Wondering the cobblestone streets in Old City, I wasn’t quite sure if I would ever find the American Philosophical Society. It took some direction and help but once I was there, this place blew me away! The small exhibition titled “In Franklin’s Footsteps: 275 Years at the American Philosophical Society” told the story of the APS through the accomplishments of its members and the society’s impressive collection. The 275th anniversary celebration featured items like Benjamin Franklin’s library chair, journals from Lewis and Clark, and a draft of the title page for On the Origin of Species handwritten by Darwin himself!
Hung on the wall directly next to Darwin’s title page are two letters – one to Alexander Graham Bell and another from past President Theodore Roosevelt. These letters are placed here because they are connected to Darwin through one of America’s darker secrets: the eugenics movement.
It may come as a surprise to some, but both Bell and Roosevelt were believers in the eugenics movement. Peaking in the 1920s and 1930s, some Americans belonged to a social movement concerned with eliminating negative characteristics through selective breeding. This movement targeted poor, uneducated, minority groups very often forcing sterilization. This was not unknown to the public for sterilization of “undesirables” was written into laws and even supported by the Supreme Court. They thought that by stopping people with undesirable traits from reproducing, negative “traits” could be bred out to improve the American population. You can read more about American eugenics here and read more about the landmark Supreme Court case that legitimized unwilling sterilization here.
These two letters on display at the APS highlight the support that both prominent men put behind eugenics. In the first, Charles Davenport, a prominent eugenicist and biologist, writes to Alexander Graham Bell about the First International Eugenics Conference. Bell was a believer in limiting immigration into the United States to desirable applicants and advocated against the use of foreign languages including that of American Sign Language.
Theodore Roosevelt’s letter to Charles Davenport leaves no room for alternative interpretation. He writes, “society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind” and goes on to say, “someday we will realize that the prime duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his blood behind him the world, and that we have no business perpetuate citizens of the wrong type.” It is not surprising then that Roosevelt appointed Oliver Wendell Holmes to the Supreme Court that upheld laws forcing sterilization upon “undesirables”.
These letters are displayed alongside two pictures one of which shows 1920s eugenics propaganda advocating for limited offspring of those individuals deemed negative. The placement of these letters between Darwin’s well known and groundbreaking publication and shocking photos promoting controlled reproduction allows the viewer to visually make the connection. Darwin’s theories were the main fuel for eugenics (although he never applied natural selection to humans in this way) and seeing the cases about natural selection before eugenics gives the visitor that background to think more deeply about the movement.
The letters are both accompanied by short, to the point interpretation labels. They both state that Alexander Graham Bell and Theodore Roosevelt were eugenicists. There is no “maybe” or they “could have been” interpretations here. Further, at no point does the exhibition try to salvage our view of the two men by explaining how eugenics could have been an okay movement to be a part of. The APS allows these two men to be judged for their actions and beliefs by modern audiences. Some visitors may find it upsetting, but I appreciate the APS for doing so.
Out of the entire exhibition, these were the items that made the deepest impression on me. I will carry them with me long after I leave the APS and long after the exhibition closes. It is crucial to understand that our historical heroes were not perfect. They all have very real flaws and understanding their failings alongside their triumphs allows us to have a more complete picture of the individuals that shaped our world. It would be naïve to turn a blind eye to historical faults and I applaud the APS for putting these moral failings on display alongside human excellence.
Within the museum setting, objects like these that reveal shocking information about beloved historical figures are a great setting to hold mediated conversations with visitors. Often visitors want to grapple with difficult material and can benefit from having a museum professional there to help. An educational event like a late-night community conversation provides visitors with the space and support to confront the eugenic beliefs of two iconic Americans. The educator would mediate the conversation by directing with questions and offering information to answer any clarifying questions. Because the APS typically welcomes tourists for about 15 minutes at a time, this king of educational program would be most effective outside of normal visiting hours and involving the larger Philadelphia community. Providing individuals with a chance to discuss tough topics in a safe and supportive environment helps them to form more complete understandings of the topic and America’s past.
If you are in Philadelphia before the exhibition closes December 30, 2018, I highly encourage you to visit. The American Philosophical Society has many treasures to share and I hope you find some that impact you as deeply as these two letters have for me.
Ball, Natalie. “Roosevelt, Theodore.” http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/connections/5233dd265c2ec500000.
“In Franklin’s Footsteps: 275 Years at the American Philosophical Society.” American Philosophical Society. https://www.amphilsoc.org/museum/exhibitions/franklins-footsteps-275-years-american-philosophical-society.
Rivard, Laura. “America’s Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement.” Nature Education. September 18, 2014. Web. https://www.nature.com/scitable/forums/genetics-generation/america-s-hidden-history-the-eugenics-movement-123919444.
“Through Deaf Eyes: Signing, Alexander Graham Bell and the NAD.” PBS. https://www.pbs.org/weta/throughdeafeyes/deaflife/bell_nad.html.