William Graham Sumner 1840-1910















William Graham Sumner (1840-1910): Social Darwinism

The heir apparent to the ideas of Herbert Spencer in the United States was William Graham Sumner.6 Sumner was born in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of an immigrant mechanic from England. There is some evidence that his father was forced to leave his native land because the industrial revolution made his trade obsolete. Despite such staunch working-class origins and his family’s adverse experiences, Sumner was to become an energetic defender of a body of ideas described earlier in this chapter as social Darwinism.

Sumner was educated in political economy at Yale, where he graduated in 1863. He went abroad to continue his studies, preparing for a career in the ministry. After studying language at Geneva and Gottingen and theology at Oxford, Sumner returned to the United States, where he served for a brief time as an ordained Episcopalian curate. In 1872 he accepted a position as professor of social and political science at Yale. Three years later he offered one of the first classes in sociology on the continent, adopting as his text Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology. With this beginning, Sumner pursued a sociology marked by conservative politics, descriptive accounts of societal evolution, and the nature of normative systems.

History and Biology

William Graham Sumner graduated from Yale in the midst of the Civil War, a bloody struggle for unification that grew from the rupturing of a nation divided along social, political, and economic lines. In it, the industrial North with its machine technology joined in mortal conflict with the still feudal agrarian South. With the war’s conclusion, the center of industrial capitalism, complete with an urban-based factory system fueled by immigrant labor, began its shift to the United States.

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the corporation form of economic organization emerged as dominant in the new citadel of capitalism. In part to resolve the threat to profits represented by competition, leading corporations engineered the combination movement. In some cases, larger firms simply bought out competitors or drove them into bankruptcy through price wars. In other cases robber barons, engaged in industrial warfare, often resorting to armed violence and sabotage (Josephson, 1934). The development of powerful trusts in vital economic sectors gave rise to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, a piece of legislation designed to thwart monopolistic restraint of trade. However, the act was more symbolic than real. Between 1897 and 1905, the combination movement saw 318 corporations gain control of over 5300 firms (Dowd, 1977:71).

During the closing third of the century, other political events also altered the course of economic history. State regulations came to provide the appearance of control while preserving a favored market position for more powerful concerns. For example, in 1886 the Interstate Commerce Commission was born, in part a response to the demand by farmers for relief from transportation monopoly. A convincing historical case can be made that the ICC came to be controlled by the railroad industry (Kolko, 1965).

Other significant currents swept through the era of William Graham Sumner, leaving indelible impressions on his social thought. These included a continuing tide of immigrants, the growth of cities, the disappearance the frontier, and the beginning erosion of an independent middle class. Half the population still lived on the land, but that too would pass. The society, with its developing state power, swelling corporate firms, and fragmented culture, was reshaped in the aftermath of civil war. It was a time of gaudy prosperity and economic panic, of an industrial elite marshaling the wealth to command, of working classes looking to unions to survive, and of the clashing cultures of diverse urban populations juxtaposed with the homogeneity of pastoral life. Made over into something unique and distinctively American, the center of the bourgeois revolution had crossed the Atlantic for good.

Sumner was insulated somewhat from the seamier side of conflict and the real struggle for existence. Having reached the comparative safety of the towers of Yale, he was influenced more by the works of Darwin and Spencer than by memories of his class origins. Impressed by the advances in biological science, he developed an evolutionary view of society complete with the use of biological analogies. His critics considered him dogmatic, but this did not diminish his status as a master polemicist. His early writing and classroom oratory matched all too well the turbulence of the times.

Perhaps Sumner realized that the scions of the wealthy who studied at Yale were drawn to the ideology (if not the reality) of a free market. Perhaps he did not. What is certain is that Sumner believed in the necessity of social hierarchy even more fiercely than did his advantaged students. Here he left behind his father’s family, class, and circumstances. He was a high priest of the cult of individualism, a staunch defender of Spencer’s noninterference, and an opponent of public welfare. For Sumner, the social world, as the natural, was an orderly creation obeying the prime direction of all life: a struggle in which the fit survive and the unfit perish.

The sociologist is often asked if he wants to kill off certain classes of troublesome and bewildered persons. No such interference follows from any sound sociological doctrine, but it is allowed to infer, as to a great many persons and classes, that it would have been better for society and would have involved no pain to them, if they had never been born. (Sumner, 1963:25)


As with Spencer, the Hobbesian view of human nature must be modified to fit the arguments of William Graham Sumner. For Hobbes, it was imperative to establish a commonwealth with sovereign power sufficient to promote and protect a rising commercial revolution from the awful power lust of an unbridled humanity. Thus, Sumner held in common with the Englishman an image of the competitive struggle for domination. However, this was a new era.

Sumner knew that the sovereign power of the Hobbesian leviathan under mercantilism had been employed historically to thwart that growth of the free market, to regulate labor, and to deny competitive opportunity to those who did not enjoy the pleasure of the crown. Although royal power had succumbed in the early nineteenth century to the new owners of property, the history of such abuses was not forgotten by the new champion of laissez-faire. Moreover, the issues of public services, including education, social insurance, and aid to the poor, were widely debated during Sumner’s era. For the Yale professor, the natural order of society emerged from an unfettered competition. Intrusion therein could only produce a declining civilization.

Sumner paid the obligatory homage to the positive image of science, calling for the discovery of social laws, decrying sentiment and morality, hailing fact and objectivity. Yet he, as many others of his time, was not converted by his own message. It can be argued that Sumner’s work is more ideology than theory, assumption than propositions, ethnography than deductive or inductive reasoning. Yet sifting through his work, we can abstract from its sum two major variations of social Darwinism. At the societal level, Sumner envisioned an organism evolving through a social form of natural selection. At the interpersonal level, he conceived of an instinctually based, yet socially refined, system of norms. These twin positions give rise to his more specific arguments. 

Theoretical Content 

Society progresses, according to Sumner, through its own evolutionary nature, in accordance with its own lawful properties toward an ever-improving ideal state. Interference in this process can only be irrational and futile, if not dangerous. In this body of social thought, the very existence of the "tough old world" confirmed the existence of "spontaneous forces" that could only in the slightest way be deflected, despite all the efforts of humankind (1950, originally published 1894). For Sumner, the organic evolution of society was immutable.

Within this often painful process of development, a struggle for existence emerges, marked by naturally occurring hardships including war, monopoly, and the conflict of classes. The social variety of natural selection requires no apology, for it is the method by which a perfect hierarchy takes shape and the unfit wither away. Sumner wrote under the influence of Spencer’s principle of noninterference when he argued that social classes (especially the successful) owe not a thing to others (1978, originally published 1883). Hence, the divergent conditions of the fit and the unfit do not call for intervention. For the former student of theology, the drunkard in the gutter, the pauper without a loaf, the great masters of industry, and the millionaires have each earned their station.

Within the process of societal evolution, Sumner discerned two basic regularities: the law of population and the law of diminishing returns. Taken together, these mean that population increase is ultimately limited by the level of environmental resources and further that the labor of workers may produce more from these resources but never in proportion to population growth. From such "laws," Sumner drew two conclusions. First, overpopulation represents an often unrecognized opportunity, or "the struggle for existence and the competitions of life are intense where the pressure of population is great. This competition draws out the highest achievement" (1963:23). However, his second point appears to contradict the first.

Sumner wrote that demography is related to political and economic structure. More precisely, he held that overpopulated societies reflect a caste system controlled by an elite and an economy featuring maximal exploitation of human and natural resources. Underpopulated societies on the other hand are typified by social mobility, self-sufficiency, economic surplus, and democracy. Sumner left no doubt as to the nature of his own society. "The United States in a new country with a sparse population and no strong neighbors. Such a state will be a democracy and a republic, and it will be free in about any sense that its people choose" (1963:48-49).

Taken together, it appears that Sumner embraced both population density and scarcity. However, for this sociologist, as long as such are naturally occurring processes, they must (by his reasoning) each play a role in the evolution of society. Thus, the existence of population extremes confirms their necessity. With this as his premise, Sumner discovered evolutionary purpose in both.

In an examination of standards and expectations, Sumner sought to explain the normative order, and in so doing he examined the question of social control. He bean in characteristic Darwinist fashion by arguing that persistent group habits and customs are shaped by (1) underlying instincts (unlearned behavior inherited from animal progenitors), all of which reflect the common motivation of self-advantage, and (2) the inherent predisposition to define behavior primarily in terms of pleasure and pain. These underlying biologically based impulses lead to behaviors that prove to be more or less adaptive.

Through trial and error, Sumner argued, human beings learn which behavior works best to maximize pleasure, minimize pain, meet instinctual needs, and fulfill the motivation of self-advantage. Those tested, widely disseminated, and recurring behavioral norms that contribute to the struggle for existence, he termed folkways. They are backed by weak sanctions and emotions.

Folkways do not move beyond simple attempts to meet instinctual needs; they do not pass the hedonist principle. When standards or expectations for behavior acquire ethical or philosophical content, they are then raised to another plane. Known more as mores, such norms include the power to "make anything right." Mores set the limits for ideas, faith, and tastes and are founded on strong sanctions and sentiments. As such, they carry taboos or punishments that follow violations. Mores provide the moral basis by which a society coerces individual members. And for Sumner, they change only in accordance with the needs of the societal organism.


Sumner’s work, as that of others who resorted to a crude biological organicism, was and continues to be faulted for its naturalism, dependence on analogies, and the animation of society. Even his valuable distinction between kinds or levels of norms (folkways and mores) is tainted by instinctivism, a form of explanation that is tautological. This means that a phenomenon is said to exist because of inborn impulses, the existence of which "proved" by the phenomenon itself. Thus, the evidence for Sumner’s "biologically based impulses" rests only in the existence of the folkways and mores such impulses purport to explain. Along similar lines, Sumner’s sociology transforms the discipline into a corollary of biology. This is a form of reductionism he shares with Herbert Spencer.

Moving on, Sumner’s attempt to demonstrate a connection between demography and the political and economic organization of society is simplistic. Demographic factors must be considered when analyzing political economy, but not in isolation. If population growth is antithetical to democracy and productive of caste stratification, then more populous modern Japan should be less free (by Sumner’s definition) than its prewar counterpart.

Also implicit in Sumner’s position is the belief that private wealth is the measure of worth. Private wealth, he argued, is the only suitable means by which the services that give an advantage (such as education) should be provided. What then are we to make of inheritance or the social disadvantages that attach to one’s birth? It would appear that for Sumner those born to wealth are fit by definition. If, by the force of Sumner’s logic, the struggle for existence produces a more perfect hierarchy, shouldn’t the conditions of that struggle be equally odious for all? And who then are the fit and unfit? By Sumner’s criteria, the wealthy are valued over the poor, the healthy over the sick, and by implication men over women, whites over nonwhites, and colonists over the colonized. At base, this sociology transforms inequality into a natural law.

6 For two valuable biographical references, see Davie, 1963 and 1971.

(Perdue 1986:62-67)

Perdue, William D. 1986. Sociological Theory: Explanation, Paradigm, and Ideology. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.