William Graham Sumner

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William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was a leading American social scientist of the late 19th century based at Yale College, he influenced generations of students and a very wide readership. He is best known for promoting his version of libertarian political philosophy. Many of his ideas have been thoroughly incorporated into American conservative thought. His academic work in sociology, economic history and anthropology proved influential in its day.


His father was a skilled worker in England who emigrated to the U.S. in 1836; the family settled in Hartford, Connecticut. The father worked in a railroad repair shop, and was entirely self-educated. His interest in social and economic questions influenced the son. After graduation from the excellent Hartford public schools, young Sumner entered Yale College in 1859. He did not serve in the Civil War, and devoted himself to studies. Sumner made friends easily, and they helped fund his further education in Europe after he graduated Yale in 1863. He always wanted to be an Episcopal priest, so he studied theology at Geneva, Göttingen, and Oxford. Returning to America, he was tutor at Yale from 1866 to 1869. In late 1867, he was admitted to the diaconate of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and in 1869 he became assistant to Dr. E. A. Washburn, rector of Calvary Church, New York, where he was ordained priest in July 1869. In addition to his clerical duties he edited, The Living Church, an monthly magazine that supported the "Broad Church" faction of Episcopalians. In 1870 he became rector of the Church of the Redeemer, in Morristown, N. J.; in 1871 he married Jeannie Whittemore Elliott, daughter of a wealthy New York merchant.

Rev. Sumner was an able and scrupulous priest, but he put religion away in a drawer and when he came back years later, he recalled, the drawer was empty.


Sumner was one of the great teachers in the history of American undergraduate education. Teaching was always his first priority. A large man, fastidiously dressed, with a "magnificently bald" head and stern countenance, his "iron voice," and total control of his materials commanded the attention and confidence of generations of students. Starting with common observations anyone could make, he peeled away layer after layer of complexity to reach the core economic and social principles with a freshness and brilliance that went straight to the heart of his subject. he stated the facts in plain and often epigrammatic language. Honest and fearless, indifferent to tradition, he struck hard blows, never glossed over anything, and never spared any feelings. Sumner deplored the prominence given to Greek and Latin at Yale, and lobbied his colleagues to broaden the curriculum, especially by introducing scientific studies into the academic department. When President Noah Porter objected to Sumner's use of Herbert Spencer's The Study of Sociology as a textbook, Sumner won a vigorous fight for academic freedom, which through newspaper reports attracted national attention.

Political theory

Sumner by the 1870s was publishing powerful, widely read essays denouncing economic fallacies and political evils and promoting what he deemed sound governmental principles. His essays proved so keen in analysis, flawless in logic, and full of fire that they attracted national attention and are read by conservatives in the 21st century. Their titles grabbed the reader's attention: "The Absurd Attempt to Make the World Over," "That It Is Not Wicked to Be Rich; Nay, Even, That It Is Not Wicked to Be Richer Than One's Neighbor," "Protectionism, the --Ism Which Teaches that Waste Makes Wealth," "Prosperity Strangled by Gold," "The Delusion of the Debtors," "The Conquest of the United States by Spain."

He treated most of the great issues of the Gilded Age. His method was to go to the basic issues of equality, rights, duty, and liberty, stripping away traditional and sentimental trappings. Sumner was a leading advocate of a sound monetary system, opposed free silver, Bimetallism, and all inflationary expedients. Like most economists he favored free trade and denounced high tariffs—as a prosperity measure tariffs were fallacious, and from a moral point of view, pernicious. He did not campaign for politicians, but his views most closely resembled the Bourbon Democrats like President Grover Cleveland.

Sumner deplored populist attacks on "big business," and said the evolution of monopolistic trusts was a natural and useful advance. He vigorously opposed any intrusion by the government upon the industrial field, maintaining that state interference could not be scientific, or even intelligent. Again and again he stressed that the remedies would be worse than the disease. His theoretical arguments against socialism were powerful.

Sumner was a major leader in Civil Service reform. In the late 1890s he was one of the few major figures who opposed the Spanish-American War. He was one of many anti-imperialists who opposed the annexation of the Philippines in 1899.

Though he is usually classed as an advocate of laissez-faire, it was only to what he called "empiricism," unintelligent experimentation and social panaceas, that he was opposed. That social conditions can be improved he firmly believed, but such improvement can come, he was convinced, only by scientific procedure carried on by thoroughly informed individuals. In a democracy, therefore, the right kind of education is of supreme importance.

SUmner took no prisoners, storming the intellectual redoubts of the enemy without fear or quarter. He was inspired by strong moral convictions, and with hatred of shams, loose thinking, sentimental motive, and especially of jobbery and injustice.

Sumner was especially solicitous for the "Forgotten Man," introduced in his 1883 lecture. For Sumner the "Forgotten Man" was the self-supporting and self-respecting person who has to bear the cost of all the political bungling and the social quackery. "I affirm that there is always somebody who pays, and that it is always the sober, honest, industrious, economical men or women, who attend no meetings, pass no resolutions, never go to the lobby, are never mentioned in the newspapers, but just work and save and pay."

Social Darwinist?

Sumner played with a Social Darwinist themes borrowed from Herbert Spencer during the 1880s, but unpublished manuscripts by Sumner discovered in the 1970s show that he came to reject the basic premises of Social Darwinism by 1900.[1] Sumner's thought was a synthesis of Scottish Common Sense Realism, classical republicanism, and laissez-faire economics. His synthesis continues to inform much of modern conservative social thought. Sumner's opposition to the Spanish-American War in 1898 emerged from his fear that imperialism would undermine republican government by strengthening the hand of the plutocracy, "the political power of capital."[2]

Sumner has often been called 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", reveals that he changed his mind. In his 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.[3]


  • Bannister, Robert C. "William Graham Sumner's Social Darwinism: A Reconsideration," History of Political Economy 1973 5(1):89+ online
  • Curtis, Bruce. William Graham Sumner. (Twayne's United States Authors Series, no. 391.) (1981) 186 pp. on Sumner as a writer
  • Curtis, Bruce. "William Graham Sumner 'On The Concentration Of Wealth.'" Journal of American History 1969 55(4): 823-832. 0021-8723 in JSTOR
  • Marshall, Jonathan. "William Graham Sumner: Critic of Progressive Liberalism." Journal of Libertarian Studies 1979 3(3): 261-277. 0363-2873
  • Pickens, Donald. "William Graham Sumner as a Critic of the Spanish American War." Continuity 1987 (11): 75-92. 0277-1446, by a conservative scholar.
  • Starr, Harris Elwood. William Graham Sumner‎ (1925), 557pp; a standard biography. excerpt and text search

Sumner's Writings

  • Sumner, William Graham. On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner, ed. Robert C. Bannister (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" (1874)
  • Lectures on the History of Protection in the United States: delivered before the International Free-Trade Alliance (1877)
  • Andrew Jackson as a Public Man (1882)
  • What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883)
  • Protectionism: the -ism which teaches that waste makes wealth (1885)
  • Alexander Hamilton (1890)
  • The Financier & the finances of the American Revolution (2 vols. 1891)
  • Robert Morris (1892)
  • Folkways: a study of the sociological importance of usages,manners, customs, mores, and morals (1906)
  • The science of society , edited by Albert G. Keller, (1927)
  • Collected Essays in Political and Social Science (1885)
  • "On the Concentration of Wealth" (1909) published in Curtis (1969) in JSTOR
  • War, and other essays, ed. by , Albert Galloway Keller (1911)
  • Earth-hunger and other essays , ed. Albert Galloway Keller (1913) full text online
  • The Challenge of Facts: and Other Essays ed. Albert Galloway Keller (1914)
  • The Forgotten Man, and Other Essays ed. Albert Galloway Keller (1918) online edition
  • Selected Essays of William Graham Sumner, edited Albert Galloway Keller ... and Maurice R. Davie (1934)
  • Social Darwinism: Selected Essays of William Graham Sumner, ed. Stow Persons (1963).
  • The conquest of the United States by Spain, and other essays ed. Murray Polner (1965 edition)
  • "The Conquest of the United States by Spain," Molinari Institute.


  1. Bannister (1973); Norman Erik Smith, "William Graham Sumner as an Anti-Social Darwinist." Pacific Sociological Review 1979 22(3): 332-347. 0030-8919. Sumner’s apparent support for Social Darwinism 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. Norman E. Smith and Roscoe C. Hinkle, "Sumner Versus Keller and the Social Evolutionism of Early American Sociology." Sociological Inquiry 1979 49(1): 41-48. 0038-0245.
  2. Pickens (1987)
  3. Curtis (1969)