’s founding, “Great oaks from little acorns grow.”

With a focus on economics, the book is broadly about educated beliefs and presumptions in the Progressive era. A generation of American scholars returning from graduate study in Germany in the late nineteenth century brought science to bear on what they understood to be the social problems of the day. Many of the problems were products of the transformation of the American economy from agriculture to industry and the growth of cities.  Preeminent among the problems were unmanaged and dysgenic biological and social evolution. Progressives paired biological and social science with social and legal activism to answer the author of Ecclesiastes (“Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he has made crooked?” 7:13) with “we can and we will!”

Illiberal Reformers is in two parts. The three chapters in Part I, “The Progressive Ascendency,” cover the pairing of science and religion in the Social Gospel that was the foundation of the American Economic Association’s establishment in 1885; the turn by economists away from Classical Liberalism and so-called laissez-faire; the rise of the expert and the administrative state in the Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson presidencies; and the application of the new science of administration to achieve efficiency across the gamut of social activities and institutions. Part II, “The Progressive Paradox,” concerns a paradox that Leonard identifies running through the Progressive reform movement, that people who received a bad draw in the lottery of genetic or social circumstances were viewed both as subjects to be assisted and as threats to be managed, excluded, or if necessary destroyed. This section includes chapters on theories of labor markets and wages; the various strands of Darwinism that informed the reformers; the perceived crisis of dysgenic human breeding; and the eugenic basis for labor reforms that remain key parts of our political economy today.  The chapters brim over with facts, quotations, and references to the Progressives’ writings and activities.

It is easy, perhaps too easy, from our place in history to condemn the Progressives for ignorant intellectual commitments that justified cruel and unjust policies and practices. Many of the statements of leading lights of economics and sociology, religion, politics, jurisprudence, social work, and reform activism are offensive to our sensibilities. We encounter AEA founder Richard T. Ely, who is honored by the AEA each year with the Richard T. Ely Lecture, referring to the poor as a “human rubbish heap” (p. 53) and writing that “the morally incurable” and those “who will not work and will not obey should not be allowed to propagate their kind” (pp. 131-32).  AEA President and monetary theorist Irving Fisher wrote in his Elementary Principles of Economics that “if the vitality or vital capital is impaired by a breeding of the worst and a cessation of the breeding of the best, no greater calamity could be imagined.”  This calamity, however, could be forestalled “by isolation in public institutions and in some cases by surgical operation” (p. 227). Preeminent international trade theorist, AEA President, and long-time editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics Frank Taussig wrote in his Principles of Economics that those who would be chronically unemployable with a minimum wage “should simply be stamped out. . . . We have not reached the stage where we can proceed to chloroform them once and for all; but at least they can be segregated, shut up in refuges and asylums, and prevented from propagating their kind” (p. 165).

Nor by current standards do Progressive women reformers fare well. Florence Kelley, settlement worker at Hull House in Chicago and the first woman to hold statewide office in Illinois, held views on immigration and women in the workforce that would be considered by today’s sophisticates beyond the pale. On immigration, Kelley wrote to a correspondent that “I am convinced that the Pacific Coast people are right about the Mongolians; and I am sure that we are utter fools to endure the ruin of the Atlantic Coast by the invasion of Asia Minor and South Eastern Europe” (p. 153). She supported a family wage for men in order to keep wives and mothers in the home. “Family life in the home is sapped in its foundations when mothers of young children work for wages.” A problem with immigrants was that wives of immigrant men were more likely than American natives to be employed outside the home. “The American tradition is that men support their families, their wives throughout life, and the children at least until the fourteenth birthday” (p. 173).

Leonard draws from the history of Progressivism a warning of the dangers of scientific hubris for contemporary intellectuals who concern themselves with public policy. The Progressives wanted to do good, but out of impatience and pride fell prey to various evils. Leonard insists that we should not turn away from the ugliness in the foundations of twenty-first century disciplines of genetics, economics, sociology, demography, medicine and public health (p.189), presuming under the sway of our own progressive presumptions, that time and research funding and effort have over the past century turned pseudosciences into genuine science.

Leonard’s preferred alternative to the Progressives’ intellectual and ethical commitments is classical liberalism with its emphasis on the primacy of the individual and protection of political, economic and civil liberties. Thus the criticism imbedded in the title, Illiberal Reformers. But liberalism carries its own dangers of antinomian individualism and social isolation if it is not secured by sound ethics and understanding of human nature. How can we know that a return to classical liberalism is progress?

Are there grounds for confidence that a hundred years hence scholars will look back with pride and not shame at the records of what we have presumed to know? How will future scholars view papers presented, for example, in recent (2016) AEA conference sessions on Culture, Prosocial Behavior and Ethnicity; Health, Education and Families; Applications of Behavioral Science; and Behavioral Interventions and Environmental Sustainability? Since the Progressive era, economics has become increasingly specialized and identified with mathematical and statistical technique. Absent grounding in universal and timeless principles of who humans are and their right relationships with each other and with nature we will remain at risk of being technicians in service to whatever are the prevailing fashions. We need sound standards by which to judge our current beliefs and practices along with those of past generations.


Richard T. Ely (1936), “The Founding and Early History of the American Economic Association,” American Economic Review, 26 (1, supplement): 141-50.

J. Daniel Hammond is co-editor with Robert A. Cord of Milton Friedman: Contributions to Economics and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Copyright (c) 2016 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (July 2016). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII