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In an age when career patterns remained fluid, Sumner was soon unhappy within the church. Friends showered him with advice concerning alternative careers-- in law, perhaps even in commerce. In the spring of 1871, a week before he proposed marriage to Jeannie, he was offered the presidency of the University of Alabama at the princely salary of $5000 a year. At Yale, friends lobbied on his behalf for a faculty position, the job he really wanted, although in precisely what field remained to be seen. For two years, obstacles delayed the appointment: Jeannie had no wish to be a faculty wife, and the $2000 his friends were able to raise initially was too little. But in September 1873, he finally returned to Yale.
Sumner's reasons for leaving the clergy, and the legacy of this experience has been the subject of considerable speculation. Denying a crisis of faith, he later quipped that he merely put his beliefs in a drawer only to find them gone when next he looked. He never officially resigned from the clergy, served as a vestryman, and attended various church functions until his death. At the other extreme, he once remarked cynically to a student that one of two wasted periods in his life was when he was "a parson." Echoing Sumner's own ambivalence, some historians identified a "social gospel" element in his later writings, while others stressed his conversion from religion to naturalism under the impact of evolutionism.
Both views are misleading, however. Rather than evidence of lingering faith, Sumner's refusal to break cleanly with the church probably reflected a desire not to offend his wife and other family members, perhaps coupled with reluctance to undermine so powerful a source of social authority. As he grappled with questions of faith and reason, tradition and progress, solidarity and individualism, Sumner's ideas did change. In tone, his analysis gradually secularized, a shift already evident in an 1873 revision of an earlier sermon on "The Solidarity of the Human Race." But this change registered his participation in a broad transformation of western thought rather than any sudden conversion to the ideas of Spencer or Darwin.
The clerical years nonetheless left their mark. Affording an opportunity to develop his oratorical skills and prose style, the pulpit allowed Sumner scope to discuss pressing issues, philosophical and social. If some of the answers changed, the questions remained remarkably the same, notably those concerning tradition and progress, the heart of what Sumner's biographer Donald Bellomy has termed, "the Broad Church dilemma." For Sumner, this issue involved two deeply-held, but potentially contradictory convictions: a belief in history and institutions as a check on progress; and an instinctive commitment to individual freedom. For someone who would be at once "conservative" and "American," this dilemma admitted no easy solution.
EDUCATIONAL REFORMER, POLITICIAN, PUBLICIST
When Sumner returned to New Haven in 1873, Yale was struggling in its own way with changes then transforming American higher education. Harvard's appointment in 1869 of Charles W. Eliot, the university's first lay president, symbolized an end to clerical domination. Two years later, Noah Porter replaced Theodore Dwight Woolsey as Yale's president. Although a clergyman, Porter also was a moral philosopher of considerable repute, and dedicated to his own vision of the modern university.
Woolsey's departure left Porter with the unattractive prospect of teaching single-handedly the catch-all, senior year course in mental and moral philosophy they had previously shared. Hoped-for assistance vanished with the resignation of Daniel Coit Gilman of the Sheffield Scientific School, an unannounced presidential candidate and the one person who might have taken over Woolsey's part of the course. The subsequent allotment of funds for a chair in "political and social science" placed Sumner in competition with a well-connected Congregationalist clergyman named Diman who had been showered with academic offers since his appointment at Brown in 1864, and who was soon the favorite of Yale faculty members who opposed Sumner. After a year of vintage academic politics, including attempts to steer him to a less-prestigious (and unendowed) chair in ancient history or to persuade him to withdraw his candidacy altogether, Sumner accepted the new chair in political economy with high hopes that if could be made "most influential on the future of this country."
In most respects, Sumner was the consummate college reformer. Writing in the Living Church, he welcomed Eliot's appointment at Harvard, arguing that American colleges could become true universities only by overcoming their sectarian origins. At Yale, he endorsed a recent experiment to divide classes by academic rank rather than alphabetically for recitations, and even attempts to eliminate the tedious recitations altogether. In his own courses, he replaced graded recitations with a single final examination, and made attendance optional, causing Porter to warn that he was destroying the program "on which the whole system of discipline and honors in founded."
At the same time, Sumner rejected as worthless one Eliot proposal to bring experts to the university to energize graduate studies. He likewise distrusted extreme demands that the universities "keep up with the times," wanting only to assure that they not become bastions of "mere traditionalism and stagnation." Although admiring the German model, he wanted the United States to build its universities upon the experience and traditions of its colleges. With characteristic bluntness, he identified poor endowment rather than curriculum as the heart of the matter."It is money, or the want of it, which is the root of all evil." As in the Broad Church debates, Sumner again staked out a position at once idealistic and practical, a balance between tradition and progress. As he turned to public affairs, this balance would be more difficult to attain.
During the early Yale years (1873-1878), Sumner also aspired to be the "scholar-in-politics," a phrase popularized by the Nation, a journal whose brand of liberalism he generally supported despite an on- and off-again relation with its editor, E.L. Godkin. "What is needed now," he wrote, "is, not more thorough theoretical discussion of the scholar in politics, but that a few more should try it." Throughout the seventies, he was best known as scholar-politician and polemicist rather than for any contributions to social theory.
Sumner launched his career as scholar-in-politics in the fall of 1873 when he ran successfully for New Haven alderman, a position he held for four years. The same year he also became an honorary member of the New Haven Chamber of Congress, which he used as a personal forum for his favored causes. At the national level, he joined the recently founded American Social Science Association, where he served on a newly established Finance Committee until finally resigning in disgust at the ASSA's congenital do-goodism. In November 1877, he joined an electoral commission to investigate fraud in New Orleans during the recent presidential election. The following year he testified before a Congressional Committee investigating labor unrest.
In politics, Sumner was a Republican less from conviction than from the absence of a viable alternative. The Democrats historically represented the excesses of Jeffersonianism and Jacksonianism he most despised, while the G.O.P. attracted most of the "best men" in the North, and more importantly, in New Haven. Disgusted by the corruption of the Grant years, and dismayed by Republican policy on tariffs and the money issue, he shared the outlook of future Mugwumps, as independents in both parties would later be dubbed. In the fall of 1877, he shocked friends and political allies by throwing his support to the Democrat Samuel Tilden.
As polemicist, Sumner attempted to reach a popular audience in public lectures, in newspapers, in essays, and in books. Among public issues, he focused especially on the currency issue, then agitated by calls for the retirement of the Civil War "greenbacks" and later the establishment of a "bimetal" standard of gold and silver; and on free trade, now apparently doomed by the protective tariffs of the war years. He devoted his first two books, in turn, to each: A History of American Currency (1874), and Lectures on the History of Protection (1877).
In his attacks on the protective tariff, Sumner characteristically combined appeals to the pocketbook and to morality. Ostensibly a levy on overseas trade, the tariff was actually a tax to benefit some Americans over others. "The victim and the beneficiary are amongst ourselves," he argued, since consumers ultimately paid in higher prices. Worse, the tax was an indirect one, leaving those taxed unaware of their burden. Here as elsewhere the issue finally was self-discipline, a goal better achieved through a direct tax if necessary.
Sumner's own experience with the depreciating value of money through inflation gave gave him a personal stake in the issue. The size of his debt to his friends and his concern over financing further work in Europe or the Far East, left a legacy of hatred of paper currency and inflation. Although he paid little attention to the demonetarization of silver in 1873 (a move critics later dubbed the "Crime of '73) he was distressed as leading economists otherwise within the classicist camp supported international bimetallism, among them his Yale colleague Francis A. Walker. After holding his fire for several years, Sumner attacked bimetallism in 1878, placing himself in open conflict with other potential allies.
Although few Americans appeared so well equipped to raise economic theory to a new level, Sumner sought to popularize rather than to extend classical British theory. More interested in practical problems than theoretical issues, he instead catalogued the dire consequences, past and present, of paper money and high tariffs. After a visit with Sumner in New Haven in 1875, Alfred Marshall, the brilliant British economist, judged him to be a man of "enormous ability," but one lacking "the nature fitted for epoch-making truths."
Disillusionment with politics during 1877 presaged a shift in Sumner's priorities during the next decade, a result both of his personal experience as New Haven alderman and of his assessment of voting fraud in the Hayes-Tilden election. "I found out that I was more likely to do more harm than good in politics than almost any other kind of man," he later wrote of his career as alderman, "because I did not know the rules of the game and did not want to learn them." After an abortive attempt to return to the Republican fold, he repudiated politics altogether, as a waste of time, declining even to vote in the 1880 election. Accordingly, during the 1880s he argued for the necessary separation of politics and economics, and the need to eliminate political corruption though civil service reform.
Developments in the industrial sphere meanwhile shifted the focus of his interest to labor, big business, and finally to Marxism. Responding to the bloody summer of railway strikes in 1877, he penned an angry response meant for but not finally published in the North American Review, following it with several other essays on labor and strikes throughout the 1880s. Although the secretive formation of the Standard Oil trust in 1882 heralded a new phase of industrial combination, Sumner, like most of his contemporaries, realized its implications only gradually. In a series in the Independent in 1887, however, he took direct aim at the emerging "plutocracy," a concept that joined middle class fear of industrial combination and the patrician dislike of vulgar wealth he had earlier expressed in his sermons. Narrowly defined, plutocracy referred to "a political form in which the controlling force is wealth," he explained. But more generally it enshrined the "increasing thirst for luxury" and the acquisitive appetites of the man "on the make." "The principle of plutocracy is that money buys whatever the owner of money wants," Sumner concluded with disgust.
He also gradually realized that Karl Marx was not just another socialist. Initially he knew Marx only as the leader of the International who wanted "to carry the war into the arena of scientific economy." But Marx's treatment of "capital" was soon at the center of his indictment of the entire socialist movement. When in 1886 the visit of Marx's daughter and son-in-law to the United States stimulated new interest in his theories, Sumner took aim at such concepts as "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie." "No American artisan" can understand these terms, he charged. "Such ideas are a part of a foreign dress of a set of ideas which are not yet naturalized."
As Sumner moved from the mugwumpish scholar-in-politics to full-blown controversialist, his prose gained strength and power. Among the Mugwumps, he had always been a bit out of place, possessing the credentials and connections but not the background or wealth. His early style, as his biographer Donald Bellomy has written in The Moulding of an Iconoclast (1979), was "frequently stilted, often latinate, more than a little long-winded," probably due to his status as a newcomer attempting to use an official rhetoric, but lacking the confidence or experience to do so gracefully. Although his friend Henry Holt finally published the History of American Currency, Holt confessed that it never failed to put him to sleep. Only in extemporaneous speeches and student lectures did Sumner display the boldness that would become his hallmark. As he directed his attention from public policy to social theory in the early 1880s, this boldness quickly won national attention.
Until the early 1880s, Sumner's social thought echoed a variety of works he read while preparing for something else. Among these were Harriet Martineau's Illustrations of Political Economy (1834), a primer of classical economics by example, and Francis Lieber's Civil Liberty, whose proto-sociological emphasis on customs and institutions informed his later distrust of schemes based on "natural rights." In Woolsey's course at Yale, he read enough of Francis Wayland's Elements of Political Economy to convince him that his father and Martineau were basically right about economic issues. Later he added Ricardo, Malthus, and others in the British tradition.
Growing attack on this tradition in the late 1870s first forced Sumner to rethink his basic assumptions. From overseas this attack was spearheaded by representatives of the German Historical School, the Kathedersozialisten ("professorial socialists," Sumner rendered the term) and their American disciples who founded the American Economic Association in 1884. More popularly, it found voice in Henry George's Progress and Poverty (1879), Lawrence Gronlund's Cooperative Commonwealth (1883), and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888). All bothered Sumner: George for his attack on Malthus; Gronlund as a homegrown socialist; and Bellamy as the model for the "absurd effort" to plan a better world with "a slate and pencil." Social scientists were little better. The social sciences, he wrote in the late seventies, were the stronghold of many "pernicious dogmatisms." The economists, he added with reference to the German school, "instead of holding together and sustaining. . .the scientific authority and the positive truth of their doctrines, break up and run hither and thither." In one way or other, these theorists figured in most of his essays of the eighties.
In a series on "Socialism" and "Sociology" between 1878 and 1882, Sumner defended Malthus in particular, fired in part by Henry George's attack on Malthusianism in Progress and Poverty. "Human beings tend to multiply beyond the power of a limited area of land to support life, under a given stage of the arts, and a given standard of living," he wrote in Scribner's in 1878, summarizing the Malthusian doctrine on the eve of George's attack. Although technology and emigration had temporarily suspended population pressure, the struggle for existence was inescapable. This struggle pitted men against nature, he explained, his model being the individual against the wilderness as pictured in one of Martineau's Illustrations. A parallel "competition of life" set the social rules governing the relation of individuals in society, private property being one example. Although the relation of the two remained vague, Sumner insisted on the distinction. Confusing the two, socialists erred in blaming the rules of the "competition of life" for hardships properly laid to the "struggle for existence."
Henry George, in turn, had "wasted his effort" because "the 'Malthusian doctrine' is swallowed up in a great biological law," he wrote in a review. Since Sumner remained virtually ignorant of Darwin's theory he meant only to assert that the biologist lent support to the general idea of struggle as a starting point for all speculation. But why not carry Darwinism further? Indulging a flair for epigram, Sumner in several speeches and at least one published essay between 1879 and the early 1880s (and only then) appeared to do precisely this. "The Law of the survival of the fittest was not made by man," the argument went. "We can only, by interfering with it, produce the survival of the unfittest." With this phrasemaking, he crossed the line between modest academic fame and textbook infamy as his generation's leading "social Darwinist."
At Yale, a conflict with Noah Porter meanwhile forced Sumner to think more systematically about science, the issue unresolved in his clerical days. The struggle began in 1879 when President Porter objected to his assigning Herbert Spencer's The Study of Sociology in a senior social science class. Although they attempted to settle the matter privately, a report in the New York Times in 1880 led both to go public. Sumner challenged Porter's right to proscribe textbooks, and he threatened to resign in an open letter to the Yale Corporation and faculty in 1881. In the end, both could claim a victory of sorts: Sumner, because he refused to concede the principle; Porter, because Sumner stopped assigning the book.
During his early clerical years Sumner had dipped into Herbert Spencer's Social Statics (1850) and First Principles (1861), but found both works too "metaphysical" for his taste. During the seventies he displayed only passing rhetorical interest in the Englishman's work. His first recorded use of the phrase "survival of the fittest" in 1872 was in the context of appealing for charity toward the weak. But he also apparently read the Study of Sociology when it appeared in serial form in 1872 and eventually thought enough of it to assign it as a text. For this decision, thanks to Porter, he soon earned an undeserved reputation as America's "leading Spencerian."
The major issue in the affair was not so much religion versus science, or even classroom freedom or professionalism. It was the definition of science itself. The issue was not whether a college would teach theology, Porter had explained a decade earlier, "but what theology it shall teach--theology according to Comte and Spencer, or according to [Francis] Bacon and Christ," the assumption being the conventional one that there existed no conflict between religion and science, properly understood. As president and professor squared off, the issue was unchanged. Not science or religion, but what kind of science.
Although Sumner never acknowledged defeat, his convoluted responses in the Princeton Review and elsewhere revealed how uncertain remained his own grasp of this issue, especially in its social dimensions. "All that we can affirm with certainty is that social phenomena are subject to law, and that the natural laws of the social order are in their entire character like the laws of physics," he noted weakly in an essay on "Sociology." In this regard, the Porter incident finally left its mark. Soon after the episode, Sumner changed the focus of his teaching, and with it his conception of what a science of society should be. In 1883-84 he cautiously reintroduced sociology for graduate students (but not undergraduates), but then described the course modestly as "text-book lessons, explanations, etc." Although a reading course in social science was continued on an alternate year basis, he gave anthropology top-billing, with readings longer on historical fact than on cosmic speculation, Spencerian or other.
The writing and reception of What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1884) pushed Sumner further down this road to a narrowly inductive view of science, although, ironically, not before earning him a reputation as the Gilded Age's leading "social Darwinist." Although the book dealt ostensibly with class relations in industrial society, it owed its central theme and its emotional edge to events in Sumner's personal life during the previous two years. The most important was the death of his father in 1881 after a long downhill slide in health and fortune. For the son, as numerous commentators have observed, the death was the occasion to reflect on the enormous debt he owed to the Lancashire mechanic, who, despite poor business sense and numerous reverses, asked from life only a fair chance.
But there was also more to it. Thomas Sumner's failures, no less than his principles, provided a lesson in the fruits of irresponsibility. On his death, his son found himself saddled with the emotionally draining business of paying off creditors and untangling his father's botched affairs. Irresponsibility also came home to roost in the reappearance of his brother Joe, a neer-do-well (in his view), whose wayward ways had never stopped him from rubbing in the fact that he made more money than his "successful" older sibling. Now in financial trouble, Joe regularly nagged him for loans through the early 1880s. About this time, Sumner also helped a former housekeeper with money to get married, only to have her later return a penniless widow with children to support. On top of it all, the emotional collapse of Sumner's always-fragile wife Jeannie strained his finances and sense of duty to the near-breaking point. If he suggested that charity begins at home, he had his reasons.
In Social Classes, Sumner forged these personal experiences and a mounting fear of social unrest into a celebration of the "Forgotten Man" and the unsettling conclusion that social classes apparently owe nothing to one other. In structure and tone, the work combined pulpit oratory and deductive logic. Sermon-style chapter titles summoned the faithful to weekly meeting: "That It Is Not Wicked To Be Rich; Nay, Even, That It Is Not Wicked to Be Richer than One's Neighbor." School-book logic captured the essence of all humanitarian schemes: "that A and B decide what C shall do for D." Whether D or X (as in the lecture version here reprinted), the burden fell always on number three: "the forgotten man."
Although Sumner invested a good deal in this portrait, the economic and class position of his "forgotten man" was tantalizing vague. As a victim of protectionism or excise taxes, he was virtually the entire American population. As the victim of legislation, he included all taxpayers except initiators and beneficiaries. But he was not the "ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed" worker, as Franklin Roosevelt implied in appropriating Sumner's phrase five decades later. Rather, politically, the Forgotten Man foreshadowed the newspaper cartoon "John Q. Public," looking puzzled at the antics of elected officials. Economically, he represented that large segment of the American population who would become "middle class" in the mid-twentieth century, but, who, like Thomas Sumner, still languished as artisans offering their service to the highest bidder.
In a somewhat incongruous final installment, Sumner explained "Wherefore We Should Love One Another." Men. . .owe to men, in the chances and perils of this life, aid and sympathy, on account of the common participation in human frailty and folly," he wrote in an attenuated version of his earlier theory of "human solidarity." But "private and personal" relations were one thing, and science another. "There is no injunction, no 'ought' in political economy at all," he intoned. "It does not tell man what he ought to do." Only an apparent step back from his earlier conclusions, this chapter showed Sumner again taking comfort in private-public, heart-head dualisms that he earlier applied to theological problems. The split now, however, was between individual emotion and social science, a harbinger of the "ought-is" distinction of the objectivist, behavioristic sociology his work later inspired.
Social Classes invoked neither the names nor rhetoric of Spencer or Darwin, but its appearance revived charges that Sumner was misusing biology to justify a dog-eat-dog social order. Although the New York Times levelled this charge in the spring of 1883 in response to one of his "fittest-unfittest" flourishes in an unpublished speech, Sumner faced it explicitly for the first time in print a year later in an exchange in the Index, the journal of the liberal and ecumenical Free Religious Association of Boston. Denying that "fitness" had meaning in any social sense, the editor noted that Sumner's emphasis on human morality and reason seemed to belie the thrust of his closing epigram. Sumner himself equivocated. "Rattlesnakes survive where horses perish," he wrote, conceding his critics' main point. "The 'economic harmonies' are a great subject," he wrote in June 1884 in the last of several apologies on the subject, denying that he held to Darwinian doctrine as charged. Although he promised to "publish [his] notion in proper detail," he instead effectively dropped all use of analogical language, Spencerian or otherwise, and let the subject die.