Lester Frank Ward

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Lester F. Ward
Lester Ward
Born Lester Frank Ward
(1841-06-18)June 18, 1841
Joliet, Illinois
Died April 18, 1913(1913-04-18) (aged 71)
Washington, D.C.
Resting place
Watertown, New York
Nationality American
Alma mater
Known for Paleobotany, Sociology, and the introduction of sociology as field of higher education
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Carolyn Vought (Lizzie); some sources give Elizabeth Carolyn Bought.
  • Justus Ward
  • Silence Rolph Ward

Lester F. Ward (June 18, 1841 – April 18, 1913) was an American botanist, paleontologist, and sociologist.[1] He served as the first president of the American Sociological Association.

Ward was a pioneer who promoted the introduction of sociology courses into American higher education. His belief that society could be scientifically controlled was especially attractive to intellectuals during the Progressive Era. His influence in certain circles (see: the Social Gospel) was affected by his opinions regarding organized priesthoods, which he believed had been responsible for more evil than good throughout human history.

Ward emphasized the importance of social forces which could be guided at a macro level by the use of intelligence to achieve conscious progress, rather than allowing evolution to take its own erratic course as proposed by William Graham Sumner and Herbert Spencer. Ward emphasized universal and comprehensive public schooling to provide the public with the knowledge a democracy needs to successfully govern itself.


Most, if not all of what is known about Ward's early life comes from the definitive biography, Lester F. Ward: A Personal Sketch,[2] written by Emily Palmer Cape in 1922, where she writes in the forward:

For several years I was closely associated with Dr. Ward as co-editor of his work entitled, Glimpses of the Cosmos,[3] 6 volumes published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1913: Comprising his minor contributions and biographical and historical sketches of all his writings. Month after month I worked with him. We went through all his personal papers. I found in the wonderful and beautiful friendship thus developed a revelation of qualities of mind and heart which could be perceived only through intimate and harmonious relations. Naturally I learned much of the man and of his life. He often told me : "No one has ever gone over every detail of my life's journey as you have."

Cape explained later in the forward:

There is an important fact which must be explained so that those who know and admire his work may appreciate why the following sketch is not so complete as I hoped it might be. Ward had the habit of keeping a diary. This was to him one of the most important matters of his life. Never did a day pass but a few lines were inscribed. No matter how tired he was at night, always before retiring he would note down his doings of the day.

In a footnote on pp. 5–6, Cape notes: On February 20, 1911, in replying to my asking him to write his autobiography, he says: "I don't want to write my autobiography and have it appear while I am alive. It doesn't seem the thing to do. You are the one to write my biography from all the data that I shall leave, but it will be done after I have left them." (The "data" signified the diaries. The above italics are in Dr. Ward's letter.)[2]

When serious illness took him from his University duties, he wrote me of his having to leave Providence and asked me to meet him at the station on his arrival in New York. Never shall I forget that early morning when he arrived. He was so weak that I asked: "May I not go on to Washington with you? I fear to have you go alone." But he said No, that when rested he would feel better, and could go on very well by himself. He grew better as we chatted, and asked me to open his satchel so that he could hand me a bundle of papers and letters he wanted to give me. Then he said: "I hope to return soon, but you know where all my papers, diaries, and letters are, and what to do with them at any time." I did not like to talk of these things then. When the train time came he seemed much brighter and bade me adieu.

After a few weeks of severe illness in Washington, where he had gone to the home of his wife, who had been an invalid for some time, he passed away.

Early life[edit]

Lester Frank Ward was born in Joliet, Illinois, the youngest of 10 children born to Justus Ward and his wife Silence Rolph Ward. Justus Ward (d.1858) was of old New England colonial stock, but he wasn't rich, and farmed to earn a living. Silence Ward was the daughter of a clergyman; she was a talented perfectionist, educated and fond of literature.[2]

When Lester Frank was one year of age the family moved closer to Chicago, to a place called Cass, now known as Downers Grove, Illinois about twenty-three miles from Lake Michigan. The family then moved to a homestead in nearby St. Charles, Illinois where his father built a saw mill business making railroad ties.[2]

Early education[edit]

Ward first attended a formal school at St. Charles, Kane Co., IL, in 1850 when he was nine years old. He was known as Frank Ward to his classmates and friends and showed a great enthusiasm for books and learning, liberally supplementing his education with outside reading.[2]

Four years after Ward started attending school, his parents, along with Lester and an older bother, Erastus, traveled to Iowa in a covered wagon for a new life on the frontier. Four years later, in 1858, Justus Ward unexpectedly died, and the boys returned the family to the old homestead they still owned in St. Charles. Ward's estranged mother, who lived two miles away with Ward's sister, disapproved of the move, and wanted the boys to stay in Iowa to continue their father's work.[2]

The two brothers lived together for a short period of time in the old family homestead they dubbed "Bachelor's Hall," doing farm work to earn a living, and encouraged each other to pursue an education and abandon their father's life of physical labor.[2]

In late 1858 the two brothers moved to Pennsylvania at the invitation of Lester Frank's oldest brother Cyrenus (9 years Lester Frank's senior) who was starting a business making wagon wheel hubs and needed workers. The brothers saw this as an opportunity to move closer to civilization and to eventually attend college.[2]

The business failed, however, and Lester Frank, who still didn't have the money to attend college, found a job teaching in a small country school; in the Summer months he worked as a farm laborer. He finally saved the money to attend college and enrolled in the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute in 1860. While he was at first self-conscious about his spotty formal education and self learning, he soon found that his knowledge compared favorably to his classmates, and he was rapidly promoted.[2]

Marriage and Civil War service[edit]

It was while attending the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute that he met Elizabeth "Lizzie" Carolyn Vought (some sources cite Bought), and fell deeply in love. Their "rather torrid love affair" was documented in Ward's first journal Young Ward's Diary. They married on Aug. 13, 1862.

Almost immediately afterward, Ward enlisted in the Union Army and was sent to the Civil War front where he was wounded three times. After the end of the war he successfully petitioned for work with the federal government in Washington, DC, where he and Lizzie then moved.

Lizzie assisted him in editing a newsletter called "The Iconoclast," dedicated to free thinking and attacks on organized religion. She gave birth to a son, but the child died when he was less than a year old. Lizzie died in 1872.[4] Rosamond Asenath Simons was married to Lester F. Ward as his second wife in the year 1873.[2]


After moving to Washington, Ward attended Columbian College, now the George Washington University, and graduating in 1869 with the degree of A.B.. In 1871 he received the degree of LL.B. (and was admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia), and that of A.M. in 1873.

Research career and U.S. Geologic Survey[edit]

Ward never practiced law, however, and concentrated on his career in the federal government. Almost all of the basic research in such fields as geography, paleontology, archeology and anthropology were concentrated in Washington, DC. at this time in history, and a job as a federal government scientist was a prestigious and influential position. In 1883 he was made Geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey.

While he worked at the Geological Survey he became good friends with John Wesley Powell, the powerful and influential second director of the US Geological Survey (1881–1894) and the director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution.

Brown University - Chair of Sociology[edit]

In 1892, he was named Paleontologist for the USGS, a position he held until 1906, when he resigned to accept the chair of Sociology at Brown University.

Works and ideas[edit]

By the early 1880s the new field of sociology had become dominated by ideologues of the left and right, both determined to claim "the science of society" as their own. The champion of the conservatives and businessmen was Herbert Spencer; he was opposed on the left by Karl Marx. Although Spencer and Marx disagreed about many things they were similar in that their systems were static: they both claimed to have divined the immutable stages of development that a society went through and they both taught that mankind was essentially helpless before the force of evolution.

With the publication of the two volume, 1200 page, Dynamic Sociology--Or Applied Social Science as Based Upon Statical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences(1883), Lester Ward hoped to restore the central importance of experimentation and the scientific method to the field of sociology. For Ward science wasn't cold or impersonal; it was human-centered and results-oriented. As he put it in the Preface to Dynamic Sociology, "The real object of science is to benefit man. A science which fails to do this, however agreeable its study, is lifeless. Sociology, which of all sciences should benefit man most, is in danger of falling into the class of polite amusements, or dead sciences. It is the object of this work to point out a method by which the breath of life may be breathed into its nostrils."

Ward theorized that poverty could be minimized or eliminated by the systematic intervention of society. Mankind wasn't helpless before the impersonal force of nature and evolution – through the power of Mind, man could take control of the situation and direct the evolution of human society. This theory is known as telesis. Also see: meliorism, sociocracy and public sociology. A sociology which intelligently and scientifically directed the social and economic development of society should institute a universal and comprehensive system of education, regulate competition, connect the people together on the basis of equal opportunities and cooperation, and promote the happiness and the freedom of everyone.

Criticism of laissez-faire[edit]

Ward is most often remembered for his relentless attack on Herbert Spencer and his theories of laissez-faire and survival of the fittest that totally dominated socio/economic thought in the United States after the American Civil War. While Marx and communism/socialism didn't catch on in the United States during Ward's lifetime, Spencer became famous: he was the leading light for conservatives. Ward placed himself in direct opposition to Spencer and Spencer's American disciple, William Graham Sumner, who had become the most well known and widely read American sociologist by single-mindedly promoting the principles of laissez-faire. To quote the historian Henry Steele Commager: "Ward was the first major scholar to attack this whole system of negativist and absolutist sociology and he remains the ablest.... Before Ward could begin to formulate that science of society which he hoped would inaugurate an era of such progress as the world had not yet seen, he had to destroy the superstitions that still held domain over the mind of his generation. Of these, laissez-faire was the most stupefying, and it was on the doctrine of laissez-faire that he trained his heaviest guns. The work of demolition performed in Dynamic Sociology, Psychic Factors and Applied Sociology was thorough."

Female equality[edit]

Ward was a strong advocate for equal rights for women and even theorized that women were naturally superior to men, much to the scorn of mainstream sociologists. In this regard, Ward presaged the rise of feminism, and especially the difference feminism of writers such as Harvard's Carol Gilligan, who have developed the claims of female superiority. Ward is now considered a feminist writer by historians such as Ann Taylor Allen. However, Clifford H. Scott claims that some suffragists ignored him.[5] Ward's persuasion on the question of female intelligence as described by himself: "And now from the point of view of intellectual development itself we find her side by side, and shoulder to shoulder with him furnishing, from the very outset, far back in prehistoric, presocial, and even prehuman times, the necessary complement to his otherwise one-sided, headlong, and wayward career, without which he would soon have warped and distorted the race and rendered it incapable of the very progress which he claims exclusively to inspire. And herefore again, even in the realm of intellect, where he would fain reign supreme, she has proved herself fully his equal and is entitled to her share of whatever credit attaches to human progress hereby achieved." Clifford H. Scott argues that practically all the suffragists ignored him.[5]

Environmental policy in the US[edit]

Ward had a considerable influence on the United States' environmental policy in the late 19th and early 20th century. Ross listed Ward among the four "philosopher/scientists" that shaped American early environmental policies. (see: Ross, John R.; Man over Nature)

White supremacy and race[edit]

Ward's views on the question of race and the theory of white supremacy underwent considerable change throughout his life.

Ward was a Republican Whig and supported the abolition of the American system of slavery. He enlisted in the Union army during the Civil war and was wounded three times. However, a close reading of his "Dynamic Sociology" will uncover several statements that would be considered racist and ethnocentric by today's standards. There are references to the superiority of Western culture and the savagery of the American Indian and black races, made all the more jarring by the modern feel of much of the rest of the book.

However, Ward lived in Washington D.C., then the center of anthropological research in the US; he was always up-to-date on the latest findings of science and in tune with the developing zeitgeist, and by the early twentieth century, perhaps influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois and German-born Franz Boas he began to focus more on the question of race.

During this period his views on race were arguably more progressive and in tune with modern standards than any other white academic of the time, with, of course, the exception of Boas, who is sometimes credited with doing more than any other American in combating the theory of White supremacy. Ward, given his age and reputation, could afford to take a somewhat radical stand on the politically explosive question of White supremacy, but Boas did not have those advantages.

After Ward's death in 1913, and with the approach of World War I, Franz Boas came to be seen by some, including W.H. Holmes, the head of National Research Council (and who had worked with Ward for many years at the U.S. Geological Survey), as possibly being an agent of the German government determined to sow revolution in the US and among its troops.

The NRC had been set up by the Wilson administration in 1916 in response to the increased need for scientific and technical services caused by World War I, and soon Boas's influence over the field of anthropology the US began to wane. By 1919, Boas was censured by the American Anthropological Association for his political activities, a censure which would not be lifted until 2005. (See also: Scientific racism, Master race, and Institutional racism) (the source for the information about Boas is Gossett, Thomas F.; Race: The History of an Idea in America)


Ward is often categorized as been a follower of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Ward's article "Neo-Darwinism and Neo-Lamarckism" shows Ward had a sophisticated understanding of this subject. While he clearly described himself as being a Neo-Lamarckian, he completely and enthusiastically accepted Darwin's findings and theories. On the other hand, he believed that, logically, there had to be a mechanism that would allow environmental factors to influence evolution faster than Darwin's rather slow evolutionary process. The modern theory of Epigenetics suggests that Ward was correct on this issue, although old-school Darwinians continue to ridicule Larmarkianism.[6]


While Durkheim is usually credited for updating Comte's positivism to modern scientific and sociological standards, Ward accomplished much the same thing 10 years earlier in the United States. However, Ward would be the last person to claim that his contributions were somehow unique or original to him. As Gillis J. Harp points out in "The Positivist Republic", Comte's positivism found a fertile ground in the democratic republic of the United States, and there soon developed among the pragmatic intellectual community in New York City, which featured such thinkers as William James and Charles Sanders Peirce and, on the other hand, among the federal government scientists in Washington D.C. (like Ward) a general consensus regarding positivism.

Theory of War and Conflict[edit]

In "Pure Sociology: A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society"(1903) Ward theorizes that throughout human history conflict and war has been the force that is most responsible for human progress. It was through conflict that hominids gained dominance over animals. It was through conflict and war that Homo Sapiens wiped out the less advanced hominid species and it was through war that the more technologically advanced races and nations expanded their territory and spread civilization. Ward sees war as a natural evolutionary process and like all natural evolutionary processes war is capricious, slow, often ineffective and shows no regard for the pain inflicted on living creatures. One of the central tenets of Wards world view is that the artificial is superior to the natural and thus one of the central goals of Applied Sociology is to replace war with a system that retains the progressive elements that war has provided but without the many downsides.[7]

Influence on U.S. government policy[edit]

Ward influenced a rising generation of progressive political leaders, such as Herbert Croly. In the book Lester Ward and the Welfare State, Commager details Ward's influence and refers to him as the "father of the modern welfare state".

As a political approach, Ward's system became known as social liberalism, as distinguished from the classical liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which featured such thinkers as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. While classical liberalism had sought prosperity and progress through laissez-fare, Ward's "American social liberalism" sought to enhance social progress through direct government intervention. Ward believed that in large, complex and rapidly growing societies human freedom could only be achieved with the assistance of a strong democratic government acting in the interest of the individual. The characteristic element of Ward's thinking was his faith that government, acting on the empirical and scientifically based findings of the science of sociology, could be harnessed to create a near Utopian social order.

Progressive thinking had a profound impact on the administrations of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson and on the liberal wing of the modern Democratic Party. Ward's ideas were in the air but there are few direct links between his writings and the actual programs of the founders of the welfare state and the New Deal.[8]

Ward's Diaries[edit]

It would be interesting to know Ward's candid views on the controversial political subjects and the people of the time (and that he was interested in these topics can be seen in the rather odd introduction to the second edition of "Dynamic Sociology" were he talks at length about the situation in pre-revolutionary Russia and jokes about Dynamic Sociology being mistranslated into Russian as "Dynamite Socialism"). However, all but the first of his voluminous diaries were reportedly destroyed by his wife after his death. Ward's first journal, "Young Ward's diary: A human and eager record of the years between 1860 and 1870...", remains under copyright and one could always hope that more of his writings may reappear at some future date.

Ward died in Washington, D.C.. He is buried in Watertown, New York.


Ward and fossil tree trunks
"In many respects the botanist looks at the world from a point of view precisely the reverse of that of other people. Rich fields of corn are to him waste lands; cities are his abhorrence, and great open areas under high cultivation he calls 'poor country'; while on the other hand the impenetrable forest delights his gaze, the rocky cliff charms him, thin-soiled barrens, boggy fens, and unreclaimable swamps and morasses are for him the finest land in a State. He takes no delight in the 'march of civilization,' the ax and the plow are to him symbols of barbarism, and the reclaiming of waste lands and opening up of his favorite haunts to civilization he instinctively denounces as acts of vandalism." -- Lester Ward
"Every implement or utensil, every mechanical device...is a triumph of mind over the physical forces of nature in ceaseless and aimless competition. All human institutions—religion, government, law, marriage, custom—together with innumerable other modes of regulating social, industrial and commercial life are, broadly viewed, only so many ways of meeting and checkmating the principle of competition as it manifests itself in society." --Lester Ward
"Thus far, social progress has in a certain awkward manner taken care of itself, but in the near future it will have to be cared for. To do this, and maintain the dynamic condition against all the hostile forces which thicken with every new advance, is the real problem of sociology considered as an applied science" --Lester Ward
"To overcome [the] manifold hindrances to human progress, to check this enormous waste of resources, to calm these rhythmic billows of hyper-action and reaction, to secure the rational adaptation of means to remote ends, to prevent the natural forces from clashing with the human feelings, to make the current of physical phenomena flow in the channels of human advantage - these are some of the tasks which belong to the great art which forms the final or active department of the science of society - this, in brief, is DYNAMIC SOCIOLOGY. “Voir pour prévoir";(1*) "prévoyance, d'où action,"(2*) i.e., predict in order to control, such is the logical history and process of all science; and, if sociology is a science, such must be its destiny and its legitimate function." --Lester Ward
"Again, society desires most the education of those most needing to be educated. From an economical point of view, an uneducated class is an expensive class. It is from it that most criminals, drones, and paupers come. From it—and this is still more important—no progressive actions ever flow. Therefore, society is most anxious that this class, which would never educate itself, should be educated...The secret of the superiority of state over private education lies in the fact that in the former the teacher is responsible to society ... [T]he result desired by the state is a wholly different one from that desired by parents, guardians, and pupils." --Lester Ward
"And now, mark : The charge of paternalism is chiefly made by the class that enjoys the largest share of government protection. Those who denounce state interference are the ones who most frequently and successfully invoke it. The cry of laissez faire mainly goes up from the ones who, if really "let alone," would instantly lose their wealth-absorbing power.... Nothing is more obvious to-day than the signal inability of capital and private enterprise to take care of themselves unaided by the state; and while they are incessantly denouncing "paternalism," by which they mean the claim of the defenceless laborer and artisan to a share in this lavish state protection, they are all the while besieging legislatures for relief from their own incompetency, and "pleading the baby act" through a trained body of lawyers and lobbyists. The dispensing of national pap to this class should rather be called "maternalism," to which a square, open, and dignified paternalism would be infinitely preferable." --Lester Ward
"When a well-clothed philosopher on a bitter winter’s night sits in a warm room well lighted for his purpose and writes on paper with pen and ink in the arbitrary characters of a highly developed language the statement that civilisation is the result of natural laws, and that man’s duty is to let nature alone so that untrammeled it may work out a higher civilisation, he simply ignores every circumstance of his existence and deliberately closes his eyes to every fact within the range of his faculties. If man had acted upon his theory there would have been no civilisation, and our philosopher would have remained a troglodyte." – --Lester Ward
"In perspicacity, intellectual acumen, and imagination, he [Lester Ward] was the equal of Henry Adams or Thorstein Velben or Louis Sullivan, but he was better rounded and more constructive than these major critics. In the rugged vigor of his mind, the richness of his learning, the originality of his insights, the breath of his conceptions, he takes place alongside William James, John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes as one of the creative spirits of Twentieth-century America." – --Henry Steele Commager


Selected works[edit]

Linked here are facsimiles of original editions, which also include links to JSTOR conversions (where available), along with several alternate formats.

For modernized copies in pdf format, see those under external links below, which were photocopied and proofread by Ralf Schreyer and are the best quality you can find on the internet.





See also[edit]

The documentary "Lester F. Ward: A Life's Journey" (108 minutes) examines the life and ideas of Lester Ward.[10] It begins with his childhood and follows him as a young man, a soldier in the Civil War, his work with John Wesley Powell as a paleontologist, and his extensive communications with a wide range of European sociologists. Ward was an "apostle of human progress" who vigorously advocated for public education and the rights of women and minorities. The noted feminist Charlotte Gilman described Ward as "one of the world's greatest men" and dedicated her book The Man-Made World to him. Nonetheless Ward vehemently opposed her support of the eugenics movement. As he put it, "People are equal in all except privilege." www.galelargey.com


  1. ^ "WARD, Lester Frank". The International Who's Who in the World: p. 1067. 1912. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Cape, Emily Palmer (1922). Lester F. Ward: A Personal Sketch. 
  3. ^ Ward, Lester F. (1913). Glimpses of the Cosmos. New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons. pp. 737–754. 
  4. ^ American Sociological Association. "American Sociological Association - Lester Ward". http://www2.asanet.org. Retrieved 23 August 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Clifford H. Scott, "A Naturalistic Rationale For Women's Reform: Lester Frank Ward on the Evolution of Sexual Relations," Historian (1970) 33#1 pp 54-67
  6. ^ cf. Brody & Body, The Science Class you Wish you Had, 1996
  7. ^ Mike Hawkins (1997). Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat. Cambridge University Press. p. 13. 
  8. ^ Steven L. Piott (2006). American Reformers, 1870-1920: Progressives in Word And Deed. Rowman & Littlefield. 
  9. ^ "Author Query for 'Ward'". International Plant Names Index. 
  10. ^ Nancy Coleman (04/02/2006). "Remembering the late Lester Ward, local resident credited with founding discipline of sociology". The Daily & Sunday Review (Towanda, PA). Retrieved 2013-01-22. 

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

  • Commager, Henry Steele, ed., Lester Frank Ward and the Welfare State (1967), major writings by Ward, and long introduction by Commager
  • Stern, Bernhard J. ed. Young Ward's Diary: A Human and Eager Record of the Years Between 1860 and 1870 as They Were Lived in the Vicinity of the Little Town of Towanda, Pennsylvania; in the Field as a Rank and File Soldier in the Union Army; and Later in the Nation's Capital, by Lester Ward Who became the First Great Sociologist This Country Produced (1935)

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Bannister, Robert. Sociology and Scientism: The American Quest for Objectivity, 1880-1940 (1987), pp 13–31.
  • Burnham, John C. "Lester Frank Ward as Natural Scientist," American Quarterly 1954 6#3 pp. 259–265 in JSTOR
  • Chugerman, Samuel. Lester F. Ward, the American Aristotle: A Summary and Interpretation of His Sociology (Duke University Press, 1939)
  • Fine, Sidney. Laissez Faire and the General-Welfare State: A Study of Conflict in American Thought, 1865-1901 (1956), pp 252–88
  • Muccigrosso, Robert, ed. Research Guide to American Historical Biography (1988) 3:1570-4
  • Nelson, Alvin F. "Lester Ward's Conception of the Nature of Science," Journal of the History of Ideas (1972) 33#4 pp. 633–638 in JSTOR
  • Scott, Clifford H. Lester Frank Ward (1976)

External links[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

Preceded by
President of the American Sociological Association
Succeeded by
William Graham Sumner