William Graham Sumner (October 30, 1840 – April 12, 1910) was an American historian, economist, and sociologist, famous for his strong support of laissez-faire economy, free markets, and anti-imperialism. He opposed government interference in the natural functioning of social and economic activities, and regarded the middle class as the pillar of successful democratic capitalist society. He noted that when the middle class is "forgotten" democracy is endangered. Sumner promoted Herbert Spencer's idea that people constantly struggle against nature and against each other for scare resources. He did not, however, fully subscribe to Social Darwinism, eventually abandoning it entirely. Sumner believed, unlike Spencer, that human society evolves in a linear progression, from primitive to more advanced. For Sumner, all things in nature, including human society, follow a cyclical pattern of growth and decline, followed by more growth.
Sumner was born on October 30, 1840, in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of Thomas Sumner and Sarah Graham, working-class English immigrants. His family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Sumner grew up and received his education. When he was eight his mother died, and Sumner and his two siblings were raised by their stepmother. In 1863 Sumner graduated from Yale University with honors, a member of the "Skull & Bones" society.
After graduation, Sumner left for Europe to study ministry. He studied languages at Geneva and Göttingen, and theology at Oxford. In 1869 he was ordained a priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church. At the same time he worked as a tutor at Yale. His early ministry career was rather successful, and in 1870 Sumner became a rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, New Jersey. In 1871 he married Jeannie Elliott, with whom he had three sons.
However, Sumner’s interest steadily shifted from ministry to economics, as he struggled with the conflict between religion and scientific positivism. In 1872 he accepted a chair at Yale in political and social science.
Sumner’s career at Yale was distinctive. He was a well known lecturer, whose classes were always full of students. He became part of the “Young Yale” movement, a group of reformists who criticized the traditional classroom teaching style. The movement ultimately led to the reformation of the American university system. Sumner eventually grew into one of Yale’s most popular and controversial professors. From 1875 he offered one of the first sociology classes in the United States, using Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology as the textbook.
In 1873 Sumner engaged in politics. He first served as New Haven alderman until 1876, and then participated in a commission to investigate New Orleans presidential election fraud. After those experiences he decided to turn to economics and education. He served on the Connecticut State Board of Education from 1882 to 1910. He published numerous works in this period, among others What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883), Protectionism: The –ism that Teaches that Waste Makes Wealth (1885), and The Financier and the Finances of the American Revolution (1891). He became an ardent defender of laissez-faire economy. In 1878 he testified before the U.S. House of Representatives concerning the investigating of the causes of the General Depression.
Sumner’s health suffered in the 1890s, and he withdrew from public life. In 1899 he returned, becoming the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, and serving on the Philippine Independence Committee. Sumner turned his focus entirely to sociology and started to research social phenomena. His famous book Folkways (1906) is from this period.
Sumner suffered a stroke in 1907, but recovered and continued to work at Yale. He was elected president of the American Sociological Society in 1908, serving as its second president for two years.
Sumner died in Englewood, New Jersey, on April 12, 1910.
Although Sumner was a polymath, writing in the areas of sociology, history, economic theory, anthropology, politics, and other social fields, he remains famous mostly for his views in economics and sociology.
Sumner’s views on economics are characterized by his strong support of extreme laissez-faire, opposing any government measures that interfere with the natural economics of trade. He believed that middle-class society is the pillar of both democracy and capitalism, and thus the whole society depends on it. Empathizing with the middle-class, he wrote:
The forgotten man ... He works, he votes, generally he prays, but his chief business in life is to pay.” (The Forgotten Man, 1919)
Sumner believed that the middle-class is in constant danger from both the selfishness of the wealthy elite and the self-interests of poor masses. He claimed:
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. (The Forgotten Man, 1919)
Sumner believed that corporate monopoly is a threat to social equality and democracy, as it shifts power toward a rich minority and blocks free trade. Sumner’s own experience, when he was on the committee to investigate flaws in presidential elections in New Orleans, influenced his criticism of corruption in politics, and his several essays on the danger of plutocracy:
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. (The Conquest of the United States by Spain, 1899)
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. According to Sumner, imperialism would enthrone a new group of "plutocrats," or businesspeople, who depended on government subsidies and contracts. Democracy would then be in danger.
Sumner is often regarded as one of the founding fathers of American sociology. He drew inspiration from eighteenth century Scottish moral philosophy, especially of Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart. His 1906 book Folkways explored the foundations of social history, trying to draw general laws of social change. Sumner charted the evolution of human customs and mores, developing concepts as diffusion, folkways (social conventions related to everyday life that are not considered to be of moral significance by members of the group), and ethnocentrism. Based on his research, he believed that all social behavior conforms to natural laws. Thus any government-induced change is useless, as social laws follow their own life-cycles. The social laws develop naturally, through the course of evolution. Sumner criticized any form of governmental reforms, and claimed that society that is based on laissez-faire principles is the best form of society. Humanity could survive only in an environment free of government’s interference. He heavily criticized socialism and communism.
Often regarded as the proponent of Social Darwinism, Sumner used this theory to support his economic and sociological ideas. He was a particularly strong supporter of Herbert Spencer, accepting Spencer’s belief that people struggle against nature and each other to secure scarce resources. However, he made a distinction between the "struggle for existence," where man struggled against nature, and the "competition of life," where man struggled against man in society. He claimed that due to the increasing number of people on earth, resources became exhausted, forcing people to adapt to new circumstances. Those with higher intellect, virtue, or efficiency have an advantage, while those who lack such qualities would have to relocate in search for resources.
In addition, unlike Spencer, Sumner did not believe that evolutionary development is straightforward, progressing steadily throughout history. With this, he was one of the rare late-nineteenth century American scientists who rejected the notion that human society evolves. Instead, based on his interpretation of Darwinian and Malthusian theory, and the principle of entropy, he proposed the theory that laws of the universe, as well as those of society, follow cyclic motion of development and decline. By the end of his career Sumner had clearly rejected Social Darwinism.
In his views on gender roles and women’s rights, he advocated for the family and supported equality between sexes. However, he challenged the stable Victorian consensus on sexuality, fighting for women’s rights, more humane treatment of prostitutes, and a more liberal policy regarding divorce.
Sumner left an indelible mark on American sociology. He was one of the first modern sociologists, who pushed sociology from dwelling on philosophical assumptions, toward scientific inquiry and empirical facts. His work led to the establishment of sociology as a scientific discipline. Sumner's sociological concepts, such as folkways and ethnocentrism, have remained as central notions in the field.
Sumner’s economic ideas contributed toward the development of modern economic theories. Among Sumner's students were Albert Galloway Keller, who edited and published several volumes of Sumner's writings, and the economist Thorstein Veblen.
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