On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner (Liberty Fund Press,1992) ed. Robert C. Bannister



*the following prepublication draft may differ slightly from the published version



William Graham Sumner, as his contemporaries testified, was someone you liked a lot or not at all. During his four decades at Yale, undergraduates thronged to his classes. "In my estimation, he was the greatest teacher I have ever known," one of his early students wrote when Sumner died in 1910. Even the radical economist Thorstein Veblen, who attended Yale for graduate studies in the early 1880s, reported that he was "particularly" pleased with Sumner. In the following decades, a loyal band of Sumnerites led by his protégé Albert G. Keller kept alive a "Sumner Club" to promote his teachings.

Others were less charitable. Commenting on an anonymous review in the Nation, one angry reader guessed that Sumner must be the author since no one else was "capable of so bigoted a hatred." When in the mid-1890s he opposed Free Silver, one Westerner wondered how "such an arrogant jackass. . .can occupy a chair in a college at Yale." When Folkways (1906) appeared, still another disgruntled reader likened it to "a card index." "Now and then there are interspersed some general conclusions," he added, "which shock without convincing."

Inevitably, much of the debate then and later turned on Sumner's politics. To his defenders, he provided an arsenal of arguments against the encroachment of government. To his critics, he was at worst a "business hireling," at best the confused spokesman of an older middle class whose day was done. Often conflating the two charges, historians pictured him as the leading "social Darwinist" of his generation, a theorist who appropriated the rhetoric of evolutionism to defend the worst excesses of unregulated capitalism. Despite challenges to this view during the past two decades, he remains the late 19th century thinker American history textbooks most like to hate.

For this situation, Sumner's blunt, uncompromising, and often provocative manner was partly to blame. "Bluff Billy," as he was called, did not suffer fools easily. But other factors were also at work. Many critics quoted a few phrases concerning "fittest" and "unfittest" as the sum of his social thought. Focusing on his views of government and the economy, most failed to place his work within the broader context of the effort of several generations of American intellectuals to ground morals and public policy in science rather than Protestant Christianity. A member of the "generation of 1840" who initiated this change, Sumner shared in this enterprise with the sociologist Lester Ward and the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., among others, even though he did not share their politics. As these intellectuals debated the meaning of science, the charge of misapplied Darwinism (including the epithet "social Darwinist"), as I have argued in Social Darwinism: Science and Myth (1979), was essentially a battle strategy, more caricature than accurate characterization. Critics also assumed that Sumner's ideas remained unchanged throughout his career. Quotations from lectures of the 1870s or from Folkways became interchangeable evidence of a monolithic ideology.

Whatever the reasons, the resulting image of Sumner seriously misrepresents him. Although he launched his career in a decade with more than its share of corruption and fraud--the scandals of the Grant presidency and New York's Tweed Ring, the financial buccaneering of Jay Gould, the "corrupt bargain" that gave Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in 1876--he was no less a critic of these developments than were the self-styled "reformers" whose proposals, in his view, only compounded the problems. During the 1880s and 1890s, he continued to defend free markets, individual enterprise, and the accumulation of capital. But he was acutely aware of mounting problems, from the rise of plutocracy (defined broadly as the influence of wealth on politics) to the excesses of consumerism and of democracy. The United States was entering its "glory days," he lamented shortly before his death, referring to the "corruption and extravagance which ultimately have ruined all the republics of the past." In sounding these warnings, he seemed to his admirers to be the epitome of the "old Roman," a defender of the republican tradition of the Founders, not the business "hireling" or the spirit of individualism past.

Sumner's "conservatism" was accordingly complex. As he moved from clergyman to sociologist, he struggled to reconcile two contradictory impulses: a desire for organic community, historical continuity, and traditional values as antidote to unfettered individualism and materialistic progress; and a commitment to individual freedom that fueled this progress. Complicating this dilemma was the specter of cultural relativism wherein all truth appeared relative to conditions. In freeing the individual from past custom and tradition, cultural relativism appeared to rule out any common standard for individual behavior or public policy. In his early sermons, Sumner confronted these issues in repeated attempts to balance "tradition" and "progress." In Folkways, he discussed them in terms of the relation between the "mores" and "science," the former the encoded customs and traditions that shape all human activity, the latter the objective attitude that allows limited escape from them.

In this quest, Sumner's conception of science was crucial. Since the 18th century, science had been seen as a means of freeing humanity from the burdens of the past, while providing for one or another type of social engineering. Inspired by Darwin, many of Sumner's contemporaries found in evolution the basis for an instrumental view of reason that justified governmental activism and a relativism that rejected established institutions and beliefs. Sumner, in contrast, distinguished the "methods" of science from its "speculations," viewing the former in terms of the narrowly inductive procedures of what American intellectuals of his generation termed "Baconian" science (dubiously claiming lineage from the celebrated 17th century English scientist Francis Bacon). Science, so viewed, was not some "ism," but a matter-of-factness that stressed classification over hypothesis. The property of a relatively small minority ("the classes"), the scientific attitude, as Sumner's biographer Donald Bellomy has put it, allowed "a critical, scientific, and modernized elite [to] modify and correct traditional attitudes."

Although on the surface Sumner shared his generation's faith in science, he thus diverged from a majority of his fellow social scientists in rejecting the notion that science taught a conception of truth as merely a consensus of trained observers. Sumner's "expert" was not a credentialled member of a social scientific community that drew up social blueprints to meet changing conditions--the model that was increasingly in American sociology in the decades after Sumner's death. Rather, he was the tough-minded individual who viewed current mores objectively in the light of history. In grasping the essence behind appearance, science provided an absolute standard for individual behavior and social policy, and hence an escape from a debilitating relativism and moral anarchy.

Sumner defended private property, individual enterprise, and laissez faire. But he was not therefore an uncritical "apologist" for American business. Rather he joined a tradition of American thinkers who championed republicanism against democracy, hard work and self-denial over material luxury, and public good over individual gratification. Unlike the Founding fathers, Sumner grounded his conservatism, not in the classical Republicanism of Greece or Rome, but in scientific method and an ethos of professionalism that sought in discipline, denial, and detachment the equivalents, as it were, of public virtue. Although some contradictions remained, he thus took more seriously than many of his contemporaries the problems of change and tradition, cultural relativism and common standards, that continue to dominate our discourse more than a century later.


Born in Paterson, New Jersey on October 30, 1840, Sumner was the son of recent English immigrants. A mechanic by training, his father Thomas left the low wages and unemployment of Lancashire just in time to feel the sting of the American depression of 1837. By marriage he was distantly related to a prominent free-trader and temperance advocate, causes he made his own. But, his son later recalled, he also was contemptuous of "demagogical arguments," "the notions of labor agitators," and "the entire gospel of gush." After losing an eye in an industrial accident, and his health to a lifetime of toil, Thomas died in 1881 almost as poor as when he arrived in the New World, remembered only as the "forgotten man" of his son's best-known essay.

As a youth, Sumner enjoyed neither the security of place nor the comforts of the emotional life. After surveying prospects from New York to Ohio, his father moved the family to New Haven and then to Hartford. The death of his mother Sarah in 1848 placed eight year old William and a younger brother, Joseph Graham, in the custody of a stepmother whose concern with economy at the expense of affection grieved even her taciturn husband. Still grief-stricken, the brothers even plotted silently to kill their stepmother, perhaps the last time they thoroughly agreed on anything. Although Sumner never referred to his youthful deprivations, indeed, rarely mentioned his childhood, they left a legacy in a keen sense of the separation of the inner and outer life, of private and public spheres, and of sentiment and fact. As an adult, Sumner's sternness was legendary. But a tenderness also surfaced with surprising intensity in love letters he wrote to his fiancée and, later, in an often-remarked fondness for children, an indulgence once desired but never received.

Excessively serious, even a bit of a prig, young Sumner found in school what was missing at home. After rigorous training in Hartford's public school, Sumner entered Yale in 1859, with the help of money his father made in one of his rare successful ventures. There he plodded through the iron-clad curriculum that the Yale Report of 1828 had prescribed for all antebellum America: two years of the classics, a third that added physics, and some astronomy and chemistry, and a fourth that included lectures in history, politics, and international law.

Sumner also discovered a more vital Yale outside the classroom-- in eating clubs, in the Brothers in Unity debating society, in sports (where he was a keen follower of the Yale "Navy") and finally in Skull and Bones, whose coveted election he received in the spring of his junior year. Fueling these activities was a marked change in the student body as sons of business magnates from New York, Chicago, and other cities swelled classes previously drawn mostly from New England and settlements of New Englanders throughout the midwest. Sumner's friend Henry Holt dated the change precisely to 1856 when the first group of New Yorkers entered, bringing with them a "revolutionary quantity of new clothes."

Yale thus meant a number of things. First, new friends, two of Sumner's closest being William C. Whitney and J. Frederick Kernochan, the son of a cotton mill owner and a New York merchant respectively. Second, virtually a new identity, as the dour William gradually became "Graeme," a figure that fellow Bones men fondly remembered drawing pictures or lounging casually while smoking his pipe. Finally, it meant connections, as Bill Whitney's brother Henry first loaned him $300 for a Civil War substitute, then bankrolled two years of European study. Two years later, Fred Kernochan added another few hundred dollars, and eventually assumed most of Sumner's debt. Meanwhile, a third Bones man, Charles Wesson, wrote that Sumner's name had been put forward for a tutorship at Yale, a position he occupied after his return from Europe.

For the ambitious Yale man, the Civil War was largely an inconvenience. Although some of Sumner's classmates marched in torchlight parades for Lincoln, and responded to the call to enlist after Sumter, enthusiasm soon waned. Less than a third of the class of 1863, including non-graduates, saw any military service. Although Sumner later portrayed the war as a victory for the forces of modernity, he was less optimistic at the time. Distrusting northern leaders, he feared that Lincoln's emergency war measures threatened to create a dictatorship. Within his own family, his postwar lack of enthusiasm for suffrage for the freedmen estranged him from his brother Joe (later a clerk at the New Orleans office of the Freedmen's Bureau), and even brought a reprimand from his father. Feeling no guilt for his failure to enlist, he scurried frantically to salvage his European studies, while his father used Henry Whitney's $300 to arrange a substitute after Sumner was drafted in July 1863. Although Thomas's efforts failed when one candidate "skedadled" out a hotel window with Whitney's money, the government accepted the transaction as meeting the legal requirement. Thus, as Sumner's biographer Donald Bellomy has commented, "No one died (or lived) in Sumner's place."

Although marriage lay in the future, Sumner's interest in the opposite sex also developed during his college years. He knew he was no ladies man. "I am not the sort of man women love," he once confessed. But this realization did not keep him from trying. At several parties, he became jealous when a classmate bested him for the favors of one Jeannie Elliott, a pretty relative of a locally prominent family. By the spring of his senior year he became deeply involved with a young woman from Hartford only to be devastated when she died shortly before his graduation.

Happily, after several years studying abroad, and another three as classics tutor at Yale, Sumner again met Jeannie Elliott in the summer of 1869 while vacationing in the Catskills. Until their marriage in April 1871, he poured out his yearnings and hopes in letter after letter. When he announced his engagement, friends looked on in disbelief at a Sumner they had not previously known. "I still find it difficult to associate so much emotion as an engagement involves," one colleague wrote, "with a being whose composition I have hitherto supposed to consist only of pure thought." By this time, still another Sumner had emerged as Episcopalian clergyman, a career for which he had been preparing more or less since entering Yale.

As he left his teens, Sumner was headed for success. But the story of his youth had not quite fit the usual Horatio Alger plot. Although the upwardly mobile son of a recent immigrant, he did not pretend or wish to be the legendary self-made man. Many people would say "I have 'succeeded'& say that I have 'made my way up,' he wrote his fianceé soon after he left New Haven for New York. But they were wrong. He had never set out to "'rise in the world'," he added, echoing Alger's recently published Ragged Dick (1868). "The 'self-made man,'" he later told his students, "is, by definition, the first bungling essay of a bad workman."

Nor, given his many debts to community and friends, had his youth provided a homily on "individualism," in the way some 19th century Americans used the term. "Individualism," he told his congregation a few years later, reduces a man to the status of the "wild beast," destroying the "union and organization" that make society possible. In later years he continued to inveigh against the man "on the make." Sumner's individualism was not a creed of go-it-alone and devil-take-the hindmost, but a code of discipline, duty, and responsibility within the confines of external restraints, whether imposed by Providence, one's profession, or the social norms he later termed "mores." Philosophically, the issue was the limits of free-will, one he wrestled with throughout his career with mixed success. In his personal life, it took the form of a professionalism that linked individual advancement with self-discipline and hard work. For society, it meant finding and obeying the "laws" that alone make freedom possible.


In the spring of 1869 Sumner left Yale and plunged into Anglican church politics, first as editor of The Living Church and assistant pastor in New York and New Haven, and from 1870 to 1872 as minister of The Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, New Jersey. At the time, the Episcopalians were torn between a High and Low Church group, the one stressing dogma and tradition, the emphasizing evangelical conversion. Sumner identified with a third and moderate Broad Church faction, more open to reason and science. The Broad Church creed was summed up in the title of his journal: "living," because it addressed the most important issues then confronting Christianity, and "church" in resolving them as an historically evolved institution.

By the late 1860s, Sumner's religious ideas were still in flux. Converted from his parents' Anglicanism to Congregationalism in his youth, he came to feel less sympathy with the lingering revivalism of his own congregation than with the anti-revivalist views of Hartford's most famous Congregationalist, Horace Bushnell. In Germany he dabbled briefly with the rationalism of the Higher Criticism before being returned to "common sense" by the Oxford Anglicans. At Oxford, he also discovered Richard Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a late Elizabethan treatise that combined an attack on excessive reverence for a literal reading of the Bible with celebration of constitutional order and historical continuity. From home came pressures of a different sort. "We are all of us Episcopalians, Bill, and you must be the same, can't you," wrote William Whitney on behalf of the Bones group. Returning to Yale, Sumner joined his friends and the Episcopalians.

Although conventions of the pulpit ruled out specific references to current affairs, Sumner in his sermons tackled the most pressing intellectual and social issues of the day. Titles alone told much of the story: "Ill-Gotten Wealth," "Individualism," "Tradition and Progress," and "Solidarity of the Human Race." In the Broad Church spirit, he sought in each case a middle ground upon which contending factions could unite.

A case in point was the mounting conflict between religion and science, not a "warfare" of opposing groups (as Cornell president Andrew D. White would soon imply) but a battle over the nature of science itself. Negotiating this thicket, Sumner distinguished science as "method" from the "speculations" of individual scientists. He found "no great fault" with Darwin, Huxley, or Spencer in "their original works," he told his New Jersey congregation. "They may be right or wrong in their speculations and theories," but they were "honest, sincere, and industrious" in method. But what was this method? Although still disposed to the narrowly inductive Baconianism he first learned at Yale, he was not yet prepared to say.

Sumner also sought compromise on the merits of "tradition" and "progress." "The traditions of centuries have a true moral authority," he told his parishioners. "We must begin with the world as we find it, that is, as it is handed down to us from the past." But he also cautioned that the "true use of tradition" should be distinguished from "traditionalism," the blind acceptance of "old errors" and "worn-out falsehoods."

The issue was personal as well as theological. During his stay at Oxford, tradition in the form of English class snobbery made Sumner acutely aware of his own humble origins. Like many an American Oxonian in similar circumstances, he accommodated by embracing English tradition with the passion of the half-converted, chiding fellow Americans for their lack of tradition. But the spirit of progress in post-Civil War America proved equally contagious. "When I came back," he later wrote his fiancée, "I saw that the vast body of people here were free, prosperous, free from care, & happy, & that is worth all the elegance it robs us of." This inner tension, as it turned out, dovetailed neatly with the desire of most Anglicans to avoid the excesses of either the High or Low church positions, as he soon demonstrated in the sermon "Tradition and Progress."