Social Darwinism was the application of Charles Darwin's scientific theories of evolution and natural selection to contemporary social development. In nature, only the fittest survivedóso too in the marketplace. This form of justification was enthusiastically adopted by many American businessmen as scientific proof of their superiority.
Leading proponents of Social Darwinism included the following:
Spencer was widely popular among American capitalist leaders, but held a much smaller following in his homeland.
In 1907, Sumner published his most influential book, Folkways, in which he argued that customs and mores were the most powerful influences on human behavior, even when irrational. He concluded that all forms of social reform were futile and misguided.
Sumner's views contrasted sharply with those of the advocates of the Social Gospel.
The Social Gospel
Practitioners of the Social Gospel were in general Protestant clergymen who objected to the harsher realities of late 19th century capitalism and sought to highlight the role of man as his brotherís keeper. Leading advocates:
The purveyors of the Social Gospel urged for government action to accomplish social reforms and refused to hold the poor solely responsible for their plight. These positions set them at odds with the Gospel of Wealth advocates.
Gospel was a movement in the early twentieth century with a profound impact on
churches and nonprofit organizations to the present day. Developing from mainline
Protestant denominations from Baptist to Episcopal, it believed that Christians
should work to improve social conditions for the poor, the sick and the
downtrodden. Inspired by the miracles of Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount, it
believed that the
a Baptist minister, was a prominent leader. As a young man, he worked in the
The Social Gospel tied to other
movements of the Turn of the Century like temperance, women's suffrage,
settlement houses, civil rights for former slaves. The
movement fit with the education and music of the Chautauqua Movement. In
Chicago Jane Addams established the Hull House; in
The Social Gospel contrasted to
earlier American religious beliefs about good works. The Pilgrims of 1620
believed that the world was sinful, and that they should separate from it by
coming to the
These attitudes changed during the
First Great Awaking of 1730-50, as religious leaders took a more optimistic
view of the perfectibility of man and argued that all of society could be
saved, not just the few. The Rev. Jonathan Edwards preached that Christ would
come again when more souls were converted and society was better. A few years
later these beliefs merged with the movement of political independence from
The Social Gospel Movement declined after World War I, in part because of the disillusionment about this War to End Wars. Obviously, spiritual and moral progress was not continuing. Within Protestantism, the Fundamentalist Movement emerged, producing a schism. The Fundamentalists, who interpreted the Bible literally, believed in salvation of the individual, not of society as a whole. Many people who had supported the Social Gospel later enthusiastically supported the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor, is an example.
Charles Darwin was a humble, mild-mannered Englishman whose ideas helped
change the world. In 1859,
Herbert Spencer, also an Englishman, took
Sumner was Spencer's American counterpart. "In his economic and social outlook, Sumner was a Social Darwinist, holding that distinctions of wealth and status among men were the direct result of inherently different capacities, that this stratifying tendency worked to the good of society by eliminating weaker and encouraging stronger strains (as natural selection does among animals and plants), and that this tendency should not be interfered with by sentimental, unintelligent attempts to hedge the free play of economic forces and personal abilities. Sumner thus championed laissez-faire as the only true principle of both economics and government; in lectures and written works with such titles as "The Absurd Attempt to Make the World Over" and What Social Classes Owe Each Other (1883), he decried any and all movements that pointed to a welfare state..." (Source: Webster's American Biographies, G. &C. Merriam, 1975).
American businessmen adopted eagerly the ideology of Social Darwinism in order to defend their business practices as "natural." James J. Hill, a leading "Robber Baron" of the railroad-building era, saw the chance to justify his actions with "scientific" terminology:
"The fortunes of railroad companies are determined by the law of the survival of the fittest." --James J. Hill
There were, of course, influential Americans who challenged Social Darwinism. One such individual was the historian Henry Adams, who said,
"The progress of
evolution from President Washington to President Grant is alone evidence
enough to upset
Along with Social Darwinism, many nineteenth-century businessmen accepted the idea that the American economy was "self-adjusting." This idea traced its roots back to Adam Smith and his conception of the "invisible hand" of capitalism.
"The ideas of laissez-faire applied to economics appealed greatly to
Scottish economist Adam Smith. Using these ideas, Smith began another kind of
revolution during the period in which the American colonists were fighting
their revolutionary war. In 1776, the year that
The main argument in The Wealth of Nations might be stated rather
simply: People are naturally selfish. When they engage in manufacturing or
trade, they do so in order to gain wealth and/or power. This process should not
be interfered with because, despite the self-interest of these individuals,
their activity is good for all of society. The more goods they make or trade,
the more goods people will have. The more people who
manufacture and trade, the greater the competition. Competition among
manufacturers and merchants helps all people by providing even more goods and
probably lower prices. This activity creates jobs and spreads wealth."
This document was provided by the UNITED STATES INFORMATION AGENCY in the About the United States series, which can be found at: http://www.salsem.ac.at/csacl/as_modules/economy.htm
Following Adam Smith's lead, nineteenth-century American political economists generally agreed on four principle points:
1. They equated the rules of political economy with the unchanging, everlasting laws Nature or God
2. They argued that individual self-interest was socially beneficial
3. They maintained that free competition was a permanent and necessary law of economics
4. They held that government was an inefficient agency that should not be involved in economic matters
American businessmen were grateful to hear economists and influential thinkers like William Graham Sumner justifying the existence of large corporations and trusts. With the backing of the "science" of economics, late-nineteenth-century businessmen felt that their actions, no matter how immoral or corrupt, actually benefited the entire nation.
Finally, businessmen tried to justify their actions by linking the profit motive to the public interest. During the second half of the century, many American businessmen, politicians, and economists believed that the pursuit of profits bolstered the material and spiritual health of the nation. Even as corporate capitalists acquired enormous commercial power and influence in American society, their dogged pursuit of personal profits also drove the economic growth, provided jobs to poor workers, and seemed to ensure the nation's prosperity. Andrew Carnegie, for example, one of the least selfish of the nation's early industrialists, claimed that even the most ridiculous spending habits of the wealthy were beneficial to the rest of the nation:
"Millionaires are the bees that make the most honey and contribute most to the hive even after they have gorged themselves full."--Andrew Carnegie
In the end, Carnegie and other American business leaders often relied on science, economic theory, and social philosophy to try and justify their business practices and their growing profits at the end of the nineteenth-century.
At times, businessmen faced extraordinarily difficult economic problems. The "boom-and-bust" cycle of depressions and recoveries from 1873 to the turn of the century, in particular, made investing precarious and competition fierce as companies struggled to survive. For all the difficulties that company directors faced during this period, however, the common workers who labored in their factories dealt with much more fundamental economic problems. As business leaders became wealthier and more powerful, the men, women, and children who formed the nation's industrial workforce began to demand higher wages, shorter working hours, and a greater voice in corporate decision-making. The story of these common workers and their search for power is an important and fascinating aspect of American history; so important, in fact, that we will continue it in the next lecture: Labor and the Workers' Search for Power.