William Graham Sumner

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William Graham Sumner
Sepia-toned, half-length photographic portrait of William Graham Sumner in a three-piece suit
Born (1840-10-30)October 30, 1840
Paterson, New Jersey
Died April 12, 1910(1910-04-12) (aged 69)
Institutions Yale University
Alma mater Yale College
Notable students
Albert Galloway Keller, Irving Fisher, Thorstein Veblen
Main interests
Principal ideas
Diffusion, folkways, ethnocentrism, social mores
Major works
What the Social Classes Owe To Each Other (1883)
Folkways (1907)

William Graham Sumner (October 30, 1840 – April 12, 1910) was a classical liberal (now often called "libertarian") 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 major schools. Sumner was a polymath with numerous books and essays on American history, economic history, political theory, sociology, and anthropology. He introduced the term "ethnocentrism" to identify the roots of imperialism, which he strongly opposed. He was a spokesman against imperialism and in favor of the "forgotten man" of the middle class and had a long-term influence on Conservatism in the United States.


Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Sumner graduated from Yale College in 1863, where he had been a member of Skull and Bones. During the late 1860s Sumner was an Episcopal priest. In 1872, Sumner accepted the chair of Political Economy at Yale University.


Sumner was a staunch advocate of laissez-faire economics, as well as "a forthright proponent of free trade and the gold standard and a foe of socialism."[1] Sumner was active in the intellectual promotion of free-trade classical liberalism. He heavily criticized state socialism/state communism. One adversary he mentioned by name was Edward Bellamy, whose national variant of socialism was set forth in Looking Backward, published in 1888, and the sequel Equality.


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 entitled "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale University.[2] In what is considered by some to be "his most enduring work",[1] 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".[1] According to Sumner, imperialism would enthrone a new group of "plutocrats", or businesspeople who depended on government subsidies and contracts.


As a sociologist, his major accomplishments were developing the concepts of diffusion, folkways, and ethnocentrism. Sumner's work with folkways led him to conclude that attempts at government-mandated reform were useless.

In 1876, Sumner became the first to teach a course entitled "sociology" in the English-speaking world, though this course focused on the thought of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, rather than the formal academic sociology that would be established 20 years later by Émile Durkheim in Europe.[3] He was the second president of American Sociological Association serving from 1908 to 1909. and succeeding his longtime ideological opponent Lester F. Ward.

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.[4] 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.

Sumner and Social Darwinism[edit]

William Graham Sumner was influenced by many people and ideas such as Herbert Spencer and this has led many to associate Sumner with social Darwinism.

In 1881, Sumner wrote an essay entitled "Sociology". In the essay, Sumner focuses on the connection between sociology and biology. He explains that there are two sides to the struggle for survival of a human. The first side is a "struggle for existence",[5] 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.[5] 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.[5] Sumner believed that man could not abolish the law of "survival of the fittest", and that humans could only interfere with it and produce the "unfit".[5]

According to Jeff Riggenbach, the identification of Sumner as a social Darwinist:[6]

...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."

Sumner was a critic of natural rights, famously arguing

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.

One of Sumner's most famous quotations neatly highlights his social Darwinist views:

A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be, according to the fitness and tendency of things. Nature has set upon him the process of decline and dissolution by which she removes things which have survived their usefulness.[7]


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.[5] It was believed that primitive cultures would have war as a "struggle for existence",[5] but Sumner believed that war in fact came from a "competition for life".[5] 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 his ideologies). Sumner explained that the competition for life was the reason for war and that is why war has always existed and always will.[5]


Sumner's most popular book is Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals (1906). Starting with four theoretical chapters, it provides a frank, objective, and candid description of the nature of many of the more important customs and institutions in societies past and present around the world. The book promotes a sociological or relativistic approach to moral behavior, as expressed in his thesis that "the mores can make anything right and prevent condemnation of anything." (p. 521)

The Forgotten Man[edit]

Sumner argued that, in his day, politics was being subverted by those proposing "measure of relief for the evils which have caught public attention."[8] He wrote:

As soon as A observes something which seems to him 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 better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X... What I want to do is to look up C... I call him the forgotten man... He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, the 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.[8]


Sumner's popular essays gave him a wide audience for his laissez-faire: advocacy of free markets, anti-imperialism, and the gold standard. 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.


  • Sumner, William Graham. On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner, ed. Robert C. Bannister (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992). online
  • A History of American Currency: with chapters on the English bank restriction and Austrian paper money : to which is appended "The bullion report" (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1874)
  • Lectures on the History of Protection in the United States: delivered before the International Free-Trade Alliance (New York:G. P. Putnam's sons, 1877)
  • Andrew Jackson as a Public Man (Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1882)
  • What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (New York: Harper and Bros. 1883)
  • Protectionism: the -ism which teaches that waste makes wealth (New York : H. Holt and Company, 1885)
  • Alexander Hamilton (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1890)
  • The Financier & the Finances of the American Revolution (2 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1891)
  • Robert Morris (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co. 1892)
  • The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over (Originally published in the Forum 17 (March 1894), 92–102; reprinted in War, ed. Albert Galioway Keller, pp. 195–210.)
  • Vol. 1 of A History of Banking in all the Leading Nations, edited by the editor of the Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin (4 vols. New York : The Journal of Commerce, 1896)
  • Folkways: a study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1906)
  • The Science of Society , with Albert G. Keller, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927; London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1927).
  • Collected Essays in Political and Social Science (New York: Henry Holt and company, 1885)
  • War, and other essays, ed. with introduction, Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911)
  • Earth-hunger and other essays , ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1913)
  • The Challenge of Facts: and Other Essays ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914)
  • The Forgotten Man, and Other Essays ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1918)
  • Selected Essays of William Graham Sumner, edited Albert Galloway Keller ... and Maurice R. Davie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934)
  • Sumner today: selected essays of William Graham Sumner, with comments American leaders, ed. Maurice R. Davie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940
  • The forgotten man's almanac rations of common sense from William Graham Sumner, ed. A. G. Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1943)
  • Social Darwinism: Selected Essays of William Graham Sumner, ed. Stow Persons (Englewood Cliff, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963).
  • The conquest of the United States by Spain, and other essays ed. Murray Polner (Chicago:Henry Regnery, 1965)
  • "The Conquest of the United States by Spain," Molinari Institute.


  • Bannister, Robert C., Jr. "William Graham Sumner's Social Darwinism: a Reconsideration." History of Political Economy 1973 5(1): 89–109. ISSN 0018-2702 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.
  • David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896–1900," Independent Review 4 (Spring 2000), 555–75.
  • 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. ISSN 0021-8723 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. ISSN 0028-4866 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. ISSN 0026-3079. 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. ISSN 0038-2876. 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.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. "William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinist," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 457–77 online at JSTOR, reprinted in Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915 (1944).
  • Lee, Alfred Mcclung. "The Forgotten Sumner." Journal of the History of Sociology 1980–1981 3(1): 87–106. ISSN 0190-2067. Sumner as sociologist.
  • Marshall, Jonathan. "William Graham Sumner: Critic of Progressive Liberalism." Journal of Libertarian Studies 1979 3(3): 261–77. ISSN 0363-2873
  • Pickens, Donald. "William Graham Sumner as a Critic of the Spanish American War." Continuity 1987 (11): 75–92. ISSN 0277-1446
  • Pickens, Donald K. "William Graham Sumner: Moralist as Social Scientist." Social Science 1968 43(4): 202–09. ISSN 0037-7848. 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 [1907] 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. ISSN 0002-9246 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. ISSN 0022-5061 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. ISSN 0038-0245 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. ISSN 0030-8919 Fulltext in JSTOR. Sumner clearly rejected social Darwinism in the final decade of his career, 1900–10.

William Graham Sumner Chair[edit]

The following have been the William Graham Sumner Professor of Sociology at Yale University:


  1. ^ a b c Raico, Ralph (2011-03-29) Neither the Wars Nor the Leaders Were Great, Mises Institute
  2. ^ William G. Sumner, "The Conquest of the United States by Spain", Yale Law Journal, v. 8, no. 4 (Jan. 1899) 168–193.
  3. ^ http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O119-Sociology.html
  4. ^ Bannister, Robert C. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1979, p. 98.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Hawkins, Mike. Social Darwinism in European and American thought, 1860–1945: nature as a model and nature as a threat. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 109–10.
  6. ^ Riggenbach, Jeff (April 22, 2011). "The Real William Graham Sumner". Mises Daily (Ludwig von Mises Institute). 
  7. ^ http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/williamgra297369.html#OaRmE0IflimWeuqI.99
  8. ^ a b The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, p. 466
  9. ^ "Education: Keller's Last Class," Time (New York). January 26, 1946; Albert Galloway Keller papers, Sterling Memorial Library, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University
  10. ^ Terrien, Frederic W. "Who Thinks What About Education," The Public Opinion. Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer, 1954), pp. 157–68; Maurice Rae Davie papers, Sterling Memorial Library, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University
  11. ^ "In Memorium, Albert J. Reiss," University of Pennsylvania, Department of Criminology.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Lester F. Ward
President of the American Sociological Association
Succeeded by
Franklin Henry Giddings