Classic Essays

Utopia by Sterilization

by H.L. Mencken

First published in The American Mercury, August 1937

DISCUSSING IN THE PLACE a few months ago the sorrows roweling the great Republic we live in, I ventured to throw out a double-headed suggestion. The first part of it was to the effect that an easy way to reduce those sorrows today, and almost obliterate them tomorrow, would be to sterilize large numbers of American freemen, both white and black, to the end that they could no longer beget their kind. The second part was that the readiest way to induce them to submit would be to indemnify them in cash.

The suggestion failed to fetch any appreciable faction of Uplifters, but it nevertheless had merit, and I accordingly renew it, with variations, by these presents. Not much argument is needed, I believe, the establish the prudence of the first half. We have far too many client of the New Deal in this country, and they multiply at a rate that must disquiet every solvent lover of the flag. In the sharecropper areas of the South, to cite a salient example, there is probably not a women between the ages of fourteen and forty-five who is not laboring, at this very moment, in one stage or another of the sorry physiological process whereby human souls acquire a habitation and a name. The birth rate down in those pious and malarious wastes is precisely what the traffic will bear, and if it were not for the fact that the death rate, especially among children, is also inordinate, the region would swarm like a nest of maggots.

The same mad rush to reproduce goes on in all the other backwaters of the nation, including the slums of the cities. The midwives, in such places, are worked as hard as the sommeliers at a college reunion, and huge gangs of clergy are kept busy baptizing the young. No one, so far as I am aware, argues that this excessive fecundity is a good thing, whether for the high contracting parties, for the poor children they are unable to feed, or for the community in general. Even the moral theologians of the Holy Church, though they still denounce birth control as accursed, have been monkeying of late with schemes to get round their own prohibition of it. The generality of jail wardens, police captains, mental hygienists, coroners, truant officers, and other such experts agree unanimously that it would be a good thing if we could reduce the statistical differential that now runs so heavily in favor of the unfit. If it is maintained indefinitely, there will be a wholesale degeneration of the American stock, and the average of sense and competence in the whole nation will sink to what it is now in the forlorn valleys of Appalachia.

There are, plainly enough, only two ways to get rid of this differential. One is for the people of the upper I.Q. brackets to develop a birth rate higher, or at least as high, as that prevailing among the economically and intellectually undernourished; the other is for the undernourished to reduce their birth rate to something approximating the smart and swell. The first device, for reasons only too apparent, is quite unfeasible. Putting aside the fact that people of active intelligence has too many things on their minds to devote all their leisure to multiplying, there is the further fact, supported by plenty of biological evidence, that easy living reduces fertility, and that, in consequence, the women of the upper classes, even assuming that they tried their damnedest, could not hope to match the records of their underprivileged sisters. The mechanism of this reduction is as yet not understood, but there can be no doubt that it exists. Whenever and wherever the standard of living rises, the birth rate declines, even in the complete absence of contraceptive enterprise. It may be because vitamins are poisonous to the germ plasm, or because soap and water suffocate it, or for some other unpleasant reason. So far, no one can say; but the statisticians are all sure that the decline is a reality, not only in Christendom but also among simple savages. Thus it is counsel of despair to urge the upper classes to exert themselves more assiduously. As well urge them to jump over the moon. Take away all the mechanical and chemical contrivances with which they now flout the mandate of Genesis I, xxii, and they would still lag behind the lowly.

We are therefore thrown back upon the device of bringing down the birth rate among the latter, if any rational equilibrium is ever to be established. How is it to be done? One way, as we have just seen, would be to raise the standard of living among them, and that way has been suggested, in fact, by more than one Uplifter, though not for the reason that we are here considering. There are many practical impediments to its execution. For one thing, it would cost an enormous amount of money — indeed, an amount so vast that even the non-Euclidean mathematicians now doing miracles at Washington would probably be unable to raise it. For another thing, there is some doubt that a lift sufficient to achieve the business would be endurable to its ostensible beneficiaries. Even assuming that it would make them less fecund, it might do it by wiping them out altogether. This is not hollow theorizing, but a deduction from actual experience. There is plenty of reason to believe that the sharecroppers of the South, if provided with decent food to eat, could not eat it and survive. They have been bred on hog meat and corn pone for so long that their systems have lost the capacity for assimilating better victuals. Whenever one of them lands in a Southern hospital with pellagra, which is very often indeed, the doctors teach him the use of those better victuals, and send him home with a diet list. But though it calls for only such foodstuffs as are easily obtainable in his native wildwood, he almost always goes back to his hog meat and corn pone, and in a year or two he is down with pellagra again. It may be, in fact, that the disease has become natural to him, and even necessary to his metabolism, as gout was natural and necessary to the five-bottle men of a century ago.

Moreover, the other changes in habit that go with becoming civilized are almost as unpleasant to the victim, and maybe almost as dangerous. It is the theory of the Uplift that everyone would be healthier and more comfortable in a better house, but experience proves that it is by no means invariably so. Some years ago a gang of wizards established a colony of model farms in Western Tennessee, and stocked it with bumpkins recruited from the adjacent wilderness. Every farm was seated on good land, and in every farmhouse there were all the conveniences of civilization, including electric lights, a telephone, a washing machine, a mayonnaise mixer, a bathtub, and a full set of annual reports of the Secretary of Agriculture. The idea was that these bumpkins, so outfitted, would gradually metamorphose into high-toned subsistence farmers, and become a credit to their country and one of its glories. What actually happened was that they quickly returned to their native barbarism. In a few years the hogs were rooting under every farmhouse, all the machinery in it was out of whack, the fields were given over to scrub corn and Jimpson weeds, and the annual family wash was being done again in the crick. It was a terrible experience for all concerned. The wizards saw one of their noblest enterprises knocked galley west, and its beneficiaries suffered a kind of torture comparable to that of going through a stone crusher. The more faint-hearted fled to the mountains at once, and there resumed their tribal way of life; the more resolute hung on until the colony had been reduced to something that met their ineradicable notions of the seemly, the comfortable and the beautiful.

In brief, trying to change the mores of morons is just as hazardous as trying to change the mores of actual savages. Every schoolboy knows what missionarying has done to the poor anthropophagi of Central Africa and the islands of the South Seas. By the power of the Gospel they have been dissuaded, in most cases, from going naked and devouring one another, but only at the cost of wrecking them. Once healthy and happy in their flimsy breech clouts, they now groan and pine away in the flannel union suits. Once well-fed upon a diet to their brutish taste, they now starve upon banal canned goods. The birth rate among them continues high, but the death rate equals it everywhere, and in most places exceeds it. Their souls have been saved, but their miserable carcasses will soon vanish from this earth.


Civilizing the sharecropper, white or black, would probably have the same effect on him, just as it has had the same effect on the Indian. But the process would not only be immensely costly, as I have argued, but also revoltingly cruel, as I have demonstrated. It would involve the slow and painful deaths of hundreds of thousands of poor persons who, however stupid they may be and however mephitic, are nevertheless God’s creatures, and what is more, free citizens of the United States. To have at them with machine-guns would be far more merciful, besides being cheaper. But having at them with machine-guns would shock the moral sensibilities of the whole human race, including Hitler and Stalin. Tender-hearted persons would rush into the courts asking for injunctions against it, and judges delicate enough to grant them would be readily found. Thus the enterprise would be tied up, and its discussion corrupted and made insane by politicians, theologians, labor leaders, and other such rogues.

The easy way out, and at the same time the humane way, would be to sterilize the males of the present generation, and so cut off the flow of their congenital and incurable inferiority. If a beginning were made with all the adults now alive, there would be an immediate and immense decrease in the production of subnormal children, and if the males now in infancy were tackled as they reached years of virility, there would be another decrease, amounting almost to 100 per cent. No damage, within their own definition of damage, would be done to these martyrs to elementary eugenics. The operation that is favored by the overwhelming preponderance of genito-urinary opinion would not give them any pain, it would not affect their potency in any degree, it would not incapacitate them for work, and it would carry no more risk of death or serious injury than the operation of pulling a milk tooth. Most important of all, it would not unfit them in the slightest for the exercise of their marital rights under the Corpus Juris Canonici and the Constitution of the United States. On the contrary, that exercise would be facilitated, if only be removing the fears which now harass and dissuade the parties of the second part.

That these fears are very real and very unpleasant must be well known to everyone who has taken the trouble to make discreet inquiries. The fact that the wives of the hillbillies of Appalachia are incessantly gravid is certainly not to be accepted as proof that they have an insatiable appetite for children. Their lives, in truth, are made miserable by the dread of pregnancy, and they devote a large part of their small ingenuity to trying to ward it off. To that end they resort to all sorts of dangerous practices, mostly of small effect. Every drugstore in the Bible and hookworm countries carries a heavy stock of abortificients, and the midwives of the region do as brisk trade in interfering with delivery as furthering it. The notion that only women who read Proust and drink vermouth try to evade maternity is sheer nonsense. There is quite as much effort in that direction, and perhaps a great deal harder effort, among women on the dole. More intelligent than their men, as all women are more intelligent than their men, the wives of Moronia shrink alike from the agonies of parturition without competent assistance, and from the brutality of bringing more and more children into a world that can only use them badly. If they had their way their contributions to the birth rate would be no greater than those of the graduates of Vassar, and maybe much less.

Unfortunately, there is no convenient and certain way for the to reduce their output. Abstinence is as difficult in Moronia as it is in Miami or Hollywood, and, despite the tall talk of the birth-controllers, there is no known contraceptive that will work every time, even in skillful hands. In the Southern mountains the favorite device is the prolongation of lactation, but there is a natural limit to it, and beside, it shows a high percentage of flat failures. There remains only sterilization. Should the women submit to it? For one, I think not. They have suffered enough already, without being exposed to laparotomies, with attendant pain and danger. In the male, sterilization is a simple and harmless operation, but in the female it is serious, and may produce very unpleasant results. Moreover, there is a biological — even, indeed, a eugenic — objection to any such wholesale obliteration of fecundity at its source, for the women of the lower orders, as every historian knows, occasionally benefit the human race by departing from the strict letter of their marriage vows. At least one very eminent President of the United States is said to have owed his existence to such a false step by one of his own grandmothers, and it is possible that, if the whole truth could be unearthed, he would be found to have colleagues. Adultery, in fact, has probably done the human race quite as much good as harm, despite the abhorrence with which it is necessarily viewed by all husbands and other chaste persons.

No, the extinguishing of the moronic strain should be confined to the males. Their potentiality for harm is vastly greater than that for the females, as anyone may discover by a resort to third-grade arithmetic. They escape all the unpleasantness ordained by Genesis III, xvi, they have only a small share in the nurture and policing of their children, and, as the law now begins to run, they even unload the support of their families upon the taxpayer. It would be impossible to imagine creatures whose cares and responsibilities were smaller; even a tomcat is hardly more free. Too stupid to make their way in the world, and having nothing to give in return for life save a heritage of incompetence and misery for endless generations, they may surely be called on without injustice to yield up their one indubitable talent. Surrendering it will leave them precisely as happy as they are today, and perhaps a great deal happier. And their betters will be relieved for all time of the burden of their diseased, stupid, wretched, and hopeless get.


In some of the States, laws have been passed providing for the sterilization of such polluters of the race, and those laws have been upheld by the Nine Old Villains of Capitol Hill. Unfortunately, they all fall short of disposing of the evil they are aimed at. In general, they apply only to persons who are defective in some gross and melodramatic way — idiots, the insane, habitual criminals, Communists, and so on; the vast majority of the inferior are beyond their reach. Plainly enough, they do little good. Idiots and criminals do not issue only from idiots and criminals; they issue also, and on a much larger scale, from the common run of nitwits. In California the authorities have sterilized thousands of the former, but the number of the latter appears to be undiminished; in truth, there is good reason for holding that it is larger than ever before. If all the lunatics in all the asylums of the country were sterilized hereafter, or even electrocuted, the sharecroppers of Mississippi alone would produce enough more in twenty-five years to fill every asylum to bursting. The one and only remedy is to strike at the source of all incompetence, whether social or economic, metal or physical. Let a resolute attack be made upon the fecundity of all the males of the lowest rungs of the racial ladder, and there will be a gradual and permanent improvement. It may not be noticed at once, for it will take some time to work off the damage they have already done, but in the course of two generations it will be brilliantly manifest.

Here, unluckily, we collide with another difficulty. What I have argued so far is subscribed by virtually all intelligent persons, though many of them, for one reason or another hesitate to say so. But when it comes to applying the obvious remedy, a large number of the discover impediments. We live, at least in theory, in a free country, and its people have a healthy aversion to laying violent hands on the citizen. The sharecropper, though he may appear to the scientist to be hardly human, is yet as much under the protection of the Bill of Rights as the president of Harvard. He may not be jailed unless he has perpetrated some overt act forbidden by law, and he may not be gelded unless his continuance at stud is plainly and undoubtedly dangerous to society. To grab him on the bald ground that he is an incurable jackass would be revolting the moral sensibilities of the American people. The theological doctrine of the equality of souls before God has been bred into them, and it would be impossible to induce a majority of them, or even any considerable minority, to repudiate all its implications today. In the long run they may do so, but certainly the time is not yet.

To get round this difficulty I have proposed that candidates for the scalpel be rounded up, not by sending sheriffs, United States marshals, or other such catchpolls after them, but by posting rewards for their voluntary submission. To be specific, I have suggested that the Federal government offer to pay $1000 to every adult American who will swear that, to the best of his knowledge and belief, God and Wall Street are both implacably against him, and that is willing to climb on the table under his own steam. Thus duress is avoided, and no customer will ever be able to complain that he was taken by chicanery or in violation of his inalienable rights under the last two strophes of the Fifth Amendment. What he does he will do as a free agent, and every attention will be given to due process and just compensation.

The one error I made was in setting the ante too high. I have since been informed by reliable correspondents in the sharecropper areas that an honorarium of as much as $1000 would cause riots and bloodshed in those parts. So many candidates would rush up, howling for the money, that the government surgeons would be swamped. Worse, the sudden appearance of so much cash in a region unaccustomed to it would dislocate all the normal processes of trade, and probably cause a local inflation of dangerous proportions. Yet worse, all the crooks in the country would flock down to practice their art on the beneficiaries, and in six weeks the latter would be stone broke and demanding more. In brief, I am told that to give a sharecropper $1000 in a single lump would be almost as hazardous as giving him a machine-gun. While it lasted, he would be on a lunatic jamboree, and when it was gone he would be incurably anti-social, and a menace to all orderly government. Even his pastors, so I am told, could not be trusted to keep him from engaging in disorders approaching the revolutionary, Indeed, most of his pastors would go to the barricades with him, bellowing for more and bigger operations, and in general kicking up a general mess.

I accordingly reduce the honorarium to $100, and am willing to reduce it further to $50 or even to $25 if the consensus of local opinion so advises. In Mississippi, where the annual cash income of a sharecropper is said to be but $32, $50 is a large sum, and will suffice to recruit many thousands. But it is not so large that it will certainly demoralize and ruin its recipient. Making him rich for the nonce, it will still leave him under the necessity of working, and after he has spent it he will return to the plow. Best of all, it will not so bedazzle him and his friends that they will overlook the real benefits flowing from his acquiescence. His popularity socially will not a function of his wealth only, but will be grounded also on his disappearance from the ranks of disease and sorrow carriers. His wife, in particular, will be relieved of her present uneasiness in his presence, and his family life will thus increase in peace and dignity. And if he has no wife he will find himself regarded with less fear and more respect by the generality of females. All in all, there will be a psychological gain to the community that will go far beyond the monetary benefit to the individual, and in that gain, of course, the individual will have a larger share. As the population gradually diminishes, the whole aspect of life will improve, and a happier people will not need the powerful stimulants — for example, lynchings, Holy Rolling, and the consumption of white mule — which now serve to take their minds of their troubles.

I add one more amendment. There is no reason why the cost of this great moral enterprise, at least while it remains experimental, should be thrown on the taxpayer. It is a proper subject for private philanthropy, and no legal impediment, so far as I know, stands in the way. Any American citizen is free at the minute to destroy his fecundity at will, and any other citizen is free to aid and encourage him to do so. I therefore suggest that some well-heeled lover of humanity come forward with a donation to start the campaign. Let him put up $50,000 to spread the news from end to end of the Bible country, and another $50,000 to indemnify the first 1000 or 2000 candidates. The birth-controllers already have an effective propaganda in operation, and it is possible that they may be induced to lend it for the purpose. All that is needed is a beginning. Once the first brave squad of bounty-men returns home, and reports begin to circulate through the Frauenzimmer, the pressure upon the laggards will become so enormous that only a few irreconcilables will be able to hold out. The experimental fund will suffice to purge and uplift half a county; ten or fifteen million dollars would be enough to rescue the whole of Arkansas.

Here is a constructive suggestion that meets the exacting standards of both Rotary and the Brain Trust. It promises to bring the blessings of the More Abundant Life to thousands of unhappy and despondent people, and the head off an infinitude of even worse unhappiness and despondency hereafter. Certainly it is cheap at the price — immensely cheaper on all counts than supporting an ever-increasing herd of morons for all eternity. I dedicate it to my country.

Original online article at H.L. Mencken Information

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1 Comment

  1. September 21, 2010 at 12:17 pm — Reply

    God & WALL STREET? The latter is enough to make me suspicious of the authors of this philosophy.

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