Saturday, November 17, 2012

Vermont's Forced Sterilization of French-Canadian "Defectives"

In the tradition of Madison Grant, who believed the Anglo-Saxons to be the master race and whose theories influenced Hitler, was another American, Dr. Charles B. Davenport.

Formerly a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, Davenport was appointed Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he founded the Eugenics Record Office in 1910. Davenport was involved in the sterilization of 60,000 Americans deemed “unfit.” He had close ties to the Nazis and his work influenced the Holocaust.1

A kindred spirit was Henry F. Perkins a Professor of Zoology at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Director of the Vermont Eugenics Survey. According to Perkins’s biography on the UVM Eugenics Project web site, Perkins was “Vermont's resident eugenicist and dedicated the second half of his career to preserving the Yankee Protestant stronghold on the identity, the heritage, and the future of Vermont.” 2

On February 20, 1923 Davenport penned a letter to Perkins reading in part as follows:  

Do you know that, in the study of defects found in drafted men Vermont stood at or near the top of the list as having precisely or nearly the highest defect rate for quite a series of defects? This result I ascribed to the French Canadian constituents of the population which, I have other reason for believing, to contain an undue proportion of defectives. I wrote to a friend in St. Johnsbury about this and she made some inquiries and concluded that, indeed, there are a large number of gross physical defects among the French Canadians at that place. 3
Although Davenport’s conclusions were not accepted by Perkins, the letter piqued his curiosity and he took great interest in the French-Canadian element in Vermont and its alleged “defects.”

Perkins’s interests made him a proponent of a eugenics movement that in 1931 led the State of Vermont to pass legislation to forcibly sterilize “‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’, ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘insane’ persons.” The brunt of these procedures fell on the French-Canadian and Native American (Abenaki) populations. 

This is the conclusion of a presentation on ‘eugenic sterilizations’ in comparative perspective by Lutz Kaelber, Associate Professor of Sociology at UVM, delivered at the 2012 conference of the Social Science History Association. Professor Kaelber found that 253 persons were sterilized under the Vermont legislation most of them in the period between 1931 and 1941.

Citing Nancy Gallagher’s book Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), Professor Kaelber finds that:

Poor and socially ostracized families were targeted for investigation of the three D’s (delinquency, dependency, and mental defect). These families usually lived ‘outside the accepted moral or social convention of middleclass America’ (Gallagher, p. 37). The three D’s were used to target the poor, the disabled, French-Canadians, and Native Americans. Women were targeted more than men. French-Canadians and Abenakis were seen as a foe and threat to the early colonial settlers of Vermont. They represented ‘an insidious and continuous invasion’ of Vermont and were therefore targeted (Gallagher, p. 45).  Studies done on degenerate family lines were often traced back to French Canadian or Native American ancestry and were used to target these groups (Gallagher, pp. 80-82). 4

Perkins’s work on behalf of “preserving the Yankee Protestant stronghold” included an extensive ethnic study of Burlington, Vermont. In 1932, Perkins was interviewed, giving this assessment of the French-Canadian population:

General Yankee attitude to French is that of humerous (sic) disdain and derision…You cannot believe a thing they tell you...They are a genial, neighborly folk but many have a pretty low I. Q. They came as longshoremen and lumberjacks and since then have graduated to filling stations and are the better mechanics in all our garages as well as doing trucking, etc, etc.

They have a general happy-go-lucky way, are time-servers, spend what they get as they get it and are by no means thrifty. Others, usually of the better class become thriftier, pay their bills promptly, etc.

The farm population of Vermont is pretty sore at the French Canadians because they took the farms from the Yankees which the Yankees couldn't make pay and have made a go of them, living at a lower standard but at the same time have been able to present a fairly good appearance, send their children to school, well-dressed, etc. One of the chief hopes of the VCCL (Vermont Commission on Country Life) was that the French Canadian would be given his proper due, that is, his proper place in society; the Commission felt that he was considered a much lower person on the social scale than he really is and that a greater appreciation of him was necessary because he deserved a higher place socially.

When Dr. Perkins asked Paul Moody of Middlebury College if he had had any students of French Canadian descent who had made a name for themselves in any type of endeavor Mr. Moody immediately said no, and even on consideration said he thought a lot about it and checked up that not one Canadian had risen to a place of responsibility. When asked if they hadn't contributed much to the community of Middlebury itself, Mr. Moody added another vehement no, stating that the whole French Canadian population could be wiped out of Middlebury and no one would miss it.

The inferiority of the French is due a lot to the pressure of his environment. Usually the Frenchman is treated superciliously by the Yankee. The Frenchman begins to feel inferior and he fails because he lacks the characteristics of drive to overcome that handicap. The French are a complacent people; it would be impossible to have a French Mussolini for instance. That kind of drive is lacking.

The French are undoubtedly an oppressed race in eastern Canada. As a people they have a daintiness, a delicacy and liveliness that is not to be found in the older Yankee or Irish. Their poetry has an unusual charm and humor. Many of the traits of the French are superior to that of at least the Irish. They are always more friendly and genial and kindly and make better neighbors than do the Irish. There is of course another class of French who is the voyageur and lumberjack who is roistering and rough and callous but is nevertheless full of song.

Yet with all this appreciation of the French race and of their very fine qualities, Dr. P. admits that socially of course they will never be recognized. There is and probably always will be a wall there. They are nice people -- at a distance. 5

Despite his patronizing fondness for the "dainty," "poetic" French-Canadian people, Perkins admits that the USA has an ethno-racial caste system. Anglo-Saxon Protestants are at the top of the castes and they define the relations of all of the others. French-Canadians, although they “deserved a higher place” in this social caste system, perhaps sandwiched somewhere above the Native American and maybe just north of the Irish, “will never be recognized.”
Dr. Henry F. Perkins:
Franco-Americans: "nice people --
at a distance."

Note, however, that the main objection to the French-Canadians in rural Vermont is that they made viable farms from those the Yankees had abandoned, and fed and clothed their children, “present(ing) a fairly good appearance” thereby. It was jealousy more than mental or physical defect that aroused ire.

These frankly racist views – not to mention the mengelesque mutilations – are not a product of the distant Revolutionary War era, nor of the mutton-chop sideburned Victorian age, but of the days of my parents’ childhood. The people Perkins patronizes are my parents, my grandparents. And if Davenport and his ilk had had their way they might never have become my parents.

The French-Canadians are “undoubtedly an oppressed race in eastern Canada,” says the learned professor and judging from the legacy left by Davenport, Perkins, and the State of Vermont, not only there.

1  Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003). Cf. esp. 293f


  1. This helps me remember something that happen to me in Orchard Beach, ME about 40 years ago. At that time I was employed by one of the leading Credit Card Companies as an accounts receivable/ want able sales person and handle problems as they arose. I was in Orchard Beach and went into an account and introduced myself and gave them my card. After the owner looked at it he asked if I was FC and I said yes and he then very impolitely told me to "get the F#&K out. Needless to say I left and made a note that I sent to corporate. We learn as we grow.

    1. not surprised, in Newport/Derby Vermont there were signs of help wanted concuks don't apply or no frenchies