Social Darwinism

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:

  • Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Spencer was an English social philosopher and prime advocate of Darwin's theories, perhaps doing more than any other figure of his era to gain acceptance for the theory of evolution. Spencer also applied Darwinian theory to human development, arguing that wealth and power were signs of fitness and that mankind benefited from intense competition and removal of the weak and unfit.

Spencer was widely popular among American capitalist leaders, but held a much smaller following in his homeland.

  • William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). Sumner was a Yale-based sociologist and political economist who espoused an extreme laissez faire position, arguing that the government had absolutely no role in the economy's functions. Not only did he argue against antitrust legislation, but also against protective tariffs and government intervention on behalf of management in labor strike situations. To Sumner, the economy was a natural event and needed no guidance in its evolution.

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:

  • Washington Gladden (1836-1918) was a Congregational minister who criticized the excessive competition that often accompanied the growth of capitalistic ventures. He was especially outspoken when denouncing many of John D. Rockefeller's practices. Gladden served congregations in New York, Massachusetts and for many years, Columbus, Ohio. He is regarded as the founder of the Social Gospel movement and authored more than 30 books that contained biblical solutions for the problems of the industrial age.
  • Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) ministered among the German immigrant community in the Hellís Kitchen section of New York City. He witnessed first-hand the misery created by poverty during the depression of the 1890s. He was convinced that all social ills were somehow connected to poverty and that unrestrained capitalism was the root cause. Rauschenbusch urged his church and others to join actively in the struggle for social justice.

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.

The Social 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 Kingdom of God would appear on earth, and that the faithful should work to achieve it.

Walter Rauschenbasch, a Baptist minister, was a prominent leader. As a young man, he worked in the slums of New York City known as Hell's Kitchen and came to believe it was more important to heal, comfort, and educated the living than to save souls for eternity. Rauschenbasch felt that if Jesus were living there he would do this, just as he healed the sick and the blind 19 centuries before in Palestine. The Social Gospel maintained this was the meaning of the Lord's Prayer phrase "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven." Bringing salvation on earth was a stage in Christian development appropriate for the time, just as earlier the stage was evangelizing. Adherents argued that humans were inherently good, not sinful, and that improving social conditions would prepare the way for the Second Coming of Christ. Americans were a Chosen People, like the ancient Hebrews. In addition to helping people directly, the Social Gospel was concerned with influencing government policy.

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 New York, the Henry Street Settlement House served the Lower East Side. The YMCA and the Salvation Army spread nationwide. The NAACP was established in 1909 and the Urban League in 1910. It also fit the Progressive Movement programs of reforming government. Its relation to the Christian missionary effort abroad was ambiguous, for while it shared techniques and goals, it also considered some foreign mission work misdirected.  Many political leaders adhered to the Social Gospel movement. When Theodore Roosevelt talked about the presidency being "a bully pulpit," he meant it literally.

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 New World. The Calvinism so popular in the 13 colonies maintained that salvation was predestined, and being poor was one sign of sinfulness. The theology of the era held that Christ would come again when condition got bad enough, just the opposite of the Social Gospel.

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 England. Clergymen were some of the strongest advocates of independence. After lying quiescent for about 80 years, religious furor rose again in the Second Awaking of 1820-40, famous for its tent revivals on the frontier with fiery Methodist preachers. The abolition of slavery was a immediate outgrowth and women's suffrage was a later outgrowth.  One consequence of the doctrine of the perfectibility of man was the establishment of schools and colleges.

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.



Social Darwinism

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was a humble, mild-mannered Englishman whose ideas helped change the world. In 1859, Darwin published published On the Origin of Species. Although theories of evolution had existed for centuries, Darwin's theory of "natural selection" was an innovative hypothesis that captured the attention of scientists and philosophers around the world. Darwin purposely avoided applying "natural selection" to human societies. Later intellectuals, however, treated his ideas as the philosophical foundation for a far-reaching theory of "Social Darwinism."

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Darwin, Charles

Charles Darwin

Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin


Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer, also an Englishman, took Darwin's theories out of the realm of biology and applied them to human society. Spencer, not Darwin, was the first person to coin the phrase "survival of the fittest." He believed that government intervention in the "natural" processes of human evolution, such as welfare for the poor, public education, and government healthcare, helped weak humans survive and, in the process, undermined the health of the entire race. Spencer, of course, never defined what he meant by the "natural" process of evolution. Nevertheless, his books sold over 400,000 copies in the United States alone, and he became one of the most influential thinkers of the late-nineteenth century.

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Spencer, Herbert

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher

Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin


William Graham Sumner

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).

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Sumner, William Graham

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), Yale social scientist

Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin


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

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Hill, James J.

James Jerome Hill (1838-1916), financier and railroad magnate

Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin

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 Darwin." --Henry Adams



American History 102

Self-Adjusting Economy

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 Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, Smith published one of the most important books in the history of economics. The book's full title is An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of Wealth of Nations. Most people simply call it The Wealth of Nations. Smith wrote the book after discussing laissez-faire beliefs with some of the physiocrats. Smith's book is an argument in favor of allowing people to engage in trade, manufacturing or other economic activity without unnecessary control or interference from government.

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:

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.

American History 102

Profit motive was the only reliable incentive for action

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Carnegie, Andrew

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), industrialist and philanthropist

Copyright 1997 State Historical Society of Wisconsin


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.

American History 102

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.