On this date, the economist and sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross was forced to resign from Stanford University as Professor of Sociology. This intrusion on academic freedom, which partly led to the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), clearly mixed not only intramural and extramural speech but also disciplinary and non-disciplinary speech.
In 1896, Ross endorsed the idea of free silver in a pamphlet and spoke in public on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Leland Stanford, the university’s founder, had died and left control of the institution to his widow Jane. She was offended at Ross’ break with Republican orthodoxy and demanded that he be fired. The university president managed to secure a delay and a sabbatical for Ross to provide a cooling off period.
On his return in 1900, however, Ross extended his public persona to include a condemnation of Chinese immigration which mixed labor issues with issues of race. In his words:
I tried to show that owing to its high Malthusian birth rate the Orient is the land of “cheap men,” and that the [Chinese immigrant worker], though he cannot outdo the American, can underlive him [in other words, because Chinese immigrants are racially disposed to work for lower wages, they are able to displace the native workers]. I took the ground that the high standard of living that restrains multiplication in America will be imperiled if Orientals are allowed to pour into this country in great numbers before they have raised their standard of living and lowered their birth-rate. I argued that the Pacific is the natural frontier of East and West, and that California might easily experience the same terrible famines as India and China if it teemed with the same kind of men. In thus scientifically co-ordinating the birth-rate with the intensity of the struggle for existence I struck a new note in the discussion of Oriental immigration, which, to quote one of the newspapers, “made a profound impression.”
I quote Ross at length to show that Ross, although his racism and his deplorable and misguided defense of it were not peculiar to him and were actually quite common among influential “progressives” of the time, was no angel. Somewhat obsessed with race, Ross was of course convinced that “the blood now being injected into the veins of our people is sub-human”; the newer immigrants were “morally below the races of northern Europe”; and that it all would end in “Race Suicide”.
Jane Lothrop Stanford was outraged, not because of Ross’s racism but because the Stanford fortune had been built on Chinese labor. Now he was out of a job.
Professional economists and some of the future founders of the AAUP came to Ross’s defense, despite the fact that while the 1896 comments were partly within his area of expertise, at least insofar as an economist was qualified to comment on the gold standard, the 1900 remarks were clearly not, since they went beyond commenting on Chinese labor to include a plea for Anglo-Saxon racial purity. Of course the 1896 statements included not only economic analysis but also a political endorsement. One would like to think that at least some of Ross’s defenders found his racism objectionable, but that they defended his right to speak nonetheless.
From 1900 to the 1920s, Ross supported the temperance (alcohol prohibition) movement as well as eugenics and immigration restriction. To his credit, by 1930 Ross had shed these notions and spent the greater part of his efforts promoting the New Deal reform and the freedoms of the individual. In fact, he became national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1940, serving until 1950.
- Ross, Edward Alsworth. The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People (New York, NY: The Century Co., 1914), pp. 282-304.