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Sumner, William Graham

Sumner, William Graham

Sumner, William Graham, 1840-1910, American sociologist and political economist, b. Paterson, N.J., grad. Yale, 1863, and studied in Germany, in Switzerland, and at Oxford. He was ordained an Episcopal minister and from 1872 was professor of political and social science at Yale. In economics he advocated a policy of extreme laissez-faire, strongly opposing any government measures that he thought interfered with the natural economics of trade. As a sociologist he did valuable work in charting the evolution of human customs—folkways and mores. He concluded that the power of these forces, developed in the course of human evolution, rendered useless any attempts at social reform. He also originated the concept of ethnocentrism, a term now commonly used, to designate attitudes of superiority about one's own group in comparison with others. His major work was Folkways (1907). The massive Science of Society by Sumner and Albert G. Keller, a colleague, was not completed and published until 1927 (4 vol.; Vol. IV by Sumner, Keller, and M. R. Davie).

See H. E. Starr, William Graham Sumner (1925); A. G. Keller, Reminiscences (Mainly Personal) of William Graham Sumner (1933); W. G. Green, Sumner Today (1940, repr. 1971); R. G. McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise (1951, repr. 1964); M. R. Davie, William Graham Sumner (1963).

William Graham Sumner (October 30, 1840April 12, 1910) was an American academic and professor at Yale College. For many years he had a reputation as one of the most influential teachers there. He was a polymath with numerous books and essays on American history, economic history, political theory, sociology, and anthropology.

His popular essays gave him a wide audience for his laissez-faire: advocacy of free markets, anti-imperialism, and the gold standard. He was a president of American Sociological Association from 1908 to 1909.

Born in Paterson, New Jersey, he graduated from Yale College in 1863, where he had been a member of Skull & Bones. Later he was appointed to the newly created Chair of Political and Social Science at Yale. 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. He was a staunch advocate of laissez-faire economics. Sumner was active in the intellectual promotion of free-trade classical liberalism, and in his heyday and after there were Sumner Clubs here and there. He heavily criticized socialism/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 his speech "The Conquest of the United States by Spain," 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." According to Sumner, imperialism would enthrone a new group of "plutocrats," or businesspeople who depended on government subsidies and contracts.

In the 1870s Sumner was strongly influenced by the English evolutionary thinker Herbert Spencer; after 1885 or so Spencer's influence faded. 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.

Works by Sumner

  • 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)
  • A history of banking in all the leading nations: comprising the United States Great Britain Germany Austro-Hungary France Italy Belgium Spain Switzerland Portugal Roumania Russia Holland: the Scandinavian nations Canada China Japan Ed. the editor of the Journal of commerce and commercial bulletin (4 vols. New York : The Journal of commerce and commercial bulletin, 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.

Bibliography

  • 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): 823-832. 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): 348-369. 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): 101-122. 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. 457-477 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): 261-277. 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): 202-209. 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): 111-138. 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.

Quotes

"The great foe of democracy now and in the near future is plutocracy. Every year that passes brings out this antagonism more distinctly. It is to be the social war of the twentieth century. In that war militarism, expansion and imperialism will all favor plutocracy. In the first place, war and expansion will favor jobbery, both in the dependencies and at home. In the second place, they will take away the attention of the people from what the plutocrats are doing. In the third place, they will cause large expenditures of the people’s money, the return for which will not go into the treasury, but into the hands of a few schemers. In the fourth place, they will call for a large public debt and taxes, and these things especially tend to make men unequal, because any social burdens bear more heavily on the weak than on the strong, and so make the weak weaker and the strong stronger. Therefore expansion and imperialism are a grand onslaught on democracy.

"My patriotism is of the kind which is outraged by the notion that the United States never was a great nation until in a petty three months’ campaign it knocked to pieces a poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state like Spain. To hold such an opinion as that is to abandon all American standards, to put shame and scorn on all that our ancestors tried to build up here, and to go over to the standards of which Spain is a representative.

"When the negro postmaster’s house was set on fire in the night in South Carolina, and not only he, but his wife and children, were murdered as they came out, and when, moreover, this incident passed without legal investigation or punishment, it was a bad omen for the extension of liberty, etc., to Malays and Tagals by simply setting over them the American flag.

"Everywhere you go on the continent of Europe at this hour you see the conflict between militarism and industrialism. You see the expansion of industrial power pushed forward by the energy, hope, and thrift of men, and you see the development arrested, diverted, crippled, and defeated by measures which are dictated by military considerations.

“All history is one long story to this effect: men have struggled for power over their fellow men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others, might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others.”

"The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C's interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.

"There are two chief things with which government has to deal. They are the property of men and the honor of women."

"I think the hardest fact in human life is that two and two cannot make five; but in sociology while people will agree that two and two cannot make five, yet they think that it might somehow be possible by adjusting two and two to one another in some way or other to make two and two equal four and one-tenth." (Sumner Today, 1940 p. 82)

"Nature's remedies against vice are terrible. She removes the victims without pity. 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." -- from the essay "The Forgotten Man".

"It used to be believed that the parent had unlimited claims on the child and rights over him. In a truer view of the matter, we are coming to see that the rights are on the side of the child and the duties on the side of the parent."

"As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be 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 the better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X.... [W]hat I want to do is to look up C.... He is the man who never is thought of."

Notes

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