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William Graham Sumner (October 30, 1840 - April 12, 1910) was a classical liberal American social scientist. He taught social sciences at Yale, where he held the nation's first professorship in sociology. He was one of the most influential teachers at Yale or any other major school. Sumner wrote widely within the social sciences, with numerous books and essays on American history, economic history, political theory, sociology, and anthropology. He supported laissez-faire economics, free markets, and the gold standard. He adopted the term "ethnocentrism" to identify the roots of imperialism, which he strongly opposed, and as a spokesman against it he was in favor of the "forgotten man" of the middle class, a term he coined. He had a long-term influence on conservatism in the United States.
Sumner wrote an autobiographical sketch for the fourth of the histories of the Class of 1863 Yale College. In 1925, Rev. Harris E. Starr, class of 1910 Yale Department of Theology, published the first full-length biography of Sumner. A second full-length biography by Bruce Curtis was published in 1981. Other authors have included biographical information about Sumner as shown by citations in this "Biography" section.
Early life and education
Sumner was born in Paterson, New Jersey, on October 30, 1840. His father, Thomas Sumner, was born in England and immigrated to the United States in 1836. His mother, Sarah Graham, was also born in England. She was brought to the United States in 1825 by her parents. Sumner's mother died when he was eight.
In 1841, Sumner's father went prospecting as far west as Ohio, but came back east to New England and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, in about 1845. Sumner wrote about his high regard for his father: "His principles and habits of life were the best possible." Earlier in his life, Sumner said, that he accepted from others "views and opinions" different from his father's. However, "at the present time," Sumner wrote, "in regard to those matters, I hold with him and not with the others." Sumner did not name the "matters."
Sumner was educated in the Hartford public schools. After graduation, he worked for two years as a clerk in a store before going to Yale College from which he graduated in 1863. Sumner achieved an impressive record at Yale as a scholar and orator. He was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Society in his junior year and in his senior year to the secretive Skull and Bones society.
Sumner avoided being drafted to fight in the American Civil War by paying a "substitute" $250, given to him by a friend, to enlist for three years. This and money given to him by his father and friends allowed Sumner to go to Europe for further studies. He spent his first year in the University of Geneva studying Latin and Hebrew and the following two years in the University of Göttingen studying ancient languages, history and Biblical science. All told, in his formal education, Sumner learned Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, and German. In addition, after middle age he taught himself Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Danish, and Swedish.
Except for a stint as a clergyman, Sumner's whole career was spent at Yale.
While at Oxford, Sumner was elected a tutor in mathematics. He was made a lecturer in Greek at Yale, beginning in September 1867.
On December 27, 1867, at Trinity Church, New Haven, Sumner was ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Church. In March 1869, Sumner resigned his Yale tutorship to become assistant to the Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church (Manhattan). In July 1869, Sumner was ordained Priest.
From September 1870 to September 1872, Sumner was Rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, N.J. On April 17, 1871, Sumner married Jeannie Whittemore Elliott, daughter of Henry H. Elliott of New York City. They had three boys: one died in infancy, Eliot (Yale 1896) became an officer of the Pennsylvania Railroad; Graham (Yale 1897) became a lawyer in New York City.
Robert Bierstedt writes that Sumner preached two sermons every Sunday at the Church of the Redeemer. They "stressed without surcease the Puritan virtues of hard work, self-reliance, self-denial, frugality, prudence, and perseverance." Furthermore, writes Bierstedt, "it may be said that Sumner spent his entire life as a preacher of sermons." However, Sumner "preferred the classroom to the pulpit," so he left the ministry and returned to Yale in 1872 as "professor of political and social science" until he retired in 1909. Sumner taught the first course in North America called "sociology."
Other than what he said in the ordination service, there is no information about what motivated Sumner to be ordained. At his ordination, Sumner said that he thought that he was "truly called" to the ministry.
Sumner did not make known, at least publicly, his reasons for leaving the ministry. However, he and historians suggest that it might have been a loss of belief and/or a dim view of the church and its clergy.
Clarence J. Karier says, "Sumner found that his deity vanished with the years." "I have never discarded beliefs deliberately," Sumner said later in life, but "I left them in a drawer and, after a while, when I opened it there was nothing there at all." Harris E. Starr found that Sumner "never attacked religion" or "assumed a controversial attitude toward it." At the same time, Starr found that during Sumner's time as a professor he stopped attending Trinity Church, New Haven, where he had been ordained Deacon. After that, Sumner attended church only occasionally. However, in the closing years of his life, he baptized a little grandson, and not long before his death he attended New Haven's St. John's Church to receive Holy Communion. Starr wrote that these two events "suggest that deep down in his nature a modicum of religion remained."
In his book What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883), Sumner argued that the "ecclesiastical prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich" worked "to replunge Europe into barbarism." Furthermore, Sumner asserted, that this prejudice still lives, nourished by the clergy. "It is not uncommon," he said, "to hear a clergyman utter from the pulpit all the old prejudice in favor of the poor and against the rich, while asking the rich to do something for the poor; and the rich comply."
For exact and comprehensive knowledge Professor Sumner is to take the first place in the ranks of American economists; and as a teacher he has no superior.
The Yale University Library's guide to Sumner's papers ranks him as "Yale's most dynamic teacher of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Students clamored to enroll in his classes." Sumner's "genuine love for aspiring students, commanding personality, wide learning, splendid dogmatism, and mastery of incisive English" makes it easy to understand his reputation.
Sumner himself described his life as a professor as "simple and monotonous." "No other life could have been so well suited to my taste as this," he wrote in his autobiographical sketch.
In spite of Sumner's description of his life as "simple and monotonous," he was "a champion of academic freedom and a leader in modernizing Yale's curriculum." This led Sumner into conflict with Yale's President, Noah Porter who, in 1879, asked Sumner not to use Herbert Spencer's Study of Sociology in his classes. "Sumner saw this as a threat to academic freedom and bluntly refused Porter's request. The faculty soon split into two factions one supporting and the other opposing Sumner's defiance." Sumner stood his ground and won out.
Until his 1890 illness, Sumner wrote and spoke constantly on the economic and political issues of the day. His "acidic style" outraged his opponents, but it pleased his supporters. The rest of Sumner's life at Yale was routine. In 1909, the year of his retirement, Yale awarded Sumner an honorary degree.
Although Sumner was a professor of political science, his actual involvement in politics was limited to two things he reported in his autobiographical sketch. In 1873-1876, he served as an alderman in New Haven. In 1876, researching the contested presidential election, he went with a group to Louisiana to find "what kind of a presidential election they had that year." Sumner said that was his "whole experience in politics." From this experience, he concluded, "I did not know the rules of the game and did not want to learn."
Retirement and death
Sumner's health became poor in 1890, and after 1909, the year of his retirement, it "declined precipitously." In December 1909, while in New York to deliver his presidential address to the American Sociological Society, Sumner suffered his third and fatal paralytic stroke. He died April 12, 1910, in Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.
Sumner spent much of his career as a muckraker, exposing what he saw as faults in society, and as a polemicist, writing, teaching, and speaking against these faults. In spite of his efforts, his career ended with pessimism about the future. Sumner said, "I have lived through the best period of this country's history. The next generations are going to see wars and social calamities."
Like many classical liberals at the time, including Edward Atkinson, Moorfield Storey, and Grover Cleveland, Sumner opposed the Spanish-American War and the subsequent U.S. effort to quell the insurgency in the Philippines. He was a vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League which had been formed after the war to oppose the annexation of territories. In 1899 he delivered a speech titled "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale University. In what is considered by some to be "his most enduring work," he lambasted imperialism as a betrayal of the best traditions, principles, and interests of the American people and contrary to America's own founding as a state of equals, where justice and law "were to reign in the midst of simplicity." In this ironically titled work, Sumner portrayed the takeover as "an American version of the imperialism and lust for colonies that had brought Spain the sorry state of his own time." According to Sumner, imperialism would enthrone a new group of "plutocrats," or businesspeople who depended on government subsidies and contracts.
In 1880, Sumner was involved in one of the first cases of academic freedom. Sumner and the Yale president at the time, Noah Porter, did not agree on the use of Herbert Spencer's "Study of Sociology" as part of the curriculum. Spencer's application of supposed "Darwinist" ideas to the realm of humans may have been slightly too controversial at this time of curriculum reform. On the other hand, even if Spencer's ideas were not generally accepted, it is clear that his social ideas influenced Sumner in his written works.
In 1881, Sumner wrote an essay titled "Sociology." In the essay, Sumner focused on the connection between sociology and biology. He explained that there are two sides to the struggle for survival of a human. The first side is a "struggle for existence," which is a relationship between man and nature. The second side would be the "competition for life," which can be identified as a relationship between man and man. The first is a biological relationship with nature and the second is a social link, thus sociology. Man would struggle against nature to obtain essential needs such as food or water and in turn this would create the conflict between man and man in order to obtain needs from a limited supply. Sumner believed that man could not abolish the law of "survival of the fittest," and that humans could only interfere with it and in so doing, produce the "unfit."
According to Jeff Riggenbach, the identification of Sumner as a social Darwinist
... is ironic, for he was not so known during his lifetime or for many years thereafter. Robert C. Bannister, the Swarthmore historian, ... describes the situation: "Sumner's 'social Darwinism,'" he writes, "although rooted in controversies during his lifetime, received its most influential expression in Richard Hofstadter['s] Social Darwinism in American Thought," which was first published in 1944. ... Was William Graham Sumner an advocate of "social Darwinism"? As I have indicated, he has been so described, most notably by Richard Hofstadter and various others over the past 60-odd years. Robert Bannister calls this description "more caricature than accurate characterization" of Sumner, however, and says further that it "seriously misrepresents him." He notes that Sumner's short book, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, which was first published in 1884, when the author was in his early 40s, "would ... earn him a reputation as the Gilded Age's leading 'social Darwinist,'" though it "invoked neither the names nor the rhetoric of Spencer or Darwin."
Before the tribunal of nature a man has no more right to life than a rattlesnake; he has no more right to liberty than any wild beast; his right to pursuit of happiness is nothing but a license to maintain the struggle for existence ...
-- William Graham Sumner, Earth-hunger, and other essays, p. 234.
Another example of social Darwinist influence in Sumner's work was his analysis of warfare in one of his essays in the 1880s. Contrary to some beliefs, Sumner did not believe that warfare was a result of primitive societies; he suggested that "real warfare" came from more developed societies. It was believed that primitive cultures would have war as a "struggle for existence," but Sumner believed that war in fact came from a "competition for life." Although war was sometimes man against nature, fighting another tribe for their resources, it was more often a conflict between man and man, for example, one man fighting against another man because of their different ideologies. Sumner explained that the competition for life was the reason for war and that is why war has always existed and always will.
"The Forgotten Man"
The theme of "the forgotten man" was developed by Sumner over a series of 11 essays published in 1883 in Harper's Weekly, and further developed in two speeches delivered that year. Sumner argued that, in his day, politics was being subverted by those proposing a "measure of relief for the evils which have caught public attention." He wrote:
As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. ... [W]hat I want to do is to look up C. ... I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, social speculator and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which are laid upon him.
Thousands of Yale students took his courses, and many remarked on his influence. His essays were very widely read among intellectuals, and men of affairs. Among Sumner's students were the anthropologist Albert Galloway Keller, the economist Irving Fisher, and the champion of an anthropological approach to economics, Thorstein Bunde Veblen.
Yale University has maintained a professorship named in Sumner's honor. The following have been the William Graham Sumner Professor of Sociology at Yale University:
^"Sumner's reasons for leaving the clergy ... has been the subject of considerable speculation." Robert C. Bannister, On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner (Liberty Fund, 1992), Introduction.
^ abClarence J. Karier, The Individual, Society, and Education: A History of American Educational Ideas (University of Illinois, 1986), 110.
Bannister, Robert C., Jr. "William Graham Sumner's Social Darwinism: a Reconsideration". History of Political Economy 1973 5(1): 89-109. ISSN0018-2702 Looks at Sumner's ideas, especially as revealed in Folkways (1906) and his other writings. Contrary to the position of the kind of social Darwinism sometimes attributed to him, he insisted equally on a distinction between the "struggle for existence" of man against nature and the "competition of life" among men in society. Sumner did not really equate might and right, and did not reduce everything finally to social power.
Barnes, Harry Elmer, "Two Representative Contributions of Sociology to Political Theory: The Doctrines of William Graham Sumner and Lester Frank Ward", American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jul., 1919), pp. 1-23
Bledstein, Burton J., "Noah Porter versus William Graham Sumner", Church History, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Sep., 1974), pp. 340-49.
Carver, T. N, "William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)", Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 53, No. 10 (Sep. 1918), pp. 865-67.
Curtis, Bruce. William Graham Sumner. (Twayne's United States Authors Series, no. 391.) Twayne, 1981. 186 pp.
Curtis, Bruce. "William Graham Sumner 'On the Concentration of Wealth'". Journal of American History 1969 55(4): 823-32. ISSN0021-8723 Fulltext in Jstor. Sumner has usually been considered a dogmatic defender of laissez-faire and of conservative social Darwinism. But an examination of his unpublished essay of 1909, "On the Concentration of Wealth" (here published in full), reveals that his earlier views were subject to modification. In this 1909 essay he shows his concern for pervasive corporate monopoly as a threat to social equality and democratic government. His analysis was akin to that of a Wilsonian Progressive, although his remedies were vague and incomplete. This stand against plutocracy was consistent with his life and consisted of a long defense of a middle-class society against the pressures of greedy self-interest groups and demos, the mob. Earlier he was most concerned with threats from corrupt politicians. Later plutocracy threatened the middle classes through abuses which might have led to class warfare.
Curtis, Bruce. "William Graham Sumner and the Problem of Progress". New England Quarterly 1978 51(3): 348-69. ISSN0028-4866 Fulltext in Jstor. Sumner was one of the few late-19th-century Americans to reject a belief in inevitable human progress. Influenced by his understanding of Darwinism, Malthusian theory, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, he came to believe the ancient doctrine of cycles in human affairs and in the universe. Based on Sumner's classroom notes and other writings.
Curtis, Bruce. "Victorians Abed: William Graham Sumner on the Family, Women and Sex". American Studies 1977 18(1): 101-22. ISSN0026-3079. Asks, did a Victorian consensus concerning sexuality exist? Sumner's life reveals many tensions and inconsistencies, although he generally supported the sexual status quo. His ideal of the middle-class family, nonetheless, led him to oppose the double sexual standard and to question the idea of a stable Victorian consensus on sexuality. He supported humane divorce policies and kinder treatment for prostitutes, and recognized women as sexual beings.
Garson, Robert and Maidment, Richard. "Social Darwinism and the Liberal Tradition: the Case of William Graham Sumner". South Atlantic Quarterly 1981 80(1): 61-76. ISSN0038-2876. Argues Sumner, drew upon themes and ideas that were firmly established in the political consciousness of Americans. The introduction of such devices as the struggle for survival and the competition of life served in fact to dramatize and highlight some of the central concerns of liberalism. When Sumner did repudiate certain fundamental premises of the liberal tradition, he did so on the grounds that the tradition was misconstrued and not because it was unsustainable. He did not discard liberal theory nor did he lose sight of its principal threads.
Hartnett, Robert C., S. J. "An Appraisal of Sumner's Folkways", The American Catholic Sociological Review, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Dec., 1942), pp. 193-203.
Hofstadter, Richard. "William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinist", The New England Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep. 1941), pp. 457-77, reprinted in Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944).
Keller, A. G., "William Graham Sumner", American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 15, No. 6 (May, 1910), pp. 832-35. Eulogy written shortly after Sumner died.
Lee, Alfred Mcclung. "The Forgotten Sumner". Journal of the History of Sociology 1980-1981 3(1): 87-106. ISSN0190-2067. Sumner as sociologist.
Marshall, Jonathan. "William Graham Sumner: Critic of Progressive Liberalism". Journal of Libertarian Studies 1979 3(3): 261-77. ISSN0363-2873
McCloskey, Robert Green. "American conservatism in the age of enterprise, 1865-1910: A study of William Graham Sumner, Stephen J. Field, and Andrew Carnegie" (1964). It discusses Sumner's support for laissez-faire economics, free markets, anti-imperialism and the gold standard. It discusses Sumner's influence over modern conservatism as a leading intellectual of the Gilded Age.
Pickens, Donald. "William Graham Sumner as a Critic of the Spanish American War". Continuity 1987 (11): 75-92. ISSN0277-1446
Pickens, Donald K. "William Graham Sumner: Moralist as Social Scientist". Social Science 1968 43(4): 202-09. ISSN0037-7848. Sumner shared many intellectual assumptions with 18th-century Scottish moral philosophers, such as Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart. They were part of ethical naturalism. The major reason for this ideological kinship was the historical fact that Scottish moral philosophy was one of the major sources for modern social science. Sumner's Folkways  illustrates the Scottish influence.
Shone, Steve J. "Cultural Relativism and the Savage: the Alleged Inconsistency of William Graham Sumner". American Journal of Economics and Sociology 2004 63(3): 697-715. ISSN0002-9246 Fulltext online in Swetswise, Ingenta, and Ebsco
Sklansky, Jeff. "Pauperism and Poverty: Henry George, William Graham Sumner, and the Ideological Origins of Modern American Social Science". Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 1999 35(2): 111-38. ISSN0022-5061 Fulltext online at Swetswise and Ebsco
Smith, Norman E. and Hinkle, Roscoe C. "Sumner Versus Keller and the Social Evolutionism of Early American Sociology". Sociological Inquiry 1979 49(1): 41-48. ISSN0038-0245 Based on the contents of two recently discovered unpublished manuscripts of Sumner, concludes that he came to reject the basic premises of social evolutionism, 1900-10, and that his apparent support for the theory as stated in The Science of Society (1927, printed 17 years after Sumner's death) was actually the thought of Albert Galloway Keller, with whom he collaborated.
Smith, Norman Erik. "William Graham Sumner as an Anti-social Darwinist". Pacific Sociological Review 1979 22(3): 332-347. ISSN0030-8919 Fulltext in JSTOR. Sumner clearly rejected social Darwinism in the final decade of his career, 1900-10.