In short, like the theory of evolution itself, success in the historical struggle had proved the rightness of the cause. Lincoln, who had tried to preserve a regime of civil and religious liberty based on the principle of human equality, was celebrated by Progressive social scientists and historians for having established a modern state. But the Progressive historians, who rejected slavery as a relic of the past, had also rejected the doctrine of natural right and human equality for historical reasons. It was possible, therefore, to embrace the theory of racial superiority as an evolving historical and scientific truth. In rejecting Lincoln’s understanding of the principle of equality, the Progressives had come to understand equality historically, in the same manner in which they had understood slavery, as simply an historical anachronism. In assessing the Progressives’ political project, equal citizenship would come to be understood in terms of membership in the state, and rights as citizens of the state would be bestowed by government.
Charles Merriam was typical of those who had rejected the natural right foundation of the meaning of equality and liberty. He insisted: “from the standpoint of modern political science the slave holders were right in declaring that liberty can be given only to those who have political capacity enough to use it, and they were also right in maintaining that two greatly unequal races cannot exist side by side on terms of perfect equality.”52 Furthermore, Merriam agreed with the Southerners that “rights do not belong to men simply as men, but because of the superior qualities, physical, intellectual, moral or political, which are characteristic of certain individuals or races.”53 The denial of the doctrine of natural right, as a standard for political rights, had made it nearly impossible, subsequently, to defend the original understanding of equality as the fundamental principle of union and citizenship. The new sciences had established race and class as the categories necessary to determine the capacity for political rights and as the ground of equal citizenship.
Marini, John. Unmasking the Administrative State (pp. 248-249). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.
This explains the intellectual roots of the Progressives’ embrace of eugenics, and an overlooked reason for the perpetuation of Jim Crow after the Civil War.
The danger in the Progressive’s rejection of the constitutional principle of natural rights and limited government was the trust in experts and scientists to make political policy. Eugenics was such a scientific principle adopted by political progressives. Progressives believed in progress unmoored from permanent principles, and unrestrained from the constitutional limits of government power.Early progressives believed science would replace politics and religion.